Myth has it that Our Mother Moon, the goddess Ixchel, taught the first woman how to weave at the beginning of time. Since then, Maya mothers have taught their daughters, from generation to generation uninterruptedly for three thousand years, how to wrap themselves around the loom and produce exquisite cloth.
In addition to its important religious and social aspects, historically weaving has been central to indigenous women’s economic contribution to their households. In a traditional Maya context, when a girl is born, the midwife presents her with the different instruments of weaving one by one and she says,
Well then, little girl,
This will be your hand
This will be your foot
Here is your work
With this, you’ll look for your food,
Don’t take the evil path,
When you grow up
Only with these will you work
With your hand
With your foot
Weaving is impregnated with spiritual elements. Girls begin learning the long and difficult process of weaving when they are eight or nine years old by watching their mothers and older sisters. Around the age of 11 they make their first pieces of cloth and take them to the feet of the patron saint of weaving, Santa Rosa, in Chamula’s Church. They go there often with their mothers to pray to the saint that she might grant them the art of weaving.
Please lend me the ten toes of your feet
The ten fingers of your hands,
Engrave heavily on my mind
Engrave heavily on my heart
How to use the three points of your bobbin
How to use the three points of your loom
The three points of your spindle
The three points of your basket
Please, I beg you,
Put (the skill) in my foot
In my hand
Please, Holy Mother,
Please, Sacred Mother.
If after the first few supplications the girl has still not learned, she will take more offerings of candles and incense and new prayers. The emotional verses are long and repetitive as if to ensure that the deity hear them and take pity on the child who, in order to be a useful member of her family and community, must become an expert weaver. Throughout their careers as weavers, women regularly go to church in Chamula to ask for the saint’s blessings so they may continue their work of clothing their families and honor the Moon who instructed the first weaver. Every time she has a new difficult weaving project, a weaver will pray and make offerings to the deity and often dream that the deity is by her side assisting her. Handling sacred symbols of her culture and keeping in touch with the deities empowers Mayan women.
Cultural and Social Continuity
For five centuries, Mayan women have transmitted through weaving esoteric designs that encoded the Mayan vision of the world. In this manner, the work of weavers was essential for the survival of important elements of ancient culture. Hidden between the warp and weft, these escaped the fate of indigenous books that were burnt by Spanish priests and authorities. (For more information on the continuity of weaving designs see Walter Morris, Living Maya, 1988)
There is no question that weavers also integrated elements from other cultures in their textiles. Through the centuries, Mayan people have been compelled to incorporate elements from other cultures. However, with the passage of time, these foreign elements become “mayanized,” i.e., reinterpreted within their own cultural context, and their ties to Mayan symbols and associations give life to new Mayan syntheses.
It is well know that weaving expresses the identity of the weaver and her commitment to being Mayan and to her own specific community. Women continue to weave their own and their family’s clothes. A woman shows her respect for her community by following its esthetic rules, selecting designs, colors and styles, in addition to following its more general cultural and social norms. One of the painters from Comala expresses dramatically the profound identity of a Mayan woman with her “huipil” (native blouse, specific to the village where the woman comes from). In one of her paintings, she shows a woman bearing the designs of her town’s huipil directly on her skin. The huipil is for us, she says, like a second skin (documentary Between Light and Shadown: Mayan Women in Transition).
Economic Functions of Weaving
The Aztecs, for which we have good information, considered weaving as the women’s work par excellance. To fail in weaving was equivalent to be a failure as a woman. Gender identity wasn’t based on intrinsic physical qualities, such as genitals or secondary sexual characteristics. It was based on dress and the instruments of work. Thus, the Aztecs represented a goddess with a loincloth and cape (male dress) to express the masculine nature of her behavior. At death, Aztec women were buried with their weaving instruments. Why were spinning and weaving central in defining womanhood? The most important reason is found in the economic contribution of weaving. Weaving provided, for both Aztec women and contemporary Mayan women, their most important link to the larger economy. Tribute was paid in cloth and it was also a common market currency. The more cloth a weaver produced, the more her household prospered.
Currently, Mayan women continue to weave, in addition to their own and their family’s clothes, to obtain a much needed income. Mayan women love to weave, as weaving keeps them connected to their ancestors, and within the sacred and cultural Mayan universe. Through fair trade, Mayan Hands supports them in their quest to bring their families out of extreme poverty, at the same time that they keep their cherished Mayan culture alive and develop their communities.
*Based on the essay “Mayan Women, Weaving and Ethnic Identity: a Historical Essay” by Brenda P. Rosenbaum, in Mayan Clothing and Weaving Through the Ages, pp 157-169. Guatemala: Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena, 1999. The Symbolic Associations topic refers specifically to data collected from Mayan women in the Tzotzil town of San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas, Mexico.