Is Chiapas and its handcrafts the next Oaxaca? Well, Oaxaca is by far the best-known area in Mexico for its indigenous cultures, but Chiapas more than holds its own in this respect. Its handcrafts both preserve its people’s link to the past and reveal how these descendants of an ancient civilization went their different ways.
Chiapas is Maya country, part of the former empire that stretched from the Yucatán into Central America, and disintegrated long before the Spanish arrived. However, like the Romans, the Maya never really disappeared, they simply fragmented into different ethnic groups with related cultures and language.
The most important of these communities include the Tzotzil and Tzeltal people in the Los Altos (Highlands) region, but there are others, such as the Lacandones who live in the rainforest region of the same name and non-Maya like the Zoques, providing an array of colors and forms from their hands.
The cultural heart of Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas, which until recently was also its political and economic center. It contains the state’s major colonial architecture, is a United Nations World Heritage Site and many indigenous people still bring their products to sell in the same markets as their ancestors. The city also reflects Chiapas’ recent history. Since the 1970s, there has been a wave of indigenous people migrating here from small pueblos in the state, converts to Protestantism who found themselves unwelcome in their home communities.
Like Oaxaca and Michoacán, Chiapas’s history of fine handcrafts started with complex civilizations with a local demand for luxury goods as well as being part of trade and tribute networks. This continued after the Conquest, with the new European elite demanding such goods, in particular textiles woven by Maya women. In the modern era, handcraft production persisted as part of resistance against assimilation among indigenous peoples. It is interesting to note that while some European crafts were introduced, they have had less impact in Chiapas than in Oaxaca and Michoacán.
Like in the rest of Mexico, Chiapas handcrafts were waning by the mid-20th century, but have since seen revival because of the tourism industry. Like neighboring Oaxaca, today it looks to capitalize on its “exotic” indigenous cultures to draw in people wanting a break from modern life. However, Chiapas’ trip down the cultural tourism path began later than Oaxaca’s, and is, in various ways, behind that of the land of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Tourism, and handcraft production for tourists, began in the 1980s with two developments: government investments in infrastructure, such as roads and airports, and the emergence of organizations of indigenous producers to promote agricultural products and handcrafts. It did not really take off until the 1994 Zapatista rebellion caught the world’s attention.
Chiapas’ most important handcrafted products include various types of textiles, pottery and amber, although there are more products worth mentioning. Textiles and pottery are almost exclusively the purview of women, and for this reason, about 80 percent of the state’s artisans are women. Men dominate only crafts related to wood, leather and iron.
The ability to sell textiles and pottery comes entirely from their cultural value as they are significantly more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts. Cultural tourism does much to enhance that value to visitors, allowing them to take home something of a simpler way of life, and in some cases, make a political statement in favor of indigenous rights.
Chiapas’s Maya heritage is part of federal tourism promotion related to the Maya Route, which also goes through the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatán. Maya and Maya-inspired handcrafts can be found in these states, but Chiapas handcrafts have been better conserved, in no small part because of its isolated mountainous terrain.
Chiapas’ “political” handcraft is the Zapatista dolls. They started as traditional dolls from the town of San Juan Chamula, but during the 1994 Zapatista uprising, someone got the idea to dress the dolls in balaclava masks, carrying rifles. They were very popular for 10 years or so, but they have waned somewhat since the movement has been out of the headlines for some time. The dolls can still be found in San Cristobal, but it is recommended to visit San Juan Chamula to find authentic ones.
Economically, the rise of handcrafts has given their makers a certain amount of social and political clout. Even small towns like Zinacantán have one or more shops and collectives that sell locally-made products, almost always on or just off the main square.
But not all is rosy for handcraft producers. Both production and sales take significant amounts of time, and most artisans must depend on middlemen to buy their products for market. Most vendors you find in well-known markets such as Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal are these middlemen.
In Chiapas, there are strong social divisions between the indigenous and the mestizo, also called “ladinos.” Most producers by far are indigenous, but most sellers, especially in fixed shops, are mestizo. Since such sellers depend on tourists with limited handcraft knowledge, their merchandise may or may not be authentic, especially if their prices are low. It is not uncommon to include similar Maya handcrafted from Guatemala, and even knockoffs produced in factories in Asia.
For the discerning buyer, self-education is essential. Chiapas has a number of governmental and non-profit institutions that can help assure that what you buy is authentic. The easiest way is to buy from the state-run Casa de las Artesanías, which has stores in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Palenque, San Cristóbal and even at the Mexico City airport. There are several museums dedicated to textiles and the cultures that produce them. The Centro de Textiles Mundo Maya is located on the upper floor of the former Santo Domingo monastery. The museum’s collection includes examples and explanations of the textiles’ designs and motifs, and their meaning. It focuses primarily on Maya works from groups such as the Tojalabales, Choles, Tzeltals and Tzotzils, as well as several groups from Guatemala. Another important resource is the Museo de Trajes Regionales Sergio Castro, which features traditional clothing from different parts of the state.
The Amber Museum is dedicated to the state’s most important semi-precious stone. The knowledge this museum shares is particularly important to first-time buyers as this is probably the most faked jewelry item. I learned here that street vendors will “prove” to customers that their “amber” is real by touching it with a flame, to prove it is not plastic. The problem is that real amber will indeed burn somewhat. What these vendors have is glass. A surprise is that Chiapas and Guatemala were prized producers of jade, prompting a Jade Museum showing how the stone was worked in the past and how it could be revalued in the modern world. The San Cristobal de las Casas Museum is not a handcraft museum per se, but it has a respectable collection that shows the breadth of work done and sold in this area. All these museums are in San Cristóbal.
State authorities divide traditional Chiapas handcrafts into 12 categories: textiles, pottery, basketry, jarcieria (other objects made with stiff plant fibers), metal working, hat making, wood working, lacquer, musical instrument making, toy making, leather working and masks. They work raw materials such as palm fronds, clay, reeds, wool, iron, wood, leather and semi-precious stones.
By far, the most important handcrafted items are those related to textiles. They include weaving on a backstrap loom, embroidery and the sewing of traditional clothing. These textiles are some of the best that Mexico has to offer and come in wool, cotton and ixtle (a fiber derived from the maguey plant).
Textile production remained important in Chiapas historically because it was a tribute item both during the Mesoamerican period and then during the colonial era. Up until the early 20th century it was conserved in part because many indigenous women continued to wear what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers wore. Even today in pueblos and San Cristóbal, it is not uncommon to see women in highly embroidered blouses, wraparound skirts, rebozos and other traditional garments.
Most traditional garments in Chiapas favor strong colors such as red, yellow, turquoise blue, purple, dark green and black. The best garments are from fabric woven on backstrap looms, with girls learning to do this work when they are very young. In the past, all of this fiber came from local plants and animals (the Spanish introduced sheep), but today this is rare, so dyeing, spinning and carding has become endangered here. Natural fibers are still preferred but embroidery floss is usually commercial synthetic now, and synthetic fibers are finding their way, at least in part, in a number of traditional garments. The towns best known for their traditional garments, especially those woven on backstrap looms, include San Juan Chamula, Larráinar, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chenalhó, Bochil and Teopisca.
By far, the most traditional garment is the huipil, a rectangular tunic that is intricately woven and/or embroidered. The motifs on these garments are highly specialized by community, catching the attention of academics, such as Marta Turok, some decades ago. Her research found that many motifs could be traced back to the pre-Hispanic period and had religious significance. Most embroidery focuses on flora and fauna, with techniques introduced by the Spanish. Communities particularly noted for their embroidered garments include Magdalenas, Larráinzar, Venustiano Carranza, Sibaca and Zinacatán. Embroidery varies from small subtle elements to larger ones that nearly cover the entire garment.
I should mention a dress called the Chiapaneca, which is often presented as representative of the state. It shows very strong Spanish influence, made with lightweight cloth in black or other very dark color, heavily embroidered with brightly-colored flowers over layers of ruffles and flowing skirt. It is traditional, but it is certainly not something you see on the street every day in the state.
Traditional men’s garb has all but disappeared, but some are still made, sold and even worn on special occasions. They include serapes in dark blue, green, purple or black, which may or may not be embroidered and are produced in towns such as Pantelhó, Oxchuc and Huixtan.
Pottery production in Chiapas has fallen steeply from its height during the Maya empire and lags behind the modern productions in Oaxaca and Michoacán. Most of the work produced is simple, unglazed and utilitarian, but that does not mean it is poor quality. Only very recently have some decorative wares been developed to take advantage of the tourist and collectors’ markets.
Chiapas main pottery centers are Chiapa de Corzo, Mazapa de Madera, La Frontera, Tonalá, Ocuilapa, Suchiapa and San Cristóbal, but the most important is Amatenango del Valle. This area is known for its use of a local white clay and the making of decorative as well as utilitarian pieces. Utilitarian wares include cooking pots, dishes, storage jars, flower pots, and can be decorated. However, they are best known for the making of animal figures, including doves, jaguars, roosters and turtles. Of these, the most celebrated are the jaguars, whose development is credited to Juana Gómez Ramírez. She and others in the town can make the figure from centimeters to a meter in height. Amantenango pottery is not glazed or burnished and usually has a minimum of painted decoration, although some are experimenting with colored slips, burnishing and sgraffito (scratched lines). The popularity of these animal figures has led them to be included in utilitarian pieces to broaden their appeal.
Almost all of Mexico’s amber comes from the Chiapas town of Simojovel, whose economy almost entirely depends on the semi-precious stone. However, most of the finished amber pieces are made in San Cristóbal. Amber has been mined here since early in the Mesoamerican period, highly prized for supposed healing and magical qualities as well as decoration. Today, most amber winds up in jewelry combined with gold or silver, both small figures can be found. Like amber from other parts of the world, it is not unusual to find trapped insects, leaves and the like, which raises the value of the stone. Chiapas amber has a “designation of origin “seal from the Mexican government, putting it on par with tequila. This government also sponsors a yearly Expo Ambar, which has attracted visitors from the US and Europe.
The idea of jade in Mexico might be surprising, but actually, it was quite prized in Mesoamerica. For quite some time, experts could not determine where Mesoamerican jade came from, leading to wild speculation of trade with Asia. Only in the early 20th century were small quantities of jade found in parts of modern Mexico
The Aztecs conquered the Soconusco and Los Altos regions of Chiapas and demanded chalchihuites (jade stones) as part of their tribute, which were found in the nearby mountains. It was extremely important to the Aztecs, but fell completely out of favor after the Conquest.
The main source of jade today is Guatemala, but small pieces are still found in certain isolated mountain areas. Its working has been recently encouraged by state authorities in an attempt to revive the craft.
The towns Palenque and Salto de Agua also doe stone work, which is almost exclusively reproductions of Maya artifacts to sell at the nearby archeological site
Most of Chiapas metal working is done in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which is logical given its importance in the colonial period. Iron and brass work are particularly noted and seen in the city’s balconies, window protections, doors and more. One unique decorative item is crosses. All of this work tends to be ornate and Baroque. Most workshops are located in the El Cerillo neighborhood.
Chiapas is one of three places in Mexico that has conserved the Mesoamerican art of lacquering, perhaps one of Mexico’s most underappreciated traditional handcrafts. One possible reason is that lacquerware is associated with Asia, and another is that most people cannot distinguish between lacquered work and that which is simply painted and varnished.
Lacquered items have pigments that are mixed with a special oil or wax that are meticulously rubbed into the wood or gourd. The oil or wax coats and protects the fiber, making it shiny and somewhat waterproof. This technique was developed in the Mesoamerican period to create cups from gourds, which were expensive and used by the upper classes. The Spanish did not value Mesoamerican lacquer as they did the Asian version, but introduced the idea of applying the technique to furniture, boxes, chests and the like. Today, it is also applied to musical instruments, toys, religious items and the masks used for the famous Parachicos dance of Chiapa de Corzo.
Chiapas may not have the variety of handcrafts that Oaxaca and Michoacán do, which have been evolving since the colonial period and continue to create new forms to respond to new markets. Chiapas is only beginning to do this. In some ways, this makes Chiapas handcrafts more authentic as many are still made as if they were to be used locally. But the sudden emergence of Zapata dolls and the reemergence of decorative pottery in Amatenango show that Chiapas artisans are every bit as able to reinvent themselves and their culture.