Mexico’s many small, isolated valleys are a double-edged sword. Isolated from most of the outside world, traditions are better preserved but usually at the cost of poverty.
Finding a way to raise living standards without losing at least some tradition has proved impossible, but sometimes adaptations allow for more preservation than absolute adherance.
The Amuzgo people are a small indigenous ethnic group located on the Guerrero/Oaxaca border, a region known as the Costa Chica. Despite their proximity to the ocean, these are hill people, having been pushed from the beach areas proper by a wave of escaped African slaves centuries ago. Most live in and around the municipality of Xochistlahuaca, with more found in Ometepec, along with San Pedro de los Amuzgos, Santa Maria Ipalapa and Putla.
The region’s indigenous are traditional and the Amuzgo language is still spoken by an estimated 35,000 people. The Amuzgo women of this area are readily identified by their huipils, a long, unfitted garment generally worn over a blouse/skirt or dress (generally modern). These huipils may be made of commercial cloth, especially those for everyday use, but handwoven, hand-stitched and hand-embroidered huipils are still very much in existence.
These highly labor-intensive garments are still made for family use, especially those for special events. But the weaving has also become an important means for women to earn money for their households, without having to leave their traditional roles. The weaving and other steps of huipil making is still mostly traditional, but there have been intrusions of outside, commericial supplies. The main one is the cotton used. The most traditional huipils are made from a locally-grown cotton called coyochi, which is naturally light-brown, hand spindled to thread then woven on a backstrap loom. Design elements, woven or embroidered are with the same thread dyed with natural dyes. White commericial cotton has made its way to these spindles, not only because it is cheaper but also because the outside markets prefer it. Commericial dyes and embroidery thread have also made inroads.
What stays steadfastly the same are the weaving and embroidery techniques, done individually by women who can sit and kneel for hours on the ground with little more than a straw mat (petate) underneath. Designs are also traditional and most have kept their cultural significance.
The main innovations are in the finished products. The traditional huipil comes in an long and longer version, but to take advantage of new markets, weaving and embroidery are being turned into products such as shirt-length huipils, rebozos, purses and other bags, linen items and more.
Xochistlahuaca has the largest number of weavers, along with the most complex and best preserved textile tradtions. There are two main cooperatives of women weavers, with a distinct rivalry between them. The cooperatives have been working to develop speciality markets, catering to collectors, tourists and speciality clothing lines. These groups have worked with various government, educational and other organizations to develop new markets and new kinds of goods. But these goods are still viable only to small niche markets, such as rich Mexican woman looking for garb to wear during Independence Day festivities, collectors and cultural tourists, including those hardy enough to make the trek over very poor roads to Xochistlahuaca.
The significant efforts to protect and promote this work has show significant results. Many Amuzgo women are involved in the commercial activity and more than a few men as well. But like many other craft traditions, it has trouble attracting the younger generations, which keeps its future in doubt.