Mexico. Mazahua Sashes, between art and symbolism

The Mazahuas are an indigenous people concentrated particularly in the municipalities of San Felipe del Progreso and San José del Rincón of the State of Mexico. One way that the Mazahuas have maintained their culture is through women’s dress, the elements of which have concrete meanings and specific values. We look at womens’ sashes.

Mazahua women have a great deal of respect for their traditional costume. It has concrete meanings and specific values according to their customs. Each garment making up the costume – blouse, chincuete (skirt), underskirt, apron, rebozo (shawl), quechquemetl (triangular mantle) and in particular, the faja or sash – has its own intriguing interpretation, because each one personifies a different part of the body and enhances the proud bearing of Mazahua women.

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The sash, known as faja in Spanish and mbutri in Mazahua, is one of the most fascinating expressions of this ethnic group’s textile art. This ancestral garment is normally wound around a woman’s waist, widely believed to be an energy center related to the cosmos and Mother Earth. Women who wear it create a sacred space that exerts a formative influence on their psyche. In addition, the use of the sash is an identifying mark that strengthens an individual’s sense of belonging to her group or family.

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Sashes are especially important among Mazahua communities. Through these garments, the weaver creates and develops a communication system that allows her to share ideas, dreams, stories, feelings and experiences through symbols woven into the fabric.
A number of American indigenous groups, including Peruvian Quechuas and Mexican Huichols, have utilized sashes as living codices that allow them to pass down secrets of great cultural value from generation to generation.

Sense of fantasy

Mazahua women utilize weaving to communicate their worldview and sense of fantasy. For example, the rich variety of birds portrayed on their garments are allegories for beauty, freedom and grace. Ancient bird designs or pájaras viejas, the classic jyans’e, the tsi’i or the mysterious ka’a bird, among others, evoke nostalgia for the weaving of their grandmothers.
But how can we read the messages written on Mazahua sashes? Which are the most commonly recurring symbols on these garments? Birds are certainly one of them. One might say that they act as a kind of herald, announcing with their song the changing seasons and their migrations, and welcoming the Sun each morning. Their calls evoke varied hues of light and the changes of the natural world. When a bird is portrayed with a thorn in its neck or leg, one can assume that the weaver is experiencing some kind of physical or spiritual pain. The image is accompanied by other symbols that focus or intensify that meaning.

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Mazahua thought pays particular attention to movement, as did the philosophy of ancient Mexicans, which recognized it as a fundamental quality of matter. Many cultures share a single symbol for movement: a design known in Nahuatl as ilhuitl, which is linked to the Sun.
Mazahua weavers include it in their textiles to represent the dust kicked up by animals as they walk, and also to depict happiness, the wind ‘playing’ with the clouds, flowers and plants, or fire dancing to the rhythm of the wind. It is a frequent symbol in Mazahua textiles, and it appears alongside other symbols that particularize a given composition’s meaning. For example, when accompanying a heart, it means that the organ is beating; when it is woven along with the symbol for Venus, Danseje, it refers to a star that shines in the night because of the Sun, known as jyadi.

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The Mazahua star is another symbol commonly used on sashes. It is the guardian of the night, the messenger, the king of darkness, but above all, the protector of health. This is a design of great beauty, but cannot compete with the Sun motif, which is rarely seen on these garments. The reason for this is that permission must be asked before weaving it, because it is believed that its enigmatic presence and power should remain in the sky. As such, women who are able to weave this motif do so for a special reason. Moreover, it is a very difficult motif to weave, and it would be unforgivable to do shabby work on such an important design.
If a woman is going to weave the Sun motif on a sash, she places a diamond shape at its centre to symbolize the “house of jyadi”, the most mysterious abode of the Sun. The Sun is represented on Earth by fire, which warms hearths and homes and is capable of transforming and purifying things. Fire (sivi in Mazahua) is the loyal ally of the wind (rama), an invisible being that roams the world freely, a tireless traveller that brings with it life and death.

The meaning of life

Of all the elements in nature, earth is the one that appears most frequently on Mazahua sashes. Its symbol is very similar to that of fire. The fertility of the Earth (jomü) and the Sun in eternal betrothal is what gives meaning to life. In Mazahua culture, the seed and the sown field are represented by abutting diamonds that symbolize fertility.
This symbol should only be woven after including the earth motif, which is the design with which Mazahua women generally begin and end their weaving of a sash. Mazahua weavers are aware that life is the union between the plant and animal worlds, which together with the power of the cosmos form the tapestry of all existence.

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The territory inhabited by the Mazahuas is known as Mazahuacan, which means ‘place of deer’ in Nahuatl, and indeed, the image of this beautiful animal is pervasive in Mazahua weaving. Deer are often given a place of honour on sashes: an image of a woman riding a deer symbolizes displacement, migration, but above all, it represents a mythic journey, because only an adult woman can ride a deer. Young girls are shown riding donkeys or horses because they are incapable of taming a deer.
Mazahua women are equally skilled at weaving other important motifs, such as agave plants, Trees of Life, beasts of burden, domestic animals grazing, the markings on a snake’s skin, flowering paths, as well as abstract allegories, lines and colors indicating territoriality, life stories and imaginary animals.
Mazahua textile art inhabits a luminal territory between imagination and reality. The traditional costume as a whole and especially the sash are closely tied to Mazahua culture, and are the loyal accomplices of social transformation.
(Ignacio Vázquez Parra)


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