How Ponchos Got More Authentic After Commerce Came to Chiapas

Reason , April 2018

In 1969, the Zinacantec Maya of Mexico's Nabenchauk Valley all wore essentially the same clothes: square ponchos and shawls over simple cotton shirts, shorts, and skirts.

Their outfits bore red and white stripes, with the proportions dictated by the type of garment. Ponchos and shawls had a lot of red and a little white, making them look pink from a distance, while women's blouses were mostly white with two narrow red stripes dividing them into thirds.

"All clothing, for toddlers up to adults, conformed to a closed stock of about four patterns," Patricia Marks Greenfield recalls in her book Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas. When she first came to the valley in the southern Mexican state that year, the clothes, like Zinacantec culture, had barely changed in decades.

The standard designs reflected the villagers' reverence for tradition, expressed in their Tzotzil language as baz'i, or the "true way." "To learn to weave," writes Greenfield, a University of California, Los Angeles developmental psychologist, "was to learn to reproduce those patterns." There was no room for self-expression or experimentation.

Greenfield lived in Nabenchauck in 1969 and 1970 while studying how girls there learned to weave. Zinacantec women used traditional backstrap looms, a simple but versatile technology in which warp threads wind back and forth around two parallel sticks, crossing in the middle. One stick is attached to a strap wrapped around a tree or post, the other to a strap around the weaver's waist, allowing her to adjust the tension by leaning forward or back.

Greenfield returned to Chiapas in 1991. In her absence, Zinacantec life had changed radically. Villagers had shifted from subsistence farming and weaving to commerce, leaving their homes in the isolated valley for contact with the larger world. They now grew flowers to sell in Mexico City and ran shops on the main road selling snacks and textiles to tourists.

Men wore store-bought shirts and work pants. Some owned vans and ran transit businesses connecting the village to larger towns. Women bought blouses imported from nearby Guatemala and furnished their own looms with acrylic yarns made in distant factories. Many had invested in sewing machines. When someone wanted an especially fancy blouse for a fiesta, she might hire another woman to make it for her. Specialization and trade had come to the valley.

In the well-established romantic narrative, all this change would represent a devil's bargain: shoes, running water, and telenovelas at the cost of beauty, identity, and meaning; uniqueness exchanged for homogenized global culture. But what Greenfield found challenges that all-too-common fable.

Instead of erasing Zinacantec distinctiveness or replacing artisanship with standardized products, commerce and industry led to an efflorescence of textile decoration. Women and girls continued to weave garments on backstrap looms, but instead of following the same stock designs, they invented new ones. Far from representing cultural loss, the evolution of Zinacantec weaving demonstrates how commerce can unleash creativity while affirming identity.

Take the man's poncho. Its underlying structure remained constant: two square pieces of cloth sewn together at the top, with an embroidered slit at the neckline and tassels running through embroidered holes on each side. In 1969, every poncho was white with thin red stripes and plain red embroidery. The only variation might be one or more thin lines of brocade—weft threads added on top of the main weave—near the bottom.

A 1991 poncho, by contrast, looked red from a distance, not pink or white. The white threads were still there, but the proportions had shifted dramatically. Whereas the old white cotton yarn was much cheaper than red, once acrylics arrived the two colors cost the same. Zinacantec weavers could now indulge local tastes without busting their budgets. "I asked which was better, the old or the new," Greenfield writes. "I was told that the new was better because it was redder."

Meanwhile, the subtle brocaded stripes and tassel holes of previous decades had blossomed into wide bands of stylized flowers in brilliant hues of yellow, orange, green, purple, and blue, running not just along the bottom of the poncho but up the front as well. Weavers felt free to create novel designs.

Over the following decade, as Greenfield returned to study how the younger generation was learning to weave, poncho decoration grew ever more inventive. The side panels of brocade or embroidery expanded to encompass the entire surface, obscuring the red-and-white weave and breaking the traditional mirror symmetry. By the turn of the century, weavers were abandoning stripes altogether, weaving the ground fabric entirely in red—or even in other colors. In 2002, Maruch Xulubte' wove a fiesta poncho for her son using black thread, then had her sister Loxa machine-embroider an elaborate, asymmetrical peacock design in shades of blue, purple, and green that covered the entire surface.

The same transformations took place in women's clothes. Simple stripes morphed into increasingly elaborate brocades and embroidery. Girls in particular took pride in inventing and combining new patterns, devising tracing systems that let them copy and adapt printed designs. To embroider a striking blouse, 17-year-old Lupa Z'us elongated a commercial cross-stitch pattern of flowers to form two vertical bands down the front, edging them with a geometrical design. She added two other flower patterns at the neck and shoulders and invented a zigzag of triangles to bind the seams.

Even as they took on novel surface decoration, the new clothes maintained the same underlying structures as the old ones. They were still squares of uncut fabric, fastened together in the same places with fringes rather than hems. "Although this blouse looks, on the surface, very different from the older blouse," Greenfield writes of Lupa's design, "its 'deep structure' is exactly the same. It conforms to all the norms of Zinacantec blouse structure and is instantly interpretable by a community of users as a Zinacantec blouse."

Relaxing the superficial rules made the structural ones all the more significant. The deep structures provided building blocks that inspired new patterns—simple rules for a complex weave, to adapt Richard Epstein's phrase. And they signaled a continuing cultural identity. A Zinacantec poncho, blouse, or shawl still looked like a Zinacantec poncho, blouse, or shawl.

But greater creative freedom also allowed a new form of stylistic group identity to emerge, as family members copied from each other. The balance between standing out as an individual—whether a weaver or a wearer—and fitting into the group had shifted, but clothes still expressed communal ties.

Further confounding any fable of traditional ways disrupted by market exchange is actual Zinacantec history. The aesthetic dynamism and the commercial activity spawned by trade are, in fact, more culturally authentic than the previous stasis. Before the Spanish conquest, Zinacantecs were wealthy and famous merchants, and until the early 19th century they continued to deal in cacao, coffee, salt, and tobacco and to bring manufactured goods from the cities to the countryside. Subsistence farming wasn't as traditional as it appeared.

Neither were plain clothes. Before the conquest, the Maya wore elaborately decorated garments. But in the 16th century, the Spanish banned wearing textiles with brocaded figures. As centuries passed, the now-impoverished Zinacantecs found even their beloved red dyes too expensive to use in large quantities. The weaving innovations that flourished with the commerce of the 1990s did more than unleash creative freedom and individual taste. They revived long-suppressed aspects of Zinacantec culture. The "true way" did not require uniformity or constraint, but a distinctive local style.

[Photos of blouses by Virginia Postrel, taken at UCLA "Weaving Generations" exhibit. For more photos click here.]