Study addresses Maya women of Chiapas, Mexico

September 24, 2004

For centuries, the Zinacantec Maya women of Chiapas, Mexico, have woven and embroidered clothing that expresses their values and embodies their role as mothers and daughters. Over 35 years, UCLA psychology professor Patricia Marks Greenfield has participated in this community, studying two generations of women and their daughters, often accompanied by her own daughter, Lauren, a prominent professional photographer. Patricia's insights and Lauren's striking photos are published in "Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas" (SAR Press).

Greenfield addresses wide-ranging issues including how children are socialized, the effects of globalization, how economic change and growing entrepreneurship affected weaving and the teaching of weaving, creativity in the weaving process, and verbal and nonverbal communication during the process of learning to weave.

"This book is the story of a normally inaccessible culture in transition," Patricia Greenfield said. "I experienced the transitions up close through knowing, watching and studying several generations. My daughter was with me from the time she was three years old and then came back in her 20s to photograph the community. We have observed firsthand and documented gradual, yet dramatic social changes, which are relevant to our own society, where original cultures mix with mainstream cultures and change over time.

"This is also a story of mothers and daughters studying mothers and daughters," she added. "The photographs have become part and parcel of my research. The photographs also show a personal connection that, in a closed community, was only possible because I had known families over decades and the photographer had been there as a child.

"How has the weaving tradition been maintained over the centuries?" Greenfield asked. "The answer lies in the ways in which weaving is taught and transformed from one generation to the next, and it revolves around child socialization and child development. The answer also highlights the rather underappreciated role of women, particularly mothers, in cultural transmission.

"Weaving is the heart of Maya womanhood," she said. "Changes in the weaving and in the way weaving is passed down from generation to generation therefore reflect deep changes in what it means to be a Maya woman, and this is what we document."

A Zinacantec girl is prepared for weaving from birth. At birth, family members place weaving tools "in her newborn grasp to reinforce her future feminine role," Greenfield writes.

For Zinacantecs, weaving and embroidery are statements of identity and standards of beauty, Greenfield writes.

Greenfield first went to Chiapas with Lauren in 1969 and 1970. She returned after 21 years with Lauren in 1991, in order to study the next generation after a period of rapid economic change from subsistence and agriculture to money and commerce. After that, she made seven additional trips in 11 years. In 2004 Lauren will return with her mother again, this time with her own child, now the same age Lauren had been in 1970. "Weaving Generations Together" is thus a metaphor for the researchers as well as the research theme.

"Studying two generations of girls learning to weave across two decades revealed transformations in the cultural themes of respect for tradition, family interdependence," Greenfield said. "With the change to an entrepreneurial economy came reduced respect for tradition and increased interest in innovation."

The movement from tradition to innovation was very apparent in weaving and embroidery. Where there had been a stock of only four textile patterns that had endured over many, many years at the time of her visits in 1969 and 1970, by 1991 there was constant pattern innovation, a trend that accelerated in the 1990s and into the new millennium. Innovation in textiles reflected increasing commercial activity and accelerated social change in Chiapas following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatista rebellion. The definition of creativity was changing from a community definition -- where creativity meant producing particular patterns in particular colors that identified you as a Zinacantec male, female, or baby -- to an individual definition of creativity, where creativity meant producing novel, original patterns in variable colors. In other words, Zinacantecs were moving toward the criterion of creativity familiar in our own culture, Greenfield said.

To have young men possess skills unknown to their elders, such as how to drive, was a mark of change in a society where the elders had traditionally been the teachers, Greenfield said.

By 1991 it was often the younger women and teenage girls, not their mothers, who knew how to weave complex brocaded geometric and other designs, such as flowers, deer and birds.

"In weaving, like driving, the older generation has fewer skills than the younger, upsetting the lines of respect and obedience that traditionally flowed from younger to older," Greenfield said. "Because of technological innovation, the younger generation now teaches the older, undermining older people's traditional authority as experts while teaching them new skills."

She noted, however, that those who lived there did not see change as a threat to Zinacantec culture and society. "There could be change so long as there was always a distinctive Zinacantec way," a member of the community told Greenfield.

By 1991 about one-third of the girls in the hamlet of Nabenchauk had attended school, a dramatic increase from the 1970 figure of just 10 percent, Greenfield said.

Men in the earlier period did not approve of girls' increased education, fearing that a girl who knew how to read would no longer be Zinacantec and would neglect her traditional role, Greenfield writes.

By 1991, and increasingly since that time, school was seen as a help for women in the Spanish-speaking commercial world Zinacantecs had come to inhabit; school could help you both buy and sell in the marketplace.

By 1991 Greenfield could see the effects of modern transportation on Zinacantecs. "The stereotype of the Los Angelenos' abhorrence for walking even short distances was beginning to apply to the Zinacantecs," she writes.

Greenfield's research was supported by the Spencer Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, UCLA, Radcliffe College and Harvard University. Photographs of the early period were provided by University of California, Irvine, anthropology professor emeritus and photographer, Frank Cancian. Don Cole, photographer at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History, photographed many of the examples of Zinacantec weaving and embroidery from Greenfield's research collection.

Greenfield, also director of UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center, writes about the Zinacantec Maya women of Chiapas with warmth and passion, and notes that "as a mother, I made a lot more sense to the Zinacantecs than I did as a researcher." As an infant, her son, Matthew, also accompanied her to Chiapas. He also returned as a young adult in 1991, helping his mother as a research assistant.
An exhibition of "Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas," consisting of textiles, weaving artifacts and photographs by Lauren Greenfield, is available for rental to museums throughout the United States by the nonprofit ExhibitsUSA and Mid-America Arts Alliance. For more information about the exhibition, please call Nicole Forster at (800) 473-3872. For more information about the book, visit

University of California - Los Angeles

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