The Wearable Art of San Lorenzo Zinacantán

The Wearable Art of San Lorenzo Zinacantán

By Margaret Van Every


chiapas dressOn a recent tour of Chiapas, I had no intention of buying any of the weavings, richly embroidered clothing and table linens, pottery, jewelry, and folk art. I had simplified my life in a massive purging before moving to Mexico and had come to believe at some level that “the more I have, the less I am.” I had not given myself permission to buy it back. I didn’t miss it…that is, until I saw it and was so seduced by it I had to buy some of everything. So much stuff, in fact, I feared they wouldn’t take my suitcase for the flight home.

The world is like a museum. We learn to admire what we see without having to own it, but then reason is susceptible to getting waylaid, supplanted by “I must have it. It will enhance my image.” We get into the question of is it vanity or appreciation run amok when it comes to wearable art. The Tzotzil Maya women of San Lorenzo Zinacantán in the central Chiapas highlands weave the indestructible cotton fabric on which they embroider the brilliant, shimmery floral designs of their huipiles, skirts, and belts. They each wear the same skirt for years, maybe their entire adult life, because it is too tough to wear out. Imagine no fashion, no envy, no need for change, no need for a closet! Every skirt is a masterpiece, every skirt is of the same cut, the same cloth, only the floral pattern varies. Every woman is an unselfconscious walking work of art.

The skirt is a tubular affair in black, with subtle silver threads catching a glint of light here and there. It is a long, modest skirt gathered at the waist in two folds that open triangularly at the center front, revealing a panel of luxuriant embroidery. The back of the skirt is also richly adorned with brilliant floral designs. The one-size-fits all tube, which accommodates even a pregnancy, is secured by a colorfully woven sash that wraps around the waist more than once and miraculously stays put. One doesn’t find these skirts for sale in the markets, perhaps because few tourists would risk a skirt held up by only a sash and a prayer, and God forbid the consequences of a sneeze.

The women who wear this art live in meager, often floor-less houses with no indoor plumbing, high up dusty, unpaved roads. Summer or winter, rain or shine, they descend to the village in their elegant skirts, perhaps a purple satin embroidered blouse to go with it. On their dusty feet a pair of plastic flip-flops.

One sees such art afoot throughout Zinacantán, but to the wearer it is simply the uniform of every day. Everyone’s got one, so what’s the big deal? I wondered if they had exhausted the capacity to see their uniform as wearable art? Too, this is not just a uniform but is also their work. Someone told me that on feast days, the women are required to wear another kind of skirt altogether, just something, not particularly prettier, to differentiate the special occasion from the quotidian.

My tour made a visit to the very basic home of a family of weavers, whose colorful work was strung out on display all over the barren front yard. We all looked at the table runners, pillow covers, belts, purses, and blouses—most of which we had seen in our own tianguis. After admiring the young sales attendant,  whose beauty was gilded only by the just-described skirt, I finally said to her, pointing, I want to buy one of those, please, but I don’t see any for sale. Oh, she said, and brought one out from somewhere. But I want one like yours with the scalloped hemline, I protested. Oh, she said, and found one of those. But I must try it on first, I demurred, and she said that would be fine and just as magically produced a full-length mirror.

I kept my blue jeans on, of course, and cautiously climbed into the cotton tube. I pulled it up and she folded it in the front and wrapped around the glittery sash. The ladies of the tour goaded me on with oohs and aahs. I did think it looked chic over my jeans, plus I appreciated that it would be one of a kind in my own village, an important consideration when buying wearable art. She gave me a few lessons in tying the sash, though they were lost on me. I still feel guilty for how little she asked for it, but I didn’t bargain up the price. We were both happy. She expressed undying gratitude by hugging and kissing me and I hugged and kissed her back. We walked down the dusty mountain road with our arms around each other’s waist and we kissed again before I climbed into the bus. I told her I would think of her every time I wore it, which made her smile because she told me she had made it herself, but don’t they all say that?

Soon as I got home, I visited the seamstresses at Fiaga and commissioned them to apply some velcro to the folds at the waist. They also put in some darts. Now that it fits perfectly and stays up, I have only one problem—when do I ever have an occasion dressy enough to wear this masterpiece.


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