A family tradition saved and then some

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Ramos family, Cecilia, Don Isaac, Jose Mancio and one of their children. (Credit: Ramos family)

Camelia Rosas is a fifth generation ikat weaver and rebozo maker of the Tenancingo (State of Mexico) line. But the tradition almost died out with the fourth generation, Camelia’s father Isaac Ramos.

Maestro Isaac grew up dyeing, weaving and making the iconic garment as a child in Tenancingo, but gave up the activity before Camelia was born to work in construction. Then, as now, it was very difficult for weavers to earn enough to make a living, especially in this case, when the maestro eventually had a total of nine children to feed. Decades went by, Camelia was born, and was raised without even knowing about her father’s former trade. By the 1990s, Camelia had grown up, married and moved to the nearby town of Malinalco.

 

This town is a “Pueblo Mágico,” a tourist designation by the Mexican federal government to distinguish rural communities which have preserved local architecture and cultural traditions. It has long since been a Mecca for hippies/other alternative lifestyles and well-off Mexico City dwellers looking for a weekend getaway. The town offers an archeological site and colonial architecture all nestled in a box canyon.

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Overlooking the town (credit PetrohsW)
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Jose Mancio demonstrating knotted and dyed cotton for the ikat process

One of the continuing traditions of the town, even as last at the beginning of the millenium, is the use of the rebozo by local women. Camelia noticed this running a small beauty shop in the town and at first began bringing rebozos from Tenancingo to Malinalco. At this time, she also brought her father to live with her as he could no longer do the heavy work that construction required. It was only at this time that Don Isaac told his daughter of his ability to make the most traditional rebozos using the pre Hispanic backstrap loom.

Don Isaac returned to his roots, first by making all the tools needed for the long process of making ikat-dyed fabric, spinning wheels, racks for drying skeins of cotton thread, and of course, the frames and multiple implements used for weaving. The business developed slowly, with most of the sales made in the beauty shop. One reason for this was the difficulty in finding customers that appreciated both the work and the styles of Tenancingo rebozos. Interestingly enough, the break came from a Spanish woman living in Malinalco, who found the rebozos in the beauty shop and started buying much of the stock.

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Camelia Ramos spinning cotton fiber (Credit: Ramos family)

During this time, Camelia became more interested in making the rebozos, but her traditional father “gave her the run around” every time she tried to get him to teach her. Weaving rebozos in Tenancingo is man’s work,  even today.  Camelia’s husband, Jose Mancio, had better luck convincing Don Issac, who was nearing 80 years old by the turn of the century. When Jose asked the maestro when he could start learning, the answer was “tomorrow.” Of course, Jose taught what he learned to Camelia, but the two now respect to some extent the maestro’s reluctance to teach his daughter. The process takes a toll on the muscles, both in manipulating heavy, wet bundles of dyed cotton, to hours of moving shuttles across and using back muscles to steady the piece in progress. It is interesting and important to note that while Tenancingo rebozos are also made on pedal looms (introduced by the Spanish), Camelia, Jose, their children still make pieces using the backstrap loom.

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Interior of the Rapacejos store

The family business has long since outgrown the beauty shop and has two stores in the historic center of Malinalco. The original store, Xoxopastli,  is located on Calle Guerrero and the larger, newer store, Rapacejos, is on Calle Hidalgo, near the main church. All pieces are made by the family, along with dozens of hired helpers. However, their success is not only because of the high-quality of their rebozos, but their willingness and ability to experiment with making new objects with ikat-dyed fabric. The Rapacejos store also contains, shoes, leather handbags, cushions, napkins, table runners, belts and much more, either completely made with handwoven fabric or have it integrated as decoration. There are also some non-traditional and novel clothing items, such as quechquemitls, dresses, huipils and jacket-like tops. Most of these are made without cutting the precious fabric, but even in cases where there are cuts and scraps, all is used for something, even if it is to cover a button.

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Handbag and shoes decocrated with ikat fabric

The couple’s work has led to a number of prizes in Mexico, invitations to visit the United States, France and Peru, and participate in the Feria Maestros de Arte in Jalisoc and Arte/Sano at the Museo de Arte Popular. There is even some export of their wares to the United States and Europe, but Camelia says that they do not plan mass export as it would require expansion from handmade goods to factory-like work.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified.

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