Handmade in Chiapas
As Maya huipils go, those from Oxchuc in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico are not my personal favorites. They’re characterized by bold graphic stripes, often crimson on white, with odd embroidered points at the neckline. Chip Morris, author of Textile Guide to the Highlands of Chiapas, argued that the points should be described as rays, but to me they looked like jaguar fangs. I think he won that one.
What I do love about the one Oxchuc huipil in my random collection is the memory of the very old lady from whom I bought it. It was 2009, and I was on a short trip to Chiapas with Marilyn Murphy (my colleague at ClothRoads) and a few others. We drove up to Oxchuc with Chip and stopped in a little store a few blocks off the main plaza. This was no ordinary store, not the typical tienda. It was devoted to traditional crafts. Handmade musical instruments—drums, fiddles, harps; leather goods; hand-braided straw hats; twined maguey-fiber bags. And clothing. Women’s huipils, men’s shirts and trousers. All handwoven on backstrap looms. I think you could go back a century and find these same things on the shelves of any little village store, but today it’s like time travel.
Out behind the shop, even more wonders. The winding path through the garden and into a wooden shelter took you through a homemade folk museum. There were sculptures of grotesque little creatures, farmstead goods such as grinding stones so old as to seem like fossils, ceremonial objects open to conjecture. Magical.
The proprietor, Don Manuel Perez Cocon, was 93 at the time, and blind. His tiny old wife ran the shop with vigor and discipline. A young grandson or great-grandson translated between our Spanish and their Tzeltal and manned the calculator. She was so in charge, so protective of her husband, such a strong presence, I had to have a huipil just like hers.
The next time I was in Oxchuc, in 2012, we went to the tienda straightaway. It was closed. She had died just two days before. I had never even learned her name.
I don’t know if the family has carried on with the shop or the museum—hard to think that they would have. But when I get my huipil out and admire the precise craftsmanship and the ferocity of the neckline, it all comes back.