The state of Veracruz is not one that is well-known for handcrafts. Except for the port city and perhaps son music (think La Bamba), very little is known of its culture outside of Mexico. The main reason for this is that, despite being on the coast, it does not have a major tourism industry.
Even less known are the rugged mountain areas away from the coast. The terrain juts up sharply as one travels west from the Gulf of Mexico. This makes for very rainy climates, and depending on the altitude, cool or even cold temperatures. However, it is these inland regions which are home to a wide variety in indigenous and other traditional communities and cultures, which include the Nahuas, Tepehuas, Otomis, Huastecas, Totonacas and Popolucas. Perhaps the most widespread and varied type of handcraft here is textiles. Depending on the climate of the region, the dominant fiber for these crafts is either cotton or wool.
Fortunately, at least one area of the state is starting to get its due attention for its handcrafts and traditional culture. The Sierra de Zongolica is a rugged, mountainous areas in the southwest of the state, bordering the state of Puebla. It is an important center of Nahua peoples in the east of Mexico.
The region is only 100km from the state capital, but it takes hours to get there because of the terrain and lack of highways. Isolation over its history has allowed it to maintain a traditional way of life. About 80% of the people here speak an indigenous language, principally Nahuatl. Subsistance agriculture is the main economic activity, although some cash crops such as coffee and oranges are grown in lower elevations. However, the price of this conservation has been severe economic marginalization.
The women of Zongolica have woven clothing from wool grown on their own sheep, using spindles and backstrap looms, traditionally for home use. These women learn young, as children, working with their mothers and grandmothers in all aspects of the work from shearing sheep with hand scissors to cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving. This means that many of the women here have decades of experience as weavers.
The story of the commercialization of Zongolica textiles begins in 1992, when a number of women decided to work together to find ways to produce and sell what they make. They formed cooperatives such as Cihuamechikah (women who weave) which over time began to work with local and state cultural and economic authorities. Many of these women live in very small villages away from the “main” town of Zongolica, which itself has only thousands of people. Weavers are principally found in places such as Tlaquilpa, Mazetualla, Xoxocotla, Tequila and Alhuaca.
The women have worked with traditional techniques for centuries, making items such as rebozos, jorongos (sarapes cut to fit like a loose shirt or jacket), sarapes and blankets. This area is one of the few in Veracruz that still grows, spins and weaves local wool, although commerically bought wool is also used. The use of local wool means that a natural gray can appear, which is unusual because many herders no longer raise gray-haired sheep. These women work the most number of weaving techniques (seven) and have the widest variety of designs in the region. Dyes are made with plants gathered from local forests, although this is something that has been resurrected in more recent years after the knowledge was all but forgotten. This resurgence was due to efforts between outsiders and some of the last of the women who knew the techniques to teach them to others and keep them alive.
The collaboration with outside entities has meant some innovation in products with an eye to what outside markets want. In addition to the traditional items, they have added scarves, backpacks, wool animals and dolls. The traditional hair ties called tlalpiales have been modified to make necklaces and earrings. There was even a project for the Xalapa Antropoligy Museum were monumental decorative pieces were made as works of art.
Much of the progress has occured in the past eight years or so. At this time, anthropology student Miguel Angel Sosme Campos came to study the women of Zongolica and their lives in the mountains. Sosme is not from here but rather from the southern Veracruz city of Coatzacoalcos. His involvement with the women came with the Proyecto Sierra Norte-Huasteca Sur, affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
One of Sosme’s first efforts was the publication of his research into the Zongolica region including the book Tejedoras de esperanza. Empoderamiento de los grupos artesanales de la sierra de Zongolica. In Tejedoras de esperanza, Sosme tells these women’s stories, many of which had never been documented before. The book has won various awards such as the Fray Bernardino de Sahagun in 2014 and the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, both national-level prices as well as a number of state-level recognitions.
Not content with simple research, his efforts have extended into advocacy for the Nahua women here. Of particular concern to the anthropologist was that the women’s efforts to organize and market their products were hampered by the men in their society. Women in traditional indigenous communities often have no economic, political or religious influence. Unfortunately, according to Sosme, domestic violence against them is not uncommon either. Efforts prior to 2011 were hampered because many husbands could not believe that the women could earn money from the work they did and assumed any money was earned through prostitiution or other immoral means. The backlash caused many women then, and even now, to not participate in such activities.
However, for the women who have participated, the impact on their lives has been astouding, both economically and socially. They are able to contribute to practical needs such as medicines, school supplies and food stuffs either through sales or barter. This is particularly true with sales of smaller items such as belts and hair ties as they are sold more frequently. The sale of larger items allow women to support social and religious events, elevating their status in their communities. Because of this, women are traveling outside of their communities, learning Spanish and making long term contacts in parts of Mexico. They regularly travel to Xalapa, Veracruz (city), Mexico City, Monterrey, Oaxaca (city) and even Europe to sell and even receive invitation to present about their work and life.
Collaboration of these women’s cooperatives and outside organizastions has included conferences, exhibitions and fairs to not only promote textiles and other handcrafts, but also local culture and language. One of these events is the Festival Regional de Artes Textiles in Zongolica in December, which has only been around for the past 3 years or so. The purpose of the event is not only to showcase the textiles but also the region’s culture, with expositions related to art, music and photography. Sosme did not start this process, the women themselves did, but his advocacy and ability to network in Mexico and even beyond has allowed for Zongolica’s name to be recognized far more than it might have been otherwise. In 2018, Sosme was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Prize) for his efforts.
Sosme’s efforts are not done by any means. A more recent project as been the ambitious 30-minute documentary called Tlakimilolli: voces del telar, in Nahuatl with Spanish and English subtitles. It is the first documentary of its kind in the Nahuatl language were eleven women from the region talk about their knowledge and processes that have been transmitted over generations. Financed by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), it was researched and produced by Sosme along with Belinda Contreras. It has been presented in film festivals and other events in Mexico, Spain and France, with a showing scheduled next year in the United States.
The recent efforts have caught the attention of international organizations such as Amigos de Arte Popular in the United States and the Feria de Maestros de Arte, a prestigious handcraft exhibition and sale in Chapala, Jalisco. A number of the women have even been invited to Europe to exhibit, sell and demonstrate how they work.
The viability of the women’s industry still faces challenges. These include low prices (even compared to similar items from other parts of Mexico), long trips to where products can be sold for good prices and and outlets limited to fairs and other events that can be months apart. There are still women afraid to participate, either because they are afraid to leave their home area or their husbands will not let them. The success of the weavers means some have been targets of crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Lastly, the future is in doubt because the younger generations are not interested in learning how to weave.
Sosme believes that anthropologists have a role in social change because simply gathering knowledge is useless if it does not result in better living conditions. The success of his and his organization’s work has led to similar efforts for women artisans in Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, State of Mexico and even Peru.
Photos used with permission from Miguel Angel Sosme Campos, from the documentary Tlakimilolli: voces del telar