Monday, April 11, 2011

In Search of Disappearing Huipiles in Coban

Hola, COBAN... and.... Adios, Huipiles.....
Coban. What a disappointment. Huge, sprawling, and noisy, with large malls at the entrance to town. We were told by an American living there for the last 35 years who works at our hotel that the big, new money is the product of the drug traffic as the heavy stuff passes up up north from Colombia. It is fairly unsafe at night, hard to trust unknown taxi drivers,etc. etc. Very commercial, 'modern.' Our hotel, Hotel La Posada, was a charming, old style colonial family inn started by North Americans decades ago, very similar to NaBalom in San Cristobal in Chiapas, or the Mayan Inn in ChiChi. Lovely, colonial, with lush gardens and a great dining room (with an unfortunately listless wait staff). Lots of ancient floor tiles, local textiles decorating the rooms on comfy beds, on the furniture and framed on the walls. Great mask collection. But NOISY. The truck traffic now shrieks by on both sides of the hotel, on what used to be horse drawn carriage lanes when the hotel was first built in colonial times. Earplugs a must, or an inside room in the older part of the hotel. (In all fairness, there is more to Coban than just our projected textile hopes. This is a land of great hiking, biospheres, orchid cloud forests, etc.etc. ) We looked for the traditional huipiles of the Coban region, only to learn yet again, that there weren't any. The young women now buy thin nylon or polyester huiplies in bright colors with machine- embroidered lace motifs. Gone are the lovely backstrap loomed white-on-white patterned base cloth with an embroided trim at the neck and sleeves. If not gone, then very difficult to find, even with good travels skills, good Spanish, and huge desire. The ocassional new huipil is usually a tenth of the quality and fineness of stitch we have come to love. Our hotel waitress told us of a nearby town with a market the next day: San Juan Chamelco. A 20 minute taxi ride from Coban. Market days are Monday,Wednesday and Friday, if anyone reading this is on their way there. Very little Spanish spoken, just the local dialect. I did find a more economical version of the old style huipil we were searching for, which I bought. A street vendor was wearing what I wanted, and I went her nearby house as she said she made them herself but when I got there she was actually making/selling the newer, cheaper version. She said the hand-loomed fabric of the earlier style is too expensive and no one can afford it any more; young women are no longer making their own at home because it's too time consuming and won't help pay the bills as a job in a bank or store will. Which of course is the lament of fine folk artisans the world over. Fine folk art has become, 'por fuerza,' a product aimed at the more well-off collector, the only people who can afford to pay the fair price to the producer who spends a month or two perfecting each piece. One very fine new huipil now sells for $200- $800 dollars now, if you are lucky enough to find someone who is still making them. The older, finer ones are now sold by antique dealers who specialize in this nearly disappeared craft, and whose markup is astonishing. With each passing year, the prices go up and up, and the supply will become less and less. It is a sad, somber realization. Our wonderful, amazing International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, (www.http:// is addressing this problem head-on, and is thankfully having a world-wide positive impact on artisans due to the high volume of sales each summer generated by the great craftsmen of the world. And all the money earned goes directly to the vendors and creates a need to hire and train more creative talent. Bravo.