How Ponchos Got More Authentic After Commerce Came to Chiapas


In 1969, the Zinacantec Maya of Mexico's Nabenchauk Valley all wore essentially the same clothes: square ponchos and shawls over simple cotton shirts, shorts, and skirts.

Their outfits bore red and white stripes, with the proportions dictated by the type of garment. Ponchos and shawls had a lot of red and a little white, making them look pink from a distance, while women's blouses were mostly white with two narrow red stripes dividing them into thirds.

"All clothing, for toddlers up to adults, conformed to a closed stock of about four patterns," Patricia Marks Greenfield recalls in her book Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas. When she first came to the valley in the southern Mexican state that year, the clothes, like Zinacantec culture, had barely changed in decades.

The standard designs reflected the villagers' reverence for tradition, expressed in their Tzotzil language as baz'i, or the "true way." "To learn to weave," writes Greenfield, a University of California, Los Angeles developmental psychologist, "was to learn to reproduce those patterns." There was no room for self-expression or experimentation.

Greenfield lived in Nabenchauck in 1969 and 1970 while studying how girls there learned to weave. Zinacantec women used traditional backstrap looms, a simple but versatile technology in which warp threads wind back and forth around two parallel sticks, crossing in the middle. One stick is attached to a strap wrapped around a tree or post, the other to a strap around the weaver's waist, allowing her to adjust the tension by leaning forward or back.

Greenfield returned to Chiapas in 1991. In her absence, Zinacantec life had changed radically. Villagers had shifted from subsistence farming and weaving to commerce, leaving their homes in the isolated valley for contact with the larger world. They now grew flowers to sell in Mexico City and ran shops on the main road selling snacks and textiles to tourists.

Men wore store-bought shirts and work pants. Some owned vans and ran transit businesses connecting the village to larger towns. Women bought blouses imported from nearby Guatemala and furnished their own looms with acrylic yarns made in distant factories. Many had invested in sewing machines. When someone wanted an especially fancy blouse for a fiesta, she might hire another woman to make it for her. Specialization and trade had come to the valley.

In the well-established romantic narrative, all this change would represent a devil's bargain: shoes, running water, and telenovelas at the cost of beauty, identity, and meaning; uniqueness exchanged for homogenized global culture. But what Greenfield found challenges that all-too-common fable.

Instead of erasing Zinacantec distinctiveness or replacing artisanship with standardized products, commerce and industry led to an efflorescence of textile decoration. Women and girls continued to weave garments on backstrap looms, but instead of following the same stock designs, they invented new ones. Far from representing cultural loss, the evolution of Zinacantec weaving demonstrates how commerce can unleash creativity while affirming identity.

Take the man's poncho. Its underlying structure remained constant: two square pieces of cloth sewn together at the top, with an embroidered slit at the neckline and tassels running through embroidered holes on each side. In 1969, every poncho was white with thin red stripes and plain red embroidery. The only variation might be one or more thin lines of brocade—weft threads added on top of the main weave—near the bottom.

A 1991 poncho, by contrast, looked red from a distance, not pink or white. The white threads were still there, but the proportions had shifted dramatically. Whereas the old white cotton yarn was much cheaper than red, once acrylics arrived the two colors cost the same. Zinacantec weavers could now indulge local tastes without busting their budgets. "I asked which was better, the old or the new," Greenfield writes. "I was told that the new was better because it was redder."

Meanwhile, the subtle brocaded stripes and tassel holes of previous decades had blossomed into wide bands of stylized flowers in brilliant hues of yellow, orange, green, purple, and blue, running not just along the bottom of the poncho but up the front as well. Weavers felt free to create novel designs.

Over the following decade, as Greenfield returned to study how the younger generation was learning to weave, poncho decoration grew ever more inventive. The side panels of brocade or embroidery expanded to encompass the entire surface, obscuring the red-and-white weave and breaking the traditional mirror symmetry. By the turn of the century, weavers were abandoning stripes altogether, weaving the ground fabric entirely in red—or even in other colors. In 2002, Maruch Xulubte' wove a fiesta poncho for her son using black thread, then had her sister Loxa machine-embroider an elaborate, asymmetrical peacock design in shades of blue, purple, and green that covered the entire surface.

The same transformations took place in women's clothes. Simple stripes morphed into increasingly elaborate brocades and embroidery. Girls in particular took pride in inventing and combining new patterns, devising tracing systems that let them copy and adapt printed designs. To embroider a striking blouse, 17-year-old Lupa Z'us elongated a commercial cross-stitch pattern of flowers to form two vertical bands down the front, edging them with a geometrical design. She added two other flower patterns at the neck and shoulders and invented a zigzag of triangles to bind the seams.

Even as they took on novel surface decoration, the new clothes maintained the same underlying structures as the old ones. They were still squares of uncut fabric, fastened together in the same places with fringes rather than hems. "Although this blouse looks, on the surface, very different from the older blouse," Greenfield writes of Lupa's design, "its 'deep structure' is exactly the same. It conforms to all the norms of Zinacantec blouse structure and is instantly interpretable by a community of users as a Zinacantec blouse."

Relaxing the superficial rules made the structural ones all the more significant. The deep structures provided building blocks that inspired new patterns—simple rules for a complex weave, to adapt Richard Epstein's phrase. And they signaled a continuing cultural identity. A Zinacantec poncho, blouse, or shawl still looked like a Zinacantec poncho, blouse, or shawl.

But greater creative freedom also allowed a new form of stylistic group identity to emerge, as family members copied from each other. The balance between standing out as an individual—whether a weaver or a wearer—and fitting into the group had shifted, but clothes still expressed communal ties.

Further confounding any fable of traditional ways disrupted by market exchange is actual Zinacantec history. The aesthetic dynamism and the commercial activity spawned by trade are, in fact, more culturally authentic than the previous stasis. Before the Spanish conquest, Zinacantecs were wealthy and famous merchants, and until the early 19th century they continued to deal in cacao, coffee, salt, and tobacco and to bring manufactured goods from the cities to the countryside. Subsistence farming wasn't as traditional as it appeared.

Neither were plain clothes. Before the conquest, the Maya wore elaborately decorated garments. But in the 16th century, the Spanish banned wearing textiles with brocaded figures. As centuries passed, the now-impoverished Zinacantecs found even their beloved red dyes too expensive to use in large quantities. The weaving innovations that flourished with the commerce of the 1990s did more than unleash creative freedom and individual taste. They revived long-suppressed aspects of Zinacantec culture. The "true way" did not require uniformity or constraint, but a distinctive local style.

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  1. No link to Amazon? Where can we buy these ponchos?

    1. Yes I want to see them.

        1. Hey, cultural appropriators. Enough.

          1. Izzat a real poncho or izzat a Sears poncho?

            1. *** whispering ***

              Hello, Frank Zappa.

        2. Clint wuz kultrully propriatin before it wuz kool!

  2. Far from representing cultural loss, the evolution of Zinacantec weaving demonstrates how commerce can unleash creativity while affirming identity.

    Seems like lack of creativity was their culture, and that's now lost.

    1. Sugar-freed the link.

      1. SugarFree's ghost feverishly dry humps my linking soul.


        1. "And the rest of the movement has evolved ? or devolved ? alongside him, from the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference who invited Marion Le Pen and Sheriff David Clarke, to the campus conservatives who've doubled down on their strategy of inviting Ann Coulter and her spiritual descendants to speak to the very audiences likely to be most outraged by them. For many campus conservatives, the invitations are driven by a sincere desire to give their values an airing and set off debate. It is, of course, also fun to annoy people who disagree with you."

          Unfortunate moral equivalence.

          The CPAC people were at liberty to invite anyone with assurance the speech would be protected by security and uninterrupted. Yet they still invited trolls.

          Conservative students, on the other hand, still have to establish (or re-establish) the basic right, which precedes even free speech, of not having their scheduled events disrupted by violence. This means they need to invite controversial speakers to put their institutions - and even the local police - to the test - will minimal law and order be maintained?

          1. Without assurance of basic law and order and a guarantee that speakers, once invited, will be heard, then the student groups can't afford the luxury of being finicky in their choice of speakers. They need to lance the boil, shame the colleges (and cops) into doing their jobs and maintaining a civilized atmosphere.

            Once they're assured that scheduled events will proceed uninterrupted by lawless violence, it will be time enough to focus on inviting "responsible" speakers. Until then, the priority is defeating the disruptors and restoring law and order, as opposed to caving into disruptors in the name of "responsibility."

            1. I think the college conservatives are whiny pussies attempting to play the victim card just about as much as the whiny-ass leftists. You want to put a stop to this heckler's veto shit? Don't just invite Ann Coulter to give a talk on the political scene and then squawk about being shut down by the nob. Invite Ann Coulter and throw in an axe-handle carving demonstration - BYOAH. And a good sharp carving knife. They're already arguing - with a big assist from the media's Greek chorus - that you're racist, misogynist, fascist, hate-filled extremists who should be executed, stop mewling piteously about how hurtful and untrue their words are and go ahead and fight by their rules. They claim words are violence, show them violence.

              1. Nah, just invite those against whom leftists rioted in the past - whether it be a "respectable" type like Murray or Summers, or a "non-respectable" type like Milo or Coulter.

                Make the campus authorities choose between a public-relations black eye or actually enforcing their own rules - and maybe shame the cops into making some arrests.

                Wash, rinse, repeat, until enough thugs have been expelled/arrested/jailed that future events come off peacefully.

                Then go back to inviting respectable people on their own merits.

  3. OT: Armando Iannucci also got one published

    Why agonize over how you're going to respond to an attack when you can just click that attack away? More and more of us default to blocking those who disagree with us. Rather than test our opinions by debating them, we would rather "no-platform" our opponents into not turning up. If we've become more militant about our own beliefs, it may be because we've barred anyone else from challenging them. We're like ironclad soldiers who still refuse to enter a battle zone because it's not a safe space.

    That's why I feel so sad. In a real democracy, many opinions can exist in harmony. If we don't allow for other opinions, then little by little we grow resistant to democracy..

    "Fives have lives. Fours have chores. Threes have fleas. Twos have blues and Ones don't get a rhyme, because they're garbage."

  4. OT: Minnesota high school teachers are having sex with older students ? legally. Should we outlaw that?

    Fortunately, teachers having sex with students is not very common," Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said in an interview. "But unfortunately, when it does happen, we can't prosecute ? but it's just wrong."

    Last year, an 18-year-old Burnsville High School student reported having sexual relations with a male teacher, Backstrom said. His office investigated but could not press charges.

    1. Something that should be handled by administration. Not the law.

      1. If they're both adults, then it's a problem of professionalism, not statutory rape, so don't arrest them, but fire the teacher.

        Maybe if the student was in the teacher's class, have the student retake the class just in case the student got, uh, special consideration in grades.

        1. But I would make an exception for courtship leading to marriage, if both parties are unmarried adults.

          1. But premarital courtship shouldn't be confused with making the beast with two backs, doing the nasty, engaging in extracurricular gymnastics, pick your euphemism of choice.

          2. But I would make an exception for courtship leading to marriage, if both parties are unmarried adults.

            How generous of you!

            1. I *said* no prison...just keep your hands off the merchandise unless you want to buy.

            2. I *said* no prison...just keep your hands off the merchandise unless you want to buy.

          3. I wouldn't.

            Either its wrong or its isn't. Just because 'they love each other' and 'plan to get married' doesn't change that.

            1. Eidde|3.10.18 @ 10:50AM|#

              But premarital courtship shouldn't be confused with making the beast with two backs, doing the nasty, engaging in extracurricular gymnastics, pick your euphemism of choice.

    2. Only outlaw it if they can't prove they are related.

    1. My son, pay attention to my wisdom;
      Lend your ear to my understanding,
      2 That you may preserve discretion,
      And your lips may keep knowledge.
      3 For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey,
      And her mouth is smoother than oil;
      4 But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
      Sharp as a two-edged sword.
      5 Her feet go down to death,
      Her steps lay hold of hell.[a]
      6 Lest you ponder her path of life?
      Her ways are unstable;
      You do not know them.

      7 Therefore hear me now, my children,
      And do not depart from the words of my mouth.
      8 Remove your way far from her,
      And do not go near the door of her house,
      9 Lest you give your honor to others,
      And your years to the cruel one;
      10 Lest aliens be filled with your wealth,
      And your labors go to the house of a foreigner;
      11 And you mourn at last,
      When your flesh and your body are consumed,
      12 And say:
      "How I have hated instruction,
      And my heart despised correction!
      13 I have not obeyed the voice of my teachers,
      Nor inclined my ear to those who instructed me!
      14 I was on the verge of total ruin,
      In the midst of the assembly and congregation."

      15 Drink water from your own cistern,
      And running water from your own well.

      Proverbs 5 (KJV)

      1. This leaves me open to an obvious joke, by the way.

    2. Sheriff Matthew Wade told local media: "It's sad that a woman who has a family and went to college to become an educator is giving that all up.

      "I just don't understand why she went down that path. It's very disturbing and troubling."

      Because she's a whore?

      In the good old days exposure of this incident would've been dealt with by dismissal and slut-shaming, but then the progressives won the culture war so now we have criminal prosecution with "sex offender registries".

    3. For 5 months? Damn, at my best as a teen I don't know if I had the stamina for more than a long weekend.

    4. That's some pretty impressive stamina.

  5. Ohio Teacher Sentenced to Jail for Sex with Female Student

    Brooke Rosendale, a fifth grade intervention specialist and volleyball and basketball coach in Ohio, was been sentenced to three years in jail.

    The ruling came down on Wednesday, after Rosendale pleaded guilty to a sexual relationship with a 13-year old female student.

    Defend this, libertarian scum.

    1. Way to fight the volleyball-coach stereotype.

    2. In the mid-late 20th century this could have been the published plot of a porno paperback.

    3. I have no problems with it as long as they are allowed conjugal visits

  6. Take the man's poncho.

    My God.

  7. Confired: Hikers are scum

    The Alaska mountain and the highest peak in North America, also known as Mt. McKinley, has a poop problem. Michael Loso, a glacier geologist, told the Associated Press that between 1951 and 2012, 36,000 mountaineers deposited 215,000 pounds of solid human waste onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the most popular route to the summit.

    Since 2007, the National Park Service has required hikers to keep their poop off the mountain; most put it in biodegradable bags and toss it into crevasses in the glacier. But Loso told the AP that doesn't do much: The poop never fully degrades, and it could reappear downstream as a literal shit-stain on the otherwise-immaculate glacier.

    More like for brown mountain majesties, am I right?

    1. So, I've never weighed my shit surprisingly enough, but 6 lbs of shit on average seems like a lot.

      1. Check out Stevie Small Shits over here.

      2. It would certainly be a lot for one bowel movement, or for one day. For a week? no, it's not.

        We produce around a pound of poop per person per day.

        It all depends on how long the average mountaineer spends on the mountain.

    2. When all the glaciers are melted and we are farming in the shadow of the mountain, we'll all be grateful for the free fertilizer.

  8. Thank you! I will get this book, as it feeds both my interest in anthropology and fashion. One would think the two would intersect more often.

    1. If you haven't already read it, Postrel's book about the power of glamour is a good read, and I say that as someone who considers Postrel to be a big meanie-face.

      1. I will look into it. I liked her late 90's book on aesthetics with story about the toddler shouting "Potties!" At the display of such hings in the Home Depot.

  9. Some day thousands of years from now scientists will discover these coprolites and conclude (1) Climate change driven sea level rise forced humans to live at very high elevations for at least a centuries, and (2) these humans lived on an astonishingly natural diet of nuts, berries, honey, and beef jerky compressed into some type of nearly indigestible small bars.

    1. Apples and old Chinese newspapers.

    2. It's funny because it's true 🙂

  10. OT

    Could a Californian Be the Next President?
    The state and its politicians are on the rise?if they can only convince the rest of the country to come along.

    This is precious.

    SAN DIEGO?The California Democratic Party's most recent, weekend-long binge on self-satisfaction unfolded here late last month under the slogan "California: The Big Blue Beacon of Hope," with a party chairman who promised that "folks across the country are looking to California to show the nation how it can be done."

    "It's time to move our nation's capital to California."

    1. Kamala Harris is my first choice for the next President, assuming Hillary Clinton doesn't run again. If she gets the nomination she would easily beat Drumpf or whoever else the GOP runs in 2020. So yes, the next President could absolutely be a Californian.

    2. We've already had Nixon and Reagan. How many Californian presidents do we need?

      1. We've had eight president born in Virginia? and only one from California?. So we've got a ways to go before worrying on that front.
        ?George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson.
        ?Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan was born in Illinois, he was just governor of California.

    1. Who dug up Lincoln and swiped his penis?

      1. Lincoln's penis mightier than the sword. Or as he called it, the Lincoln log.

    2. Did Lincoln sign his executive order suspending the writ of habeas corpus with that pen?

  11. Guess the topic:

    "We are talking about children's rights, not about freedom of belief. Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe."

  12. Seeding Finger is a hand-shaped tool for artificial insemination

    Korean designer Koo Hyeonjeong has created a conceptual tool for women, which could allow them to impregnate themselves through the use of a hand-shaped pump.

    Named the Seeding Finger, the device is described by Hyeonjeong as a "secondary reproductive system", and is modelled on a hand with one enlarged digit.

    That's it - nuke Korea.

    1. Isn't their new missile called the Nodong? Perhaps that name is more appropriate here.

  13. Now imagine what would have happened if these Mayans hadn't stayed at home and improved their own economy, but instead all fled to the US, took low paying jobs from unskilled Americans, and then sent back 80% of their money to the relatives that stayed behind?

    1. The same thing that happens when a native-born wealthy watchmaker "steals" the money a native-born wealthy watch purchaser might otherwise have spent on commodities made by native-born poor people- a few native-born people suffer, a few more native-born people benefit, and the native-born economy as a whole, and its host nation with it, gets stronger.

  14. This is a story about cultural appropriation and it's not ok

    1. A real nut puncho.

    2. Well, if you want to force societies to invent their own medicine, engineering, etc, then you're going to watch a lot of people die in the meantime.

  15. It is a measure of how much I don't get out, but there are imbeciles even more pathetic than our fave commie-kid, Tony and turd. There are people who still claim that Mao was RIGHT!
    I'm guessing they we soon join the 'flat-earthers' as a source of amusement, but so far, they, like turd commie kid and Tony, are still peddling their idiocy on the web:

    "Geek Squad Exposed as FBI Informants"

    Yep, Best Buy did that. And they got busted for doing so.
    Any guess as to which Chinese (Maoist) orgs collected info and didn't get busted?

  16. I lost track of who the victim was when reading this story.

  17. Cultural intersections usually result in an artistic explosion that benefit everyone.

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