“We Appreciate the Clothes We Wear”


WHEN the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they found a variety of different cultures​—the Aztec, the Maya, and others. Were these cultures completely wiped out by the Europeans? No, they are still here. About 12 million people in Mexico are direct descendants of pre-Columbian ethnic groups. Many speak their ancient languages. And their beautiful costumes make them stand out.

The southwestern state of Oaxaca, the area with the greatest cultural diversity in Mesoamerica, is like a huge fashion show. There we find the Chontal, who depend on agriculture, cattle raising, and hunting and gathering in the mountains for their sustenance. Their family gardens are full of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The Chontal show their fondness for nature by embroidering animal figures and flowers in red and black on women’s blouses. Single women complement their attire with colorful ribbons in their hair.

Sharing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec with the Chontal are the Huave and Zapotec, who dress similarly; yet, somehow local residents can tell a woman’s extraction by her outfit. The Zapotec, who call themselves people from the clouds, can even determine which village a woman is from by the way she arranges her dress. A more elaborate design is used by the Chinantec, from the northern part of the same state. Chinantec women tell their ancestral history in the embroidered symbols of their loose, sleeveless dresses called huipils. For formal occasions they wear splendidly embroidered outfits called “large stomach” in their language.

 Mixtec women, who inhabit parts of the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, are also fond of embroidery. In one region women embellish their muslin blouses with a technique called “make me if you can.” Just as with other Mexican peoples, Mixtec from the coast are still using the same kind of fabric that was used by their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Their present-day weaving technique is illustrated in museums on pre-Hispanic figurines and in drawings.

Ancient Maya and Aztec attire for men was particularly elaborate. Today men in most indigenous groups dress more or less conventionally. Yet, a trace of that pre-Hispanic preference can still be seen among some indigenous people, such as the Huichol. Embroidered Huichol clothing, a symbol of social standing, has such complicated designs and accessories that it takes some time to study and appreciate all the details.

The best-preserved pre-Hispanic attire can be found in the Nahuatl communities of Cuetzalan, in the state of Puebla, where women wear showy headdresses of yarn interwoven in their hair (photo on page 26) and use the quechquemitl, a sheer decorative shawl. Similar items are depicted in ancient codices.

The highlands of the state of Chiapas are a mosaic of different ethnic groups, some of them descended from the same roots. There, the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tojolabal peoples wear outfits that to them are just everyday clothing but to the outsider are quite a visual experience.

Many there also make their own fabric. Wouldn’t learning from your mother how to make your own cloth give you a strong sense of identity? Tzotzil women in the cool highlands of Chiapas go through the entire process of shearing the sheep and then washing, carding, spinning, and dyeing the wool with natural dyes before weaving the fabric on a backstrap loom. “It was hard at the beginning,” proudly recalls Petrona, a girl from Chamula, “but I felt very happy when I made my first wool nagua [skirt] and embroidered my first cotton blouse. I also made my sash.” After learning of the work involved, we understand why she says: “We appreciate the clothes we wear.”

In the most conservative regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Maya women use an hipil, a loose white dress embroidered with colorful patterns, for everyday wear. Many times this garment includes a lace underskirt. For special occasions women and young girls​—both in the countryside and in the cities—​proudly wear a terno, a more elaborate version of the hipil.

For visitors, such typical Mexican dresses can be very expensive. Yet, the indigenous people can enjoy this luxury, even though most of them are of little means, because they painstakingly make these dresses themselves.

Attending the Christian meetings of the 219 indigenous-language congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico can be a feast for the eyes. These are occasions when those attending can wear their formal costumes, a legacy from their forefathers​—and how beautiful these clothes are!

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Maya lace underskirt

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Zapotec embroidery

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Zapotec, Oaxaca

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Maya, Yucatán

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Nahuatl, Puebla

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Tzotzil, Chiapas