Thursday, April 28, 2016

San Juan Chamula


San Juan Chamula is a small town located 10 km northwest of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.  This is where you will find the Tzotzil community.  The Tzotzil Maya are one of the largest indigenous groups in Chiapas,  around one third of the state’s indigenous population.
San Juan Chamula is the main hub of religion and commerce for the Tzotzil Maya. 
I was extremely impressed on how brilliantly white-washed the Church of San Juan Bautista was. 
It appears like any other church in the Highlands of Chiapas, but once inside, you feel like you have entered into another world.  This is no ordinary Catholic church.  There are no permanent clergy present, only guest priests are invited to perform the occasionally baptism.  Once inside, you are hit with a pungent aroma, a mix of candles, pine needles, incense and flowers.  Every Saturday the floor covered with pine needles is refreshed.  There are a series of church bells in all sizes to the left as you enter.  Statues of saints line the walls and most are kept in wood and glass boxes.    The Tzotzil Maya practice different religious rituals, a blend of pre-Hispanic traditions with a little Catholicism thrown in.  There are no pews.  Not even an altar.  Worshippers kneel on the floor.  You will see the worshippers lighting their candles and chanting.  These private ceremonies or rituals are are performed for various daily or family matters.  In some of these rituals, eggs, live chickens, posh (a traditional cane sugar liquor) and Coco-Cola or Pepsie are used.  Belching is a way to rid the body of bad spirits.  Originally posh was used but the carbonated drinks had faster results and was soon adopted by the local Chamulan shamans.
A ticket is required to enter the church and can be purchased at the door for 40 pesos.  Photography inside the church is strictly prohibited.  I was lucky to find this photo on the internet.
San Juan Chamula has an elevation of 2,260 meters and it can get cold.  Along side the road I would see neatly stacked piles of firewood.  Not only was that an indication of the cold weather but also the way the Tzotzil people dressed.
The people of San Juan Chamula are easily identified by their attire.  With the conquest came sheep which replaced the cotton and rabbit fur tunics.  Most of the men wear white woolen tunics called jerkoil (from the Spanish jerga, or twill weave) which are belted at the waist. 
The black sleeved robe is called a chuj, named after the chuj Maya of Guatemala, who used to make and sell these pieces of clothing in Chiapas.  I have read that it is the village leaders who wear the black tunics.
The women wear embroidered huipils (blouses) made of cotton or satin, a shawl (mochebal) and woven wool skirts (tzequil) belted with a woven belt (chuquil). Since the 1990's, cardigan sweaters became popular when the evangelical missionaries came onto the scene and were handing these sweaters out to entice the locals to join their congregation.  
The creation of the wool skirt changed in the early 2000's.  The long wool fibers are woven and dyed.  Then shrunk, felted and then combed out to create the two to three inch wool strands.  The process is extremely time-consuming and expensive.  These skirts keep them warm even when wet and it is wet in this area most of the year.

There is other significance in the tzequil, that they resemble the pelt of a Howler Monkey which can be seen (and heard) in the rain forest of Chiapas.  The Howler Monkey and Spider Monkey are symbolic in their ancient rituals.

It was their Sunday market and I bought a natural dark gray wool shawl from this lady, similar to the one hanging to the right. The market was full of embroidered blouses, bags and weavings.
I found it very interesting when taking the sheep back home from grazing, that the sheep had little hand-knit muzzles on. 
You will see many of the women and girls are barefoot.  This is not a sign of poverty but this tradition stems back to the belief that the earth makes females fertile through their feet.  (Is that why my mom always told me to get some shoes on when I was barefoot as a kid!?!?)

What an interesting experience and a beautiful morning in San Juan Chamula.  I'll be back next year!

Friday, April 22, 2016

A morning in Zinacantan in the state of Chiapas, Mexico

I just recently spent a week in the state of Chiapas in Mexico and what a wonderful time I had!  I explored the remote Chiapas highland villages, the Canyon de Sumidero to several of the Maya ruins surrounded by a dense jungle.  This particular day, I was in Zinacantan, a town up in the mountains 10 kilometers north-west of San Cristobal de Las Casas. 
Talk about perfect timing, it was Sunday, their market day.  Today the area is known for it agriculture, particularly in maize and flowers.  The construction of the Pan American Highway tremendously improved the mobility and prosperity of the town's population for they could easily transport their products to other markets.
The Zinacantan attire was unadorned prior to 1975.  Over the years it has evolved, now it is an explosion of color.
The color palettes and floral designs change every year. Reds and purples seem to dominate the shawls this year.
It was some Guatemalan refugees that came through the Highlands that showed the women of Zinacantan how to expand their heddle-brocaded designs with animal and floral motifs.  There are two main festivals, the Feast of Saint Sebastian in January and the Feast of Saint Lorenzo in August.  Every household is expected to wear new clothes for these occasions.  That would involve a new tunic for the husband, and a new skirt, blouse and shawl for the wife.  And that is a lot of time consuming embroidery work.
It was when some of the women accompanied their husbands to Merida where the flowers were to be sold, that they discovered that the Yucatec Maya women used antique Singer sewing machines to embroider their huipils.  
Sewing machines were purchased and this labor saving process took off.  The base cloth for the skirts and shawls are woven in advance.  The embroidery colors and designs are mapped out. Weeks prior to the festivals, all sewing machines are running at full capacity.
This is the back side of the church where the market is setup every Sunday.
What a striking design!
Some women refuse to wear machine made designs.  Instead, a hand embroidered cross-stitch is used.
 Selecting some new yarns.
It was such a colorful day in every way.
Even the papel picadas flowing down from the entrance of the church were brilliant against the deep blue sky.

I had to laugh, these two dressed in their traditional attire were like every other young person around the world, the Iphone had not escaped their culture.
It was such a great morning and yes, I came away with two stunning shawls complete with the colorful tassels.  One machine embroidered and the other embroidered with cross-stitch.   I plan on using them as table runners.   
Chiapas is such an interesting and diverse state.  I was so intrigued with the week I spent there. I am working on an itinerary for a tour to Chiapas the end of February 2017.  Next month I will have the itinerary posted.  Please let me know if you are interested in joining me.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Articulated Wall by Herbert Bayer

The Articulated Wall by Bauhaus artist, Herbert Bayer is one of my favorite sculptures in Denver.  It recently received a much needed layer of paint and it was just magnificent yesterday against the rich, blue sky in Denver.

The original sculpture was built for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.  Bayer was commissioned to build another one, but 25 feet taller.  I is a towering 85 feet tall.  It was later donated to the Denver Art Museum and has become one of Denver's landmarks.

The sculpture consists of 32 pre-fabricated concrete pieces measuring 41' x 5.'2" x 2'7" and weighing a total of TWO million pounds.  These massive pieces are held together by a refueling mast taken from an aircraft carrier that runs up the center of the sculpture.