Chiapas

In November 2015, after attending the MXD 2015 Design Conference in Mexico City, I was invited to visit indigenous weavers in a Mayan village close to San Cristobal de Las Casas in the Southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Mayan weaving tradition of Chiapas is world renowned and has continuously existed since per-Colombian times. I was delighted and honored to accompany my great friend, Karla Saenz, a Mexican artist and activist who has worked with the women in this community for several years. We were planning to conduct several collaborative workshop sessions where we would share knowledge: on the one hand, the ancient practice of Mayan textile weaving, and on the other, information about the recent tools and practices of wearable computing. I was thrilled to experience first-hand this extraordinary textile art tradition and to explore the idea of combining computational wearable technology with this traditional art form.

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San Cristobal de Las Casas

I arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas a few days early and explored its beautiful market and plaza. San Cristobal is a colonial town set in the midst stunning mountain scenery and has been a center of trade for the diverse indigenous groups that live in the highlands that surround it. Upon arriving in Chiapas, I was immediately reminded of my previous trip to Guatemala and indeed, there are many ethnic and historical ties between this region of Mexico and its Central American neighbor. For years, the border between Guatemala and Mexico was practically open and people traveled freely between the countries. This state of affairs was challenged in the 1970’s when many refugees fleeing civil unrest and lack of employment started arriving in Mexico from Central American countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala. In response, Mexico placed restrictions on future border crossings.

San Cristobal de Las Casas

San Cristobal de Las Casas

Chiapas has also been in the news recently (especially since the mid-1990’s) due to Zapatista uprisings that shook the nation and aimed to fundamentally question the role of the central government in this area. While the uprising was to some extent unsuccessful, to this day, there are autonomous villages that are primarily governed by farmer collectives. In addition to being a cultural center housing many indigenous cultures, Chiapas is also rich in natural resources and farming. It is currently the largest producer of coffee in Mexico (followed by Oaxaca and Veracruz).

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Coffee in Chiapas

All of these elements, the mountain scenery, the indigenous presence and the revolutionary vibes, add a romantic feeling to Chiapas making it, and in particular San Cristobal an traveler and activist hub. In its beautiful center and plaza, travelers and locals mingle, drinking organic coffee and sporting beards and dreadlocks. Of course, you only need to walk a little bit off the shiny center to again be face to face with poverty and exclusion that exists next to the magical mountain scenery.

I spent the first couple of days in Chiapas exploring the few museums in the city that showcase Mayan medicinal traditions and textile and reading a little about the history of the region. My trip coincided with the last day of the yearly celebration of the Day of the Dead. I decided to visit a Mayan village a few kilometers from the center called San Juan de Chamula. Chamula is one of the highest and coldest villages in the mountains and its residents wear thick traditional wool clothes. I visited the village’s beautiful cathedral that had mixed Catholic and indigenous elements including floors covered with straw and with several people lightning candles on the floor and quietly praying.

San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

I then walked to a hill overlooking the village cemetery where people had brought food to the graves of their relatives in order to eat and drink with them. There was a mariachi band that walked around and was sometimes asked to play a song by the grave of a family member. Strangely, this scene reminded me of one of Rumi’s famous poems:

If you come to visit my grave,
My tomb will appear to dance.
Brother! Don’t come without a tambourine,
for the sad can’t join in God’s celebration.

[Translation source is here.]

I feel he would really appreciate the Day of the Dead in Mexico!

Once I had explored San Cristobal and Chamula, my friend arrived from Mexico City and we visited the family that she has been working with in their village, Zinacantan. This village is renounced for its beautiful and intricate weaving patterns. The people of the village are also known for being great gardeners and for growing some of the most beautiful flowers in the region. There is some speculation that their sensitivity towards details and patterns is related to their experience in observing and caring for flowers (for example, in Guide to the Textile of Maya by Walter Morris, Jr.).

In the village, I spent two days with the family in their large communal home. Several sisters, their husbands and children lived together and managed a weaving business where all the girls learn weaving and embroidery at an early age and create garments for themselves and to sell. It was very interesting to observe how the weaving tradition is transmitted by example and how several weavers work on the same garment. During this time and especially during the workshops, with our hosts permission we took some pictures in order to document our process. However, I will not share these here in order to respect our collaborators cultural preference of not having pictures of their private residence shared with others.

I spent the first day getting to know the family and their craft. The family spoke among themselves in the local Tzotzil language, and communicated with my friend in Spanish. During the second day, after spending the morning observing the family’s weaving practice and their method of instructing their children in weaving, I started teaching the children about electricity and digital design. At noon, we were invited to have lunch with the family, a great honor and a wonderful experience! We sat around several cooking stoves where each family heated tortillas and shared a hearty corn and herb soup. We drank a sweet and hot corn drink that was soothing in the chill of the mountains. It was interesting to see that despite having a conventional cooking oven the family still sat around an open‑fire stove that allowed for conversation and sharing.

After lunch, I showed the family some examples of wearable systems, including HugBug and showed them how lights can be embedded into fabric. This demonstration opened-up a conversation with one of the men who had learned basic electronics at school. In the villages, weaving is traditionally done only by women. While he was not interested in participating in weaving, he expressed interest int he technology. I believe these meetings planted seeds of creativity in both my mind and our hosts about the possibilities of combining wearable computers and traditional textiles.

Experiencing such a communal way of being where gender roles are clearly divided – with men working in fields and women focusing on textiles – reminded me of my own Persian culture. I felt there was much similarity between the people of Chiapas and people who live in rural Western Iran; not only were the natural and political environment similar, but also the communal, tribal way of life. I hope in the future, I can learn more about similarities and differences between people living in different places in the world and in the process also understand more about myself!

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Visiting Frida Kahlo on the Día de Muertos

The "frog-shaped" per-colombian urn on the left contains Frida's ashes.

The “frog-shaped” per-Colombian urn on the left contains Frida’s ashes.

I looked at the ancient frog-shaped Mayan jar on Frida‘s dresser again; according to the excellent Museo Frida Kahlo’s audio guide this is the final resting place of the revolutionary artist who had asked for her ashes to be put in a jar in the shape of a “frog” after cremation. The “frog” was the nickname of her (in)famous and beloved husband, Diego Rivera! I felt it was perfect that I was visiting Frida’s home and thinking about her life and death on the Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead weekend.

Frida's half-full colors in her workshop.

Frida’s colors in her workshop.

Frida Kahlo is hard to categorize. Even today, after more than 60 years since her death, she is as avant-garde and relevant as ever. While the artistic style and political stance of many of his contemporary popular artists, not least of which Diego Rivera, has gone out of fashion, her art and life are still fresh like the flowers that adorn the garden at her museum. Frida’s art was full of complementing contrasts: Her artistic vision was distinctly Mexican but also multicultural (she had both Jewish and indigenous roots) and informed by latest European styles (Marcel Duchamp described her as a “Surrealist” which she did not like); her painting technique was influenced by traditional folk Mexican-Christian Ex-voto and Retablos paintings, as well as, (at the time very recent) photographic methods. In her life, she was deeply in love with her consistently unfaithful husband, Diego, and also had numerous affairs with both men and women (including possibly the American painter Georgia O’Keiff). Throughout her life, she lived in physical and mental pain and yet she loved life and its pleasures. In short, she transcended boundaries both in art and life and has been an inspiration to artists, feminists, revolutionaries, people with disabilities and many others.

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Frida’s brushes

La Casa Azul is where Frida was born, her childhood home and where she lived with her husband for most of her life and, finally, where she died. Visiting here is like going to a temple of art and life. Every corner from the exotic and earthly garden to the traditional kitchen to the room where Frida worked emanate with a vital pregnant energy that seems to sing, “in life and art, the possibilities are endless!”

Frida's wheelchair and canvas

Frida’s wheelchair and canvas

A particularly touching spot in the house is Frida’s workshop, where a collection of her colors and brushes sit next to her wheelchair. Frida’s life was full of pain; she contracted polio when she was young. It damaged her spinal cord and affected her leg. Additionally, when she was a teenager she was in a horrendous car accident where an iron pole went through her pelvis. She also suffered from a broken spinal cord, broken ribs, collarbone and pelvis. These injuries led to lifelong pain and an inability to give birth. In addition to these physical pains, she was deeply hurt by Diego’s unfaithfulness, including his affair with her sister. Finally, she had a miscarriage (due to the injuries above) in the States that deeply scarred her spirit. Despite these, Frida’s life was also full of joy; from her childhood she had a wild imagination that became her best friend when she was bedridden; she had many comrades, friends and lovers; and she also knew how to enjoy good music, mezcal and dance; one of her last paintings feature juicy watermelons with the phrase “long live life!” carved into them.

"Long live life!"

“Long live life!”

Frida and Diego were deeply interested in Mexican history and art and their house is full of ancient sculptures and pottery. A few days prior to visiting there, I had visited the extraordinary Museo Nacional de Antropologia where a mind-blowing collection of artifacts from Mexico’s amazingly rich history and culture beckons. There, I came face to face with mysterious men, women and creatures of a distant magical past; a past that seems to have had lived on to some extent in the fiery blood of Frida.

Mayan Statue at the National Museum of Anthropology

Mayan Statue at the National Museum of Anthropology

Many prominent artists, politicians and revolutionaries passed through Frida and Diego’s house of joy and pain. Among them was an elderly Leon Trotsky (the Russian revolutionary dissident) who had a brief affair with Frida and who lived nearby in a house turned into office. Today, this is the Trotsky House Museum where you can visit his office where a Stalinist assassin killed him with a pickax.

Trotsky's Office where he was assassinated

Trotsky’s Office where he was assassinated

After visiting the Trotsky House Museum, I walked to the center of the Coyoacán neighborhood. This neighborhood, whose name means “place of the coyotes”, used to be (and still is) a bohemian corner of Mexico City where artists and revolutionaries lived. I soon realized that I had unknowingly walked into one of Mexico City’s important Day of the Day celebration spots. Many families had dressed up in costumes ranging from traditional skeletons to gory monsters and everything in between. It was really nice to see whole families dressed up with complex makeup and costumes walking down the street. There was music and much laughter and stalls set up that sold everything from hot chocolate and sugar skulls to the Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead, which of course I tried. After walking around for about an hour I walked back to the metro and back to my accommodation for a night of restful dreams full of happy dancing skeletons!

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Altar for the day of the dead