95D is the main highway that links Mexico City and the resort of Acapulco. It was built primarily so that chilangos can get to the glitzy resorts with a minimum of time. It passes over some very rugged and isolated terrain with the use of more than a few suspension bridges spanning high over narrow valleys. One of these bridges is called Puente Mezcala Solidaridad. If you look quickly to the side, you will see a river far below but probably not much else.
But immediately off this bright yellow bridge are 14 Nahua communities straddling the river, the source in this dry, dusty land. The indigenous here are aware that they had migrated at some time in the past because of their language, but no one knows when. It is a tough existance. The two main economic activities have been subsistance farming during the rainy season (no irrigation despite the river) and the preparation of palm fronds to sell to artisans in the State of Mexico who use them to make hats and bags. The poverty of the area forces many of the residences to other areas to find work, either in nearby Chilpancingo (a very small city) or even further afield.
Jose Luis Juarez Baltazar lives in one of these 14 communities, called San Juan Totolcintla. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Chilpancingo even though it is only 26 km to the north and visible from the highway. The main reason is that the road down from the shiny yellow bridge is dirt and winds down the steep sides of the valley. Juarez makes the trek between his hometown and Chilpancingo regularly.
For a time the main reason for the commute was to attend university. While a student, he attended a conference for indigenous students. One of the sessions was focused on what participants’ home communities were losing. Most indicated that their main concern was their native language, but this was not really a concern for Juarez. The Nahua language is well-preserved in this region. Most people are bilingual (Nahuatl/Spanish) with code-switching between the two natural. Nahuatl dominates, especially among the older people.
L: doll in everyday traditional dress and R: in festive apparel
While he recognizes that the loss of indigenous languages is a real problem for a number of communties, Juarez’s concern is the loss of traditional clothing, especially that worn by women. In the latter 20th century, women as well as men from these communities had to migrate out to take jobs in Chilpancingo and even farther away, prompting them to wear more modern clothing.
Juarez says this was the case as late as 2014. At that time he thought of how he could reinstill pride in wearing traditional clothing. The family had a sewing machine and he began to learn how to make the aprons and 1950s style dresses that mark the everyday wear of Nahua women of this area. This not only included sewing the items but also embroidery, which is very important on the aprons. It took him a week to make the first article of clothing.
He showed his work to family and local women and some began to ask him to make them things. The orders grew and he continued doing this even though he was still making the trek to Chilpancingo to study.
In 2015, he began to wonder if he could not help local women make some money making the clothing, allowing them to stay home instead of going long distances to work. He found women with more experience in the making of traditional clothing then he. y Together they began making both everyday and festive garments for the Nahua women of the area.
The making and selling of the clothing had an immediate and strong impact. Juarez found that the work both provided some income and gave him pride seeing his friends and neighbors wear clothing he made. Every local woman I saw in the area was wearing some form of the dress/apron combo. Juarez says there is now an effort to get the local public school to change its uniform to girls to this style of dress.
In 2015, Juarez prepared a proposal to CDI to fund a project to found a workshop of local women to make and sell traditional clothing. The project was approved and the group was able to buy some industrial sewing machines and rent two spaces in which to work. They also get funding, marketing advice and support to travel to festivals and fairs in which they can sell their work outside the valley. For a number of the women in the cooperative, these travels to sell their wares was their very first time outside their home villages. I bought one of their early dolls at a CDI event in Mexico City.
The group has had luck selling their traditional clothing, both everyday and festive wear in markets catering to indigenous communities, but these clothing styles do not cross over the way that a number of other indigenous clothing styles can and do. To address this problem, the group has worked on two solutions. One is to make new articles of clothing, not traditional but inspired by tradition. The second, which has had much more success, is the making of dolls in authentic traditional clothing. The doll making has become successful enough that it is now their main product, although clothing for real people is still made.
Because of the success of these initial dolls, other types have been developed and more are on the way. They have one representing the state’s famous Jaguar dance (complete with spotted jumpsuit and mask), and dolls in traditional male clothing. They are working on developing dolls to represent all 8 regions of the state of Guerrero. The dolls bring in significant more income than either the palm fronds and most of the farming. However, to maintain pride in this original craft, all of the dolls’ hats are made from local palm leaves.
The cooperative’s name is Tlanezi, which means “dawn.” They can be reached on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Tlanezi-158631234540133/