Wool of sacred sheep holds indigenous people of San Juan Chamula, Mexico

Wool of sacred sheep holds indigenous people of San Juan Chamula, Mexico

Wool textiles are a tradition in the municipality of San Juan Chamula of the Mexican state of Chiapas, where the Tzotzil Indians raise sheep exclusively to obtain their fur and turn it into beautiful typical garments, because they consider them sacred animals.

The most traditional of the costumes that they make in an artisan way with old techniques is the nagua (skirt) of the woman and the chuj (camisole) of the man.

The costumes that are used in the festivities and traditional ceremonies can reach a price of between 15,000 and 20,000 pesos (752 and 1,002 dollars) each garment.

It is not for less the price because the production process is very expensive and takes about four months after the sheep's coat has already been cut. Once an animal has been sheared, the same should be done with the entire herd so that they do not become unaware of each other.

After the first haircut to a sheep should spend eight months to re-grow the fur, which added to the four months of production represents a full year to be ready textiles.

The fur of an animal is sold at 2,500 pesos ($ 125) and four of them are needed to make a skirt.

With the fur already cut at home, the shredding of the wool, the selection of the threads, the washed and the dried is followed. Then it is washed again but with corn gruel and from there it is dyed with black earth or boiling mud with chatec herbs, a plant that serves as a color fixer.

Juana is one of the sheep wool artisans, who has dedicated herself since 10 years to this job to help support her family.

Her mother taught her the technique of the waist loom with which textiles are made, and now she teaches her two children. One of the ends of these looms, which already appeared in the pre-Hispanic codices, is attached to a tree or a stump, and the other to the waist of the weaver.

The resulting fabrics have details and textures that the machines do not achieve.

"My name is Juana Hernández Méndez, I live here in the community of Chicton, municipality of San Juan Chamula, I work what is the sheep wool, first the sheepskin is sheeted then washed, once washed, the which are the clothes of us and handmade clothes what is made for sale ", tells the weaver to Efe.

Wool is also used to make handicrafts that Tzotzil women sell to tourists, particularly dolls that are also dressed in the Chamula style, but also the most diverse animals, from cats or monkeys to lions and elephants.

"I also do handicrafts, I make my clothes and I make crafts for sale for the support of my family, I grew up with few resources, I was barefoot, I did not have good clothes, I suffered a lot with my parents", says Juana.

Now he wants to make wool clothes and crafts that people like. "What I do together with my husband (is) work as a team, my mom, my sister, a cousin, we are around six, we coordinate and I have women who sometimes come to ask for work in my house. I am sharing the looms and working with what is wool, "he says.

"What I'm trying to do is make the procedure known from how it starts until how the garment ends, how it's done, sometimes people say that the work is very expensive, but it's very laborious," the woman explains.

The indigenous Tzotzil people of Chamula are the only ones from Chiapas who are dedicated to raising sheep exclusively to take advantage of the wool. The sheep in San Juan Chamula is not sacrificed nor consumed as food as it happens in other parts of the country, because it is sacred to its inhabitants.

The anthropologist Juana Pérez explained to Efe that there are two versions of the sheep of San Juan Chamula: one that was introduced by the Spaniards during the colonization, and the mythological aspect, the world view of the sheep that inhabits only this indigenous people, the most representative of Chiapas, which preserves its culture and traditions.

The breeding of sheep is an important economic activity of the Tzotzil families, who besides using their wool, use manure as a natural fertilizer for the corn, bean and vegetable crops on which the indigenous population bases their subsistence.

Juan Martín Rojas Chávez, researcher at the National Museum of Anthropology, told Efe that perhaps this is the great value that the Tzotzil people of Chamula give to these animals.

"It is possible that it is because they get more benefit from their breeding for the wool until they die than to use their meat, and they ritualize it to avoid its sacrifice in seasons of scarcity," he explained.

Mitzi Mayauel Fuentes Gómez


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