Rural embroidery in an industrial state

Most foreigners who have some some idea of Mexico’s indigenous peoples are still  unlikely to know who the Mazahua are. One reason for this is that their communities are not located in areas such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, which use images from their indigenous communities to attract tourists, but rather in a state also called Mexico (generally called “State of Mexico”) which nearly surrounds the country’s capital.

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Overview of part of the community of San Felipe Santiago in the State of Mexico

Mazahua communities are found east and northeast of Mexico City, in the State of Mexico and extending a bit into neighboring Michoacan. This region of the country is only at best semi-rural and has been industrializing rapidly for over 30 years. This puts very different pressures on Mazahua communities who wish to preserve traditional ways of life. Rather than extreme poverty, pressure comes from other, more lucrative, means of making a living.

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Mazahua vendors in the tourist town of Valle de Bravo, State of Mexico

Be that as it may, there are Mazahua who preserve traditional agrarian ways as much as possible, with smaller and more rural communities having the most success.

One of these communities is San Felipe Santiago, part of the township of Villa de Allende, off the highway that links Toluca with Zitácuaro, Michoacan. Villa de Allende one of the main producer of Mazahua textiles, along with Villa Victora and San Felipe del Progreso.

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Parish church of San Felipe Santiago

Traditional Mazahua embroidery generally has a series of various elements, which are tied together using fretwork or other running patterns, commonly found on the borders of the piece and/or delineating sections of larger pieces. Elements include images of flora and fauna, as well as symbols from traditional and sometimes Catholic cosmology. Images are not highly realistic, but rather simplified and often with a geometric look. Generally pieces are multicolored, with combinations ranging from earthy tones to strong, but not overly bright, colors.

The most common techniques are cross stitch, and “dos agujas” (a series of long and short stitches couched in a tight “v” pattern). Depending on the piece and the skill of the embroiderer, these stitches may be large or extremely tiny. Large stitching is most commonly found on woolen items such as rebozos, quechquemitls and more modern jackets and vests, using wool yarn. Smaller stitching with cotton or synthetic thread is found on blouses, light rebozos, napkins, tablecloths, blankets, bed covers and tablecloths.

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La Estrella Mazahua member Enith Martinez Fonseca with tablecloth stitched with “Mazahua Stars” the group’s namesake

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Pepenado on the cuff of a small women’s blouse

One other embroidery style that should be mentioned is called “pepenado,” which refers to extremely intricate work using stitches so tiny and thread so thin, the result looks to  be woven into the fabric. This style is rare and becoming much rarer because of the months it takes to make a single blouse, even if decorated only at the yoke and perhaps the cuffs.

Until about the 1980s, Mazahua women made embroidered garments and household items for domestic use, as well as to sell to earn money. Now, almost all embroidered pieces are made for sale, generally in the cities such as Toluca, Mexico City and Atlacomulco, as well as the nearby popular weekend getaway of Valle de Bravo. This has prompted some changes in work, primarily having the work appear on more modern garments such as shirts, fashionable blouses, etc

 Artisan Enith Martinez at a stall to sell pieces made by the La Estrella Mazahua Workshop of San Felipe Santiago

All images by Leigh Thelmadatter

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