This story has two parts. It starts when I was in a tourist shop in Eastern Mexico in 1997. Flung on the shelf amid the usual stuff—bright pottery, Aztec gods, naughty little clay figures, painted wooden jaguars—was this bag. “Cuanto questa?” I asked in my pathetic high school Spanish. “Not for sale,” the shop girl answered, in comparable English.
I couldn’t let it go, though. The sturdy, golden brown two-ply yarn, probably maguey, almost surely thigh-spun: perfect. The seamless, flawless, netted construction: perfect. The elegant, stout, twined border, dyed with some local yellow dye. I’d never seen such a beautiful bag, and I wanted it.
I stopped in the next day, and asked, was she sure she didn’t want to sell it? After many gestures, she made me understand that she’d have to ask the owner. At first I thought she meant the owner of the shop, and I supposed the bag was a special display piece, because it was by far the finest thing to be seen. But it soon became clear that it was the owner of the bag she needed to confer with—a shabby looking man hanging out in the back. Two hundred pesos, he said. I could hardly believe my luck! Twenty-five dollars for the most beautiful bag in the world! Sí, I’ll take it! I didn’t even try to bargain.
It is old, I understood him to say—maybe forty or fifty years old. It comes from Chiapas. They don’t make them any more like this. I gestured all kinds of enthusiastic appreciation, and started counting out my pesos. He pocketed them and began removing his personal odds and ends from the bag. And as he handed it to me, he reverently kissed it goodbye.
Can you imagine what I felt? He was selling me something precious, something perhaps made by his grandfather. I wanted to say Keep it! Keep the money, too!—because he clearly needed it. All kinds of schemes ran through my brain—return the bag, slip the money in his pocket. Leave the bag on the street where he might find it. Give him all the money in my purse on some wild pretext. But in fact, he had struck a deal, his pride in the value of this possession was clear, he wore his Mayan macho pride like a mantle.
So this wonderful maguey fiber bag is mine. I carry it to work. I ponder on its venerable sweat stains, admire the natural crease on the bottom where the netting changes direction, marvel at the inscrutable way in which the netting joins the twined edge. It’s a treasure, it’s an albatross. I have it, but it’s not mine.
It’s fifteen years later, and I’m in Chiapas working on Guide to the Textiles of the Chiapas Highlands. My resourceful guide and author, Chip Morris, takes me to a village where maguey-fiber bags are still made. I watch a young man deftly strip the pulp from a massive leaf, revealing the fine, tough, snowy fiber within. I watch him spin it on his thigh into a fine, perfect, continuous cord, which he then proceeds to fashion into a bag just like my bag. Like magic. This man’s father is also a bag maker, as is his son. The craft seems to be alive and well.
So much so, in fact, that when we go to a Santa Semana procession a little while later, I see that every man is carrying a bag like mine, only minus the smoke stains and signs of wear. It’s the ubiquitous carry-all for men in the Chiapas highlands. Some women carry them, too, and they come in all sizes. You can find a few for sale at ClothRoads. Learning that my bag is not the last one in the world is a big relief, and makes it no less precious.