Gran Mujer: An Apprenticeship in Mexican Deshilado
Within the private spaces of homes, the transmission of traditional art practices is such a natural occurrence that we tend not to consider it "art." It was in our family’s kitchen where I learned from my mother how to sing harmonies and dance—two cultural practices that seemed mundane, yet highly contributed to my achievements and well-being as a person.
There is no doubt that my mother was a cultural treasure, and I find it affirming to hear stories of transmission of cultural practices from parent to child occurring in spaces like the kitchen, the living room, the garage, or the backyard.
In the 2013 round of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, we were honored to support artistic and cultural transmission between a mother and daughter pair of traditional artists, Patricia Zavala de Arias and Maria Arias, who live in the town of Firebaugh, California. These two women are invested practitioners of the Mexican form deshilado (des- ē-lah'-do), open work embroidery, in which strands of threads are pulled from the weave of material to create designs and patterns. This type of work is common for adorning tablecloths, place settings, napkins, table runners, doilies, bedding, and clothes. It is a meticulous art form, in which vision and feel for the work is incredibly important. "It takes very much time and a lot of patience, and to enter into this practice, it takes much bravery, because it takes hours upon hours, and not just anyone can do this," states Patricia.
Patricia Zavala de Arias was born and raised in the town of Santa Rosa de Rivas, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she learned from her grandmother, mother, and aunts the art of deshilado and other textile forms. Her family utilized this cultural practice as a means of income. Because the form was so time consuming, female family members would stockpile manteles (table cloths), mantelitos (placemats), and servilletas (cloth napkins), because one never knew when a client would make an order, and more importantly, if they were going to be patient enough to wait for the pieces to be made. So in order to assure sales, the family would have to already have pieces completed and others in process constantly. Patricia shares that, unfortunately, people do not realize the time and the detail invested into each piece. It was also difficult to charge according to the time spent, because in the market there were plenty of different types of table cloths, others with beautiful embroidery utilizing colored threads, but they did not, however, integrate the same amount of detailed work. These distinctions are difficult for consumers to accept. In the pieces that Patricia creates, other forms such as punto de cruz (cross-point stitching), bordado (embroidery), tejido (knitting), and tejer con ganchillo (crocheting) to create designs, adornment, finishing, and edging are incorporated to provide wonderful textures and dynamics in the work.
Patricia was taught that a woman who was skilled in tradiciones de costura (embroidery, knitting, cross-stitch, and deshilado), in addition to other gender specific roles, were considered gran mujer, a valued lady. She explains, however, that there is an incredible value in learning these traditions and being able to offer them to one's children. She endearingly talks about "the days that I [am] home, Maria and myself, we... work and talk. We communicate more... we (as people) are becoming more separated from each other." Patricia finds comfort in doing this work with Maria, she appreciates this personal time they spend together, "these are times I will save in my memory." She also believes that the tradition is dying and that people doing deshilado is not as common as it was in previous generations. The youth, in addition to school do not have time, especially with so many other temptations in life and the technology of phones and internet. Laughingly, Maria states that Patricia would "ask me to lend her my phone so she can put it away while we work."
Maria, who was also raised in Guanajuato, began learning textile arts when she was a child, stating, "I found it boring at first because I wanted to be outside with the other kids running around, but I began to like it and I began agarrando el hilo (getting the thread—getting a feel for it)." She continues to explain that she came to appreciate deshilado, finding the elegance of the work interesting. It is through this cultural practice that Maria maintained a strong bond with both her parents, which she found incredibly helpful when the family came to the United States and she had to finish high school while learning a new language.
The beauty, elegance, and dedication of this cultural expression to which both Patricia and Maria are invested was clearly made evident through the work presented. An equally important product of this apprenticeship was the intergenerational mode of communication and commitment to each other that was apparent in the gestures, manners of speaking, and ways of knowing that were shared.