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Rebozo de granizo. Maruata, Michoacan. By Sean Mattson

Rebozando Tradicion
Though some historians still dispute the date of silk's arrival to New Spain, many attribute its introduction to Hernan Cortes in 1552. The Franciscan missionaries that accompanies the conquistadors both catechized and promoted the production of handicrafts, one of which was weaving silk. The pueblo of Santa Maria del Rio, in what would become the state of San Luis Potosi, was one of the first places where the friars successfully managed to cultivate mulberry plants and raise silkworm. So began Mexico's legacy of silk production. This story is a tribute to Santa Maria de Rio and the few remaining bastions of silk rebozo manufacture in Mexico where weavers employ the same techniques which have been used since the sixteenth century.

by Sean Mattson and Leslie Frausto

I trek down the hill crossing the pueblo’s dusty limits and find myself inside a world where people have a different life view than I do. Mine is rushing city streets, jeans, backpacks and public buses, manic and metropolitan. Theirs is breeze, rebozos , horses and hand crafts, rustic and relaxed.

I find myself uneasy, a curious city girl feeling all out of place in a place like this. Soon I am standing in the main plaza and looking across at the weathered façade of a church built in the sixteenth century.

Folks in pueblos like these are often wary of people like me. As I walk by, the voices of the men passing the hour in the plaza silence or change tone, the women turn away or lower their heads under ample shawls.

I see a girl no older than I carrying a child over her shoulder in a shining blue rebozo, and another carrying her wares back from the morning market in her shawl of deep red.

I gaze uncommitted at the old church and remember what brought me here: these shawls, the fabled rebozo.

I don’t even own one, but I am enamored by its fabled history and everlasting charm. I envision the time where the all the ladies of society would walk these plazas on warm evenings, with their splendid flowing seven-colored rebozos falling over elegant shoulders.

I’m sorry I missed the morning market where the pueblo’s women sat on rebozos and laid their family’s artesanias on others, in the same way they have for generations out of mind.

I feel like I remember the time before the conquest when my ancestors utilized what would become the rebozo’s predecessor and I’ve pored over the histories written by outsiders like myself who have tried to understand, perhaps even in vain, the eternal attraction of this ancient garment.

Codices, the pictorial histories left by numerous civilizations throughout pre-Columbian central Mexico, are one of the few records that reveal from where the modern rebozo descended. The Boturini Codex illustrates a procession of Mexicas with bundles wrapped in cloth carried on their backs. Leading the procession is a priest carrying the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli in the same way that many indigenous women carry their babies today.

Another, the Mendocino Codex, depicts intricately designed mantillas that resemble the embroidered rebozos of today and could be the only known record of the ancient textile weaving technique known as ikat . Other codices show hunters with their bounty wrapped in cloth and slung over their shoulders, while others portray women carrying their lovers on their back in large mantles.
Though evidence of rebozo use exists in the pre-Hispanic record, the rebozo of today is like most everything which is Mexico’s modern identity: a product of the mestizaje of indigenous cultures and the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, it was not until the arrival of the Spaniards that silk came to Latin America, the thread with which the most elegant rebozos ever made in Mexico were fashioned.
During the latter half of the sixteenth century, numerous observers mention the dress of indigenous women and their rebozos, the first recorded citation being made by Dominican Friar Diego Duran in 1572. By this time the rebozo was being produced on a grand scale and both nuns and nurses were adapting the rebozo to fit their wardrobe.

Though the law of New Spain, the Real Audiencia, did not intrude upon the manufacture of indigenous clothing when first established, amendments made in 1757 brought rebozos under its dictatorial arm. Design, size, type of threads used and manner of the rebozo’s manufacture was now defined, and after the declaration the rebozo came into its golden age.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the rebozo had reached the height of fashion and many designs reflected Greek, Chinese and Spanish influences. In the words of the Viceroy of New Spain, the Count Revillagigedo II to his successor the Marquis of Branciforte, the rebozo had become the quintessential feminine garment. “All women wear one, from those of high society to the lowliest of the poor. Not even nuns are seen without.”

Regrettably, the ever-turning tides of fashion have ejected the rebozo from city style and the industrial revolution has taken its toll on the quality of many of the rebozos made today. Rarely is the legendary colonial rebozo that Revillagigedo raved about seen in the metropolis, where weavers like the Señora Silvia Mendez occasionally venture feeling as out of her element as I do here.

I met the señora at an antiques and artisan’s show in Monterey where she was selling the most magnificent silk rebozos I had ever seen. So fine they were I could pull one smoothly through the silver ring I had on my finger.

I couldn’t help myself from asking about the extraordinary textiles she had brought from her pueblo. Where does such fine silk from? How are these rebozos made? And what about the rainbow’s myriad of colors? Could I go there and see for myself?

Señora Silvia just smiled in response to the torrent of questions and told me to visit her pueblo whenever I wished.

That was yesterday.

It was the señora who finally snapped me out of my reverie by popping her glowing round face around the church wall. She hurried up to me, looking almost ashamed as if she were late, though I’m fifteen minutes early. With little more than a word she excitedly gestured me to follow her.

We walked along a dusty road and arrived at a graying pine gate that hung slightly out of plumb on its rusty hinges.

“Here,” she said. “Come inside.”

Behind the gate was a gathering of wooden huts that appeared as weathered as the somber-colored gate if not more so. I caught a glimpse of a woman bent over a fiery scarlet cloth being weaved on her loom as the señora led me past the huts and into the yard behind the rustic gathering of buildings. I tried to backtrack but the pace with which the señora moved obliged me to follow. Soon we were beyond the huts and standing over half a dozen brown planters filled with mulberry leaves. The confusion on my face said more than any interrogation I could utter but the señora spoke before I could muster a word.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “this is where it all begins.”

“The planters are full of silkworm,” she explained, “the source of thread which we use to make our silk rebozos. Once the worms have formed their cocoons, we take them, (the cocoons, that is) and boil them in water for about ten minutes in order to purify the silk and make it workable. Then the silk is dried and made into thread and either dyed or taken directly to the loom where the weavers turn the thread into intricately designed rebozos . But it gets better yet, the rebozos are then given silk tassels of which are sometimes left alone or weaved together into triangular or rectangular forms.”

The señora then showed me where some women were winding the silk into thread while others were dying the thread in large pots of dye made from plant leaves, tree barks, seeds, flowers and fruits. We returned to the woman who was busily weaving the scarlet rebozo on her hip loom -- a curious traditional implement of thick wood that the women in the village still use to make rebozos.

“The entire process involves numerous people, even men and children play a role in making rebozos. One rebozo from start to finish can take days to make, not including the weeks needed to cultivate the silkworm,” she said.

“And the greatest part is that no two are exactly alike,” Señora Silvia told me as we watched two women put the finishing touches on a pair of rebozos caramelos.

“We have been making rebozos in the same manner since the sixteenth century,” she smiled, modestly omitting the fact that her pueblo is one of the last vanguards of traditional silk rebozo creation in Mexico. It is small villages like these which have brought the renowned colonial rebozo into the twenty-first century all the while contributing to the evolution of its various styles.

The señora took me back to her house after she had sated my curiosity and showed me some of the vast array of rebozos made in her pueblo today: the bolita, the white rebozo covered in blue specks and its counterpart the granizo with its white hailstorm on a blue background, the pinto abierto of blue, black, brown and white and the listado with its wide bands of different colors, the caramelo with its seven-colored elegance and various embroidered designs depicting people, flowers and country scenes.

It was well into the evening when I had finally exhausted both the Señora Silvia and myself. After she treated me to a dinner of pozole on her cobblestone patio, I sunk into an eqipal and fell asleep while trying to digest the day’s fare.

Every Mexican pueblo has its own distinctive activities but all share the same endemic Mexican roots, namely the passion to take ageless culture and mold it into something tangible, beautiful and useful today: the woodworker and his cabinets and furniture, the tanner and his saddles and equipales, the potter and his ceramic dinner sets, the sculptor and his fountains and statues, the weaver and her rebozos.

The weaver and her intricate, elegant and historic rebozos, the shawl that has been used since time out of memory by indigenous women to guard themselves against the elements, add elegance to their wardrobe, carry utensils and products to and from the market, to carry their little ones or to keep warm on a cold evening.

I awoke the next morning covered in a brilliant caramelo rebozo with long flowing tassels. That rebozo is mine now, a gift from Señora Silvia that has a place of honor in my home. And even sometimes I wear my rebozo proudly to gatherings on weekends, to the beach on holidays and for a walk downtown on a warm evening.

Weaving loom in Tlaquepaque. By Mario Cuevas

Rebozo de bolita, Guadalajara, Jalisco. By Sean Mattson