I was invited by a Mayan family to visit their home in the hills of Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico. To think that when I first met them, 5 days prior, our relationship was transactional — they wanted me to buy their goods and would only allow me to take a photo of them if I paid for it. Soon enough, we became family — we shared hugs, shared breakfast of homemade beans and tortillas on the ground each morning, and they even asked me to take family photos for them.
Just outside of a museum, a family of women was selling their work. All of their beautiful crafts laid out over a blanket on the ground. A little 8 year old girl named Reyna came up to me, lifting her basket of macramé bracelets into the air. “Do you want to buy bracelets?” she asked in Spanish. I smiled and responded “No, muchas gracias,” and continued into the museum.
Little Reyna, full of smiles and curiosity, followed me in. She couldn’t speak any English and my Spanish was pitiful at best. However, our hearts communicated and within moments a new friendship was born. We acted out stories of the little animal figurines in the cases. We danced for half an hour to the music playing in the documentary video. Reyna would throw her basket of bracelets high into the air so we could dance under them as they fell like confetti. We played hide-n-seek in the museum’s garden and created our own special handshake. I love how quickly this young business woman reverts back to being a playful child when given the opportunity. After a few hours, her grandmother asked how I liked the museum. Reyna and I looked at each other, giggling, I said “Está bien!”
While chatting with Reyna’s grandmother, Mamá Maria, I stood there admiring all of the beautiful handmade crafts their family made. They were filled with so much character and warmth. “Mamá, can you teach me how to weave?” Mamá was excited! She immediately arranged for her oldest daughter, Pascuala to meet me the next morning at the museum’s garden for our first lesson.
The next day I came and saw my teacher, Pascuala, setting up the handloom. Amazing. We did a brief introduction, and without words she started. After demonstrating a few rows, she stepped out of the contraption, looked at me and gestured for me to step in. As she guided me through each row, my mind was trying to understand the purpose for each of these sticks. How does lifting one and sliding another create a weave? Why are the sticks so long? Why are some wide and some skinny? Why do we need so many?! And how can you do this while kneeling on the ground for 8 hours a day?!
With each passing row, each passing hour, and each passing day, I started to discover the answers to my questions. Each stick has a different purpose, and a slightly different shape, by design. Even the ends of one of the sticks are shaped a little differently — as Pascuala would say “No iqual” I also figured out the dance of when to lean back to keep the contraption taught, and when to lean forward to give the strings more breath. The biggest tip she gave me was “Mas fuerte!”, reminding me to push the sticks and yarn with force.
I spent 4 hours a day for 5 days as part of their family. In the mornings we sat in a circle on the ground to eat breakfast (tortilla, beans, and jamaica water). On Reyna’s selling breaks she poked her head through the weave to give our special handshake. Each woman checked on my progress throughout the day, giving me smiles and hugs, and a kind reminder “Más fuerte!” Other tourist would pass by and ask, “Is it difficult?” I’d respond, “Yes, but I have a very good teacher,” as Pascuala sat up tall and smiled with pride. At the end of each lesson, my back was sore, my eyes crossed, and my heart filled with joy, excited to see my family again the next day.
On the fifth day, as I was nearing the end of my tapestry, I noticed myself weaving slower and slower. I felt emotional as I realized that this was my last day as part of their family. There came a point where it was too difficult for me to continue and Pascuala stepped in to finish the last few rows. Reyna, her younger sister baby Cela and I sat around her, watching. Admiring. I felt so much love for Pascuala, imagining this is probably how her Mamá Maria taught her. This is probably how Reyna and Cela are learning right now. This is probably how weaving has been passed down in their tribe for the last hundred years. We’re using sticks they found in the mountains and yarn from Pascuala’s 8 sheep. We weren’t just weaving a piece of fabric. We were weaving hearts.
When we finished I started getting teary eyed. Mama Maria came over and gave me a big hug! She said I am a fast learner, then declared, “You come to visit my house. Sleep at my house. Tomorrow?” “YAAAAAY!!!” — said my heart! Reyna started jumping up and down, running around telling everyone I was comingto visit.
The family lives in the hills near Chamula, about 30 minutes from San Cristobal de las Casas. As the shared van climbed the hills, the buildings started to fade revealing the peaceful and lush landscape of the highlands. We were immediately greeted by Pascuala’s 8 sheep… ahhh I see why she said she only has 3 colors of yarn.
We arrived just in time for dinner. Mamá Maria took me on a tour of her land, her vegetable garden (they are vegetarian), and her beloved black and yellow corn field. Her late husband’s aunt, who could not speak or hear, waived me over to join her around the fire in their kitchen. Mamá Maria brought out the same meal we ate for breakfast — handmade corn tortillas and beans. At home, I try to eat something different every meal. But here, after many months of being alone and away from my own family, I didn’t mind eating the same thing everyday as long as I was amongst love.
After dinner, we walked over to Pascuala’s simple house to sleep. Against the far wall behind her is one piece of rope strung across the room, where all of her clothes are hung — a blouse and 2 more skirts. It takes her 6 months to weave one skirt, and 2 months to hand embroider the details of her blouse.
At 6am, I woke up, walked over to the kitchen and saw Pascuala and Mamá Maria already up and cooking. They spent the morning grinding up corn into cornmeal, by hand, to make their batch of tortillas for the day. Again we sat in the kitchen, around the fire as they demonstrated how to make tortillas. We grabbed a handful of cornmeal, balled it up in our hands, put it in the center of a metal press, and gently flatten them into perfect round shapes. Except, my tortillas looked more like a ridiculous sculpture. As I reached back into the grill to try and fix the folds, Mamá Maria stopped me. “Está bien, Está bien!” Over and over again, I kept trying to fix my mistakes, and each time Mamá would say “No, Está bien”. It was then I realized how silly my own standards of “perfection” were. How hard I was on myself to not offend my host family and make a mess of their meal. They were happy just having me be with them. I didn’t have to perform. I didn’t have to “do”.
After cooking, we quickly headed back into the city. The short evening felt like a dream. I cannot say that after one evening, I know what their lives are like. I still don’t fully understand what their dreams are, what makes them happy, or what they might struggle with. Perhaps that’s not for me to judge. I did walk away with a better understand of what Home means to me. There’s that saying “Home is where the heart is”. Well how about, Home is where my soul is free to Be.
Originally published at colleenchoi.tumblr.com.