One of my favorite memories as a child was making dumplings with my mom. She had all of the ingredients prepped - mushrooms, leeks, meat, onions, garlic all mushed up into a bowl. We’d sit around the kitchen table, grabbing the flat dumpling dough, dipping it in flour, putting a little ball of mushy filling in the middle, folding it in half, then squeezing the edges together. We had the option of using this plastic, blue clamshell contraption that would make the process faster. I didn’t like using it - I wanted to make my own shapes and sizes. I loved that no matter how my dumplings came out - even if they had holes in it, they were perfect. Perfectly imperfect. Perfect because I was learning something my mother learned from her mother. Perfect because we were spending time together, chit chatting around a table. Perfect because working with our hands releases our layers and puts us in this tranquil, meditative zone. Perfect because it was the one time where I didn’t have to be a straight A student, or polite, or in proper clothes, or an older sister, or the oldest daughter. I could just be me, making these little quirky pockets of fun.
I’m sure many of us have similar memories - stewing amazing curry with your mom, layering tiramisu with an old friend, s’mores around a campfire, or grilling tortillas with a new family in their village. This week I was invited by my Mayan family to visit their home. To think that when I first met them, 5 days prior, our relationship was transactional - they wanted me to buy their goods and would only allow me to take a photo of them if I paid for it. At the end of our weaving time, we shared hugs, they asked me to take family photos for them, and invited me to their home.
The family lives in the hills near Chamula, about 30 min from San Cristobal de las Casas. As the shared van climbed the hills, the buildings started to fade revealing the peaceful and lush landscape of the highlands. Here is a photo of Pascuala’s 8 sheep… ahhh I see why she said she only has 3 colors of yarn ;)
Mama Maria taking me on a a tour of her black and yellow corn field!
We arrived at their house around 6:30pm, just in time for dinner! Here we are in their kitchen, heating tea.
Mama Maria’s late husband’s aunt, who lives with them. She can’t hear and doesn’t really have enough teeth to talk, but she smiles a lot!
Dinner! Yummy beans and fresh (organic) corn tortillas.
After dinner, we walked over to Pascuala’s house to sleep. Mama Maria and her share this house (their cot beds are not shown). Against the far wall behind her are her clothes - shirts and 2 more skirts. One of the skirts is newly finished! It takes her 6 months to weave one skirt, and 2 months to embroider the details of her shirt. Some of the warmer blankets they also weaved themselves. I was lucky, I got to snuggle with Reyna on the floor!
At 6am, I woke up, walked over to the kitchen and saw Pascuala and Mama Maria already up and cooking.
I even got to help them make tortillas! They make a day’s worth for the entire family in the morning before work. The batter filled a whole bucket. They have this metal press that helps them speed up the process. We grab a handful of cornmeal, ball it up in our hands, put it in the center of the press, and gently flatten them into perfect round shapes. Except, my tortillas looked ridiculous - with many unintentional mountains, valleys, and folds. Perfectly imperfect. I felt so bad being a guest in their home and creating a mess out of their meal. As I reached back into the grill to try and fix the folds, Mama Maria would stop me. “Está bien, Está bien!” Over and over again, I kept trying to fix my mistakes, and each time Mama would say “no, Está bien”.
After cooking, we quickly headed back into the city. The short evening felt like a dream. I cannot say that after one evening, I know what their lives are like. I still don’t fully understand what their dreams are, what makes them happy, or what they might struggle with. Perhaps that’s not for me to judge. I did walk away with a better understand of what Home means to me. There’s that saying “Home is where the heart is”. Well how about, Home is where my soul is free to Be.
What is it with my love affair with handmade, indigenous art? I use to think that it was the vibrant colors, textures and fine artistry that drew me in. I’m finding now that the connection is about a quality much deeper than the aesthetics - these crafts are about families creating together, as a community. It’s not an expression of one person, like we find in cities. They represent thousands of years of culture and serve as a prayer for the whole. They represent a part of time that still stands still. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Mayan communities are fighting to hold on to their culture - the communion of language, prayers, art and land (earth). Over the last month of travel, I’ve been admiring their culture at a distance. But my heart wanted to somehow connect with them more deeply.
I was visiting Na Bolom, a museum and foundation that supports the Mayan communities. Right in front of the store where they sell tickets is a family selling their work. A little 8 year old girl named Reyna came up to me, selling a basket full of macramé bracelets. I smiled, said “No muchas gracias!” and continued into the museum. Little Reyna, full of smiles, followed me in and instantly, a new friendship was born. We told stories of the little animal figurines in the cases. Danced for half an hour to the music playing in the documentary video, using her bracelets as props. Reyna would throw the bracelets high into the air so we could dance under them. We played hide-n-seek in the garden and created our own special hand shake. I love how quickly this young business woman reverts back to being a playful child when given the opportunity. After a few hours, her grandmother asked how I liked the museum. I looked at Reyna, we giggled, and I said “Muy bien!” I then asked her grandmother if she could teach me how to weave. The grandmother was delighted! She said she would send her oldest daughter to teach, and we could have our lessons in the Museum’s garden. “YAAAAAAY!!!” - said my heart.
The next day I came and saw my teacher, Pascuala, setting up the handloom. Amazing. We did a brief introduction, and without words she started. After demonstrating a few rows, she stepped out of the contraption, looked at me and gestured for me to step in. As she guided me through each row, my mind was trying to understand the purpose for each of these sticks. How does lifting one and sliding another create a weave?Why are the sticks so long? Why are some wide and some skinny? Why do we need so many?! And how can you do this while kneeling on the ground for 8 hours a day?!
With each passing row, each passing hour, and each passing day, I started to discover the answers to my questions. Each stick has a different purpose, and a slightly different shape, by design. Even the ends of one of the sticks are shaped a little differently - as Pascuala would say “No iqual” I also figured out the dance of when to lean back to keep the contraption taught, and when to lean forward to give the strings more breath. Lastly, the biggest tip she gave me was “Mas fuerte!”, reminding me to push the sticks and yarn with force.
Family photo :) Mama Maria, Isabella, Reyna and Pascuala
I spent 4 hours a day for 5 days as part of their family. In the mornings we’d sit in a circle on the floor to eat breakfast (tortilla, beans, and jamaica water). On Reyna’s selling breaks she’d poke her head through the weave to give our special handshake. Each woman would check on my progress throughout the day, giving me smiles and hugs, and a kind reminder “Mas fuerte!” Other tourist would pass by and ask me, “Is it difficult?” I’d say proudly, “Yes, but I have a very good teacher” Pascuala would sit up tall and smile. At the end of each lesson, my back was be sore, my eyes crossed, and my heart filled with joy - excited to see the family again the next day.
On the fifth day, as I was nearing the end, I noticed myself weaving slower and slower. I started getting emotional as I realized that this was my last day as part of their family. There came a point where it was too difficult for me to continue and Pascuala stepped in to finish the last few rows. Reyna, baby Cela and I sat around her, watching. Admiring. I felt so much love for Pascuala, imagining this is probably how her Mama Maria taught her. This is probably how Reyna and Cela are learning right now. This is probably how weaving has been passed on in their tribe for the last hundred years. We’re using sticks they found in the mountains and yarn from Pascuala’s 8 sheep. We weren’t just weaving a piece of fabric. We were weaving hearts.
When we finished I started getting teary eyed. Mama Maria came over and gave me a big hug! She said I am a fast learner. Then she said “You come to visit my house. Sleep at my house. Tomorrow?” "YAAAAAY!!!" - said my heart! Reyna started jumping up and down, running around telling everyone I was going to visit. Ahhh.. The fun continues…
Reyna and Cela playing.
Reyna and Cela coloring the Disney activity book I gifted. She played with it for 2 days, sounding out the words, playing the games, and making up her own stories for each character.
Last week I was wandering around the Center of the Arts in San Agustin Etla, and I made new friends! yay! The trio are on a road trip from Mexico City. Over lunch, Renè invited me to his Uncle’s home, where they are staying:
"You should cancel all of your plans and come back with us because you will love this home. My uncle is an archaeologist and spent his life visiting pueblos around Mexico and Guatemala studying and documenting masks used for spiritual dances. This home has probably the largest collection of old masks in the world.”
Plans cancelled. Let’s go!
The minute I walked into this home, my jaw dropped… room after room, walls upon walls of hand made masks (the photo above is one of many rooms that look like this!). Not to mention Renee’s uncle built this beautiful home with his own two hands, by himself.
Unfortunately, Renee’s uncle is in Guatemala so I never got to meet him or hear his stories first hand. I am so thankful to get to experience it second hand though!!
These jaguar masks are the oldest in his collection, from Zitlala, Guerrero. The color of the masks represents the color of corn they are praying for in the next season. The mirrored eyes symbolize rain/water. As these masks are made out of leather, the villagers would soak them in water before putting it on. The mask then dries on their face, creating a snug fit. This allows them to fully embody the spirit of the character they are playing. They become the jaguar. They become their characters so much so that they don’t need proper eye holes to see, only needing to peek through the tiny spaces between the jaguar’s teeth.
In each mask, lives their story, their connection to spirits in nature, and their prayers. You can feel the energy of the hands that created each one. Their love for each other and for earth. Their history. Their prayers. Unfortunately, because of the drug war in the area, these ancient works of art are being destroyed along with their communities.
This mask was made in Sonora. It is made out of paper, the hair from a cactus. After the dance was finished, the villagers would throw their masks into the river. (I can’t imagine doing that to my own pieces of art…)
Masks of Hernan Cortes (bearded masks). Renè said that in the pueblos, they are still doing the dance of Hernan Cortes… Renè has been to a tribal dance before. He said the dance is really intense - full of passion through drumming, chanting, dancing.. it was difficult for him to describe in words. He said he was pushed into the dance circle and had to “fight” Hernan Cortes. I get the sense that through that dance, he walked away with a deeper connection to this pueblo and what they’ve been through.
More! Here are some of my favorites.
These rituals must be so healing… to embody the spirit of what you are praying for. Or to replay history in the way your heart wishes it would have been. To allow your imagination to travel to the depths of your spirit, with intention. To allow your prayers to flow through your hands to art, and through the art back to your body, and out of your body to the Universe. My prayer for them is that these dances continue to live, in peace. That the art and tradition of mask making by hand is honored and preserved. That the new generation can stand by these rituals and feel a sense of pride, and connection to their roots.
Watercolor painting is something I stumbled on in 2013. I had just returned from 6 months in India, with a whole new brain and a newly found heart. I found it challenging to relate to society as “home” didn’t feel like home. The only thing that made sense to me, and the only thing I could hold onto was art.
Painting was my way of exploring - this time through my inner worlds. I wanted to try an art form that I was never taught so that I couldn’t use my brain. As I painted, I noticed all of these emotions that would arise in me - fear, joy, anxiety, grief, love, happiness, and complete awe. I started to collaborate with my body and emotions - asking them how they wanted to move through the page, all the while practicing non judgement and detachment from what was coming out. The more I painted, the deeper I travelled through my emotions, sometimes landing in a different conscious space.
This practice started creeping into my real world - if I can move through fear on paper and come out alive, why can’t I do that in life? What fears am I experiencing now that I have the opportunity to move through? What are these emotions teaching me about my journey and who I am today? What are these emotions teaching me about my Truth and the layers that I still need to let go of? What can our emotions teach us about each other and what we all are experiencing?
In my meditation practice, they teach us to observe, detach, and let these things go as everything in life is always changing. I have found so much wisdom in observing, learning and understanding, detaching and letting these things go. My emotional body is such a gift, and my greatest guru.