Maya weavers bring to life museum’s tribute to the women of Chiapas, Mexico

They tell stories. But instead of using written or spoken words, they use thread.
The Maya weavers of Chiapas, Mexico “speak” in wool and cotton. Using simple back-strap looms, they weave textiles in the tradition of their foremothers, all the way back to the pre-Columbian era.
Into their textiles they encode their cultural myths, including their belief that people, plants, animals, Earth and other spiritual beings must cooperate to keep the world in balance.
Next week, you’ll get the opportunity to watch Maya weavers at work. They’ll be visiting Gainesville for the opening of “Images of the Maya,” a traveling exhibit produced by the Florida Museum of Natural History, which will be on display here through Sept. 6.
The exhibit reveals the history, tradition and beauty of back-strap loom weaving, and is a rich visual portrayal of the daily and ceremonial life of the Maya of Mexico.
It features vegetable-dyed huipiles, which are traditional women’s blouses, and 30 photographs by Jeffrey J. Foxx and text by Walter F. Morris Jr. from their award-winning book, “Living Maya.”
Pascuala Patisht+n J’menez, 18, and Celerina Ruiz Nuez, 24, from the Jolom Mayaetik Weaving Cooperative (“Maya weavers” in Tseltal) will be demonstrating their craft June 14-22, in celebration of the exhibit’s opening.
They are two of more than 250 women who produce and sell their goods through this women’s cooperative in Chiapas.
Not only will you get to watch the women work - something you’d ordinarily have to fly thousands of miles to see - you will also get to try your hand at weaving on a simple loom at the exhibit’s open house, 6-8 p.m. Thursday.
‘A beautiful thing’ Laurie Wilkins, a biologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History, originated the exhibit. She’s also director of Earth Bound, a non-profit educational organization, and owner of Alternatives, a store that sells fair-traded handicrafts from around the world.
Wilkins first drew together this exhibit 10 years ago after she returned from a trip to Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico, where she happened to visit women’s craft cooperatives.
The Maya of Chiapas are challenged by emigration due to war, poverty and land disputes. The women in the region formed cooperatives as part of the resistance movement and as a way to bring income to their families. They work together to educate themselves and to market their textiles.
“I thought, ‘What a beautiful thing. Why don’t I know anything about this?’ ” she recalls.
Wilkins was so inspired that, when she came home to the United States, she created an exhibit for the Florida Museum of Natural History. That was back when it was housed at Powell Hall on Museum Road.
The initial exhibit received such positive feedback that it encouraged Wilkins to create a traveling exhibit. She wrote a grant on behalf of the museum that was subsequently funded in 1996 by the U.S./Mexico Fund for Culture.
Wilkins collaborated with Morris, author of “Living Maya,” and Susan Milbrath, curator of the museum’s ethnographic collection, to develop English and Spanish text for the exhibit in its present form.
“Images of the Maya” has traveled to 11 venues, including the Museum of Man and Nature in Manitoba, Canada; Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.; New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; and to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. At eight of the 11 venues, Maya weavers coordinated visits to coincide with the shows.
“It has been so well-received wherever it’s been, because there are so many issues embodied in Chiapas, and weaving is such an integral part of what Chiapas is,” says Wilkins.
“Images of the Maya” looks at why and how the women’s cooperatives were formed, and the social conflicts caused by women playing a more dominant role in the economy.
Maya in the U.S. Aside from sharing the Chiapas weavings, Wilkins says she would like the exhibit to present a more balanced view of the contemporary Maya.
“We have Maya working under difficult conditions right here in Florida, people who were forced to leave their homes in Mexico and Guatemala because of oppression and poverty,” she says.
To add another perspective, the museum will host a companion exhibit, “Pizcando Sueos” (Harvesting Dreams) developed by the Rural Women’s Heath Project ( Through a series of fotonovelas, the exhibit relates stories told by migrant farm-working Mexican women in Florida.
“Pizcando Sueos” is a series of photographs of migrant women acting out scenes with dialogue bubbled into the images like in comic strips.
Robin Lewy co-directs the Rural Women’s Health Project, a non-profit organization that works with farmworker communities to develop educational materials. She says fotonovelas are a common medium in Latin America, often used in storytelling.
Creating the fotonovelas is an empowering process, Lewy says. As migrant women act out the scenes, they work out solutions to their problems within the novelas that become realistic solutions for the same problems they face in their daily lives.
On Thursday, youth from Putnam County’s Migrant Education Program will work with J’menez and Nuez on a new novela.
“And then they’ll have one more tool to take home with them to Chiapas,” says Lewy.
Lots of events Community events include a film night at the Hippodrome State Theater. It will feature three short documentaries about weavers in the Chiapas region. J’menez, Nuez, and their interpreter, Barbara SchYtz of K’inal Antzetik, a Mexican non-government organization, will provide a short program at intermission.
The Civic Media Center will also host an event covering the political situation in Chiapas. “The Maya struggle for land rights, economic independence and dignity began long before the Zapatista uprising 10 years ago,” says Wilkins. “It continues today.”
J’menez and Nuez hope to sell their cooperative’s goods directly to Gainesvillians during their stay. Their textiles will be for sale at the museum’s gift shop, Alternatives, 4203 NW 16th Blvd., and at St. Augustine Catholic Church on Sunday, June 20.
Julie Garrett can be contacted at (352) 374-5049 or by e-mail to