Traveling in the mini-bus shuttle from the airport in Tuxtla Guttierrez to San Cristóbal de la Casas, I was squished in the very back seat next to a young man from Germany who had been traveling around Mexico looking for a story to write as a freelance journalist. I mentioned I had not been to Chiapas since January of 2019 because of the pandemic. He asked whether I thought it had changed, I said, "I'm not sure yet. Ask me in a few days!" The question was with me for the four days I spent in Chiapas and still lingers in my mind.
One of the best things about going to San Cristóbal de las Casas is visiting the many women's cooperatives to look for woven goods made in the highlands surrounding the city and usually made on a backstrap loom. Not everything is high quality but some things are and it's always a delight to find something that is carefully made with attention to detail, composition and color selection. Some of those Coops are still in the same places they have always been--Sna Jolobil, Jolom Mayaetik, J'as Pas Cooperative and Camino de los Altos. But one of my favorites with many weavers from San Andres has disappeared or moved. A few of the stores that used to be regular stops, have also closed or moved. Hours are irregular (and seldom posted) so it's possible that we missed them because we weren't there at the right time.
Something new to me (we were told that it's been there for awhile), and I wonder if it started during Covid, is the Saturday night outdoor market held in the zocolo. The entire space was filled with vendors with led lights illuminating their goods. The goods were spread on the ground on top of blankets. One of the vendors said that she has a booth at the Santo Domingo market but she packs some things up every Saturday night to try to sell at this market.
One of the biggest and saddest changes for me to see was the stores that have popped up in multiple locations with thousands of items to be sold in "mayoreo" or "wholesale." The items being sold are many of the handmade items for which Chiapas is well known--embroidered table goods, napkins, embroidered blouses, other men's and women's clothing, hats, and many other items. One of the storekeepers I've come to know over the years, told us that these stores started appearing during the pandemic and mostly cater to internet sales. He also said that many of the goods are imported from China, are not handmade and not made in Chiapas. It was easy to see that if you looked at them--poor imitations of the beautiful work of hardworking Mayan women.
On a day trip to Zinacantán and Chamula, Leslie and I were approached by a young girl who asked us if we were looking for textiles. When we said yes, she said, "follow me." We followed her for about 5 minutes and she took us to a Zinacantán cooperative off the beaten path where Leslie and I were overwhelmed by the number of women who came out from behind the building to show us their handiwork.
Here is our leader, somewhat non-plussed by all of the activity around her.
In one of the dearest moments, the weaver below examined a bufanda or scarf from the weavers in the photos above that was in my shopping bag. She had never seen this color combination and design of the embroidery on the ends of the scarf. She looked closely and then asked her granddaughter to take some photos of it so she could remember the pattern. I found it to be very sweet and very affirming of my ability to pick out unique pieces!
Has Chiapas changed? Yes, a little. Those big stores selling Chinese-goods-made-to-look-like- Mexican-goods, are definitely new. But mostly, it seemed the same. The markets in San Cris and in the smaller towns of Chamula and Zinacantán were the same--loaded with lots of stuff, many duplicates of what one finds in other stalls with an occasional unique piece, ancient cobblestone streets, people are still wearing the traditional dress from their small towns, women are still weaving on backstrap looms and carrying babies in rebozos.