Jalapa Embroidery: To be free like a bird

Jalapa embroidery is a unique form of embroidery that portrays big birds and leaves close together creating a bold and very distinctive design

This type of astonishing embroidery originated in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, in the region of San Felipe Jalapa de Díaz. 

Writing today’s blog is very special for us, as we try our best to pay homage to the life journey of La señora Adelina Zarate Suárez, and her mother, La señora Antonia Suárez who, together with their community, dedicate their time to create these beautiful embroideries in their colectivo Las Flores de los Zarate. In order to learn more about them and the work that they do, we reached out to La Señora Adelina, who in turn put us in contact with her daughter, Ana Elvia, who kindly shared the story behind their colectivo, her mother and her grandmother, who began the tradition. So here is the story behind them from our conversation full of detailed stories and touching moments that will have you giving a new meaning to these beautiful works of art.

colorful embroidery of birds and flowers in different colors over black background

It all began with la señora Antonia Suárez who, according to her granddaughter, is one of those people who has lots of stories to tell. She constantly reminisces and tells their grandchildren about how times were like before: what people ate, how they studied, how they lived in their houses, how weddings were like, how people used to dress and so on. 

Having lost her husband at a very young age, la señora Antonia struggled to support her family and was forced to go work in the field to harvest rice and beans, or whatever other crop there was in order to find an income to sustain her children. There was a moment in which she wanted to provide further for her children, sending them to school, but at that time it was expensive and not easily accessible. Because of that, she turned to her tailoring knowledge and began to make all sorts of garments and sell them door-to-door within her community. Having learned how to tailor a variety of garments, she would later add the Jalapa traditional embroideries she had learned to her pieces to make them more unique. As such, she grew her business and started to embroider blouses and huipiles, especially that of La Flor de Piña, a traditional and well-known costume from Oaxaca. 

women dressed in traditional clothing from Oaxaca

La señora Antonia Suárez wearing a traditional Flor de Piña Dress Made by herself. Courtesy of Ana Elvia Zarate.

traditional clothing showing her corn harvest

La Señora Antonia in traditional clothing showing her corn harvest. Courtesy of Ana Elvia Zarate.

La señora Antonia, taught her daughter Adelina Zarate Suárez how to embroider from a very young age; as early as six years Adelina would help her mother in her business making small embroideries. When growing up, Adelina did not initially follow her mother’s entrepreneurship. She first went looking for better opportunities in Mexico City and spent some time there. She eventually returned to Jalapa, married and started her own family, distancing herself further from the artisanal work she and her mother used to make. However, it was a tragic incident that separated her completely from embroidering. Unfortunately, her firstborn at the young age of three contracted a deadly disease. The disease of their son forced Adelina and her husband to move to Oaxaca City looking for treatment, which created a complete separation from her artisanal work. After the eventual passing of her son, Adelina and her family were physically, emotionally, and economically devastated and forced to start from zero. Going back to her mother in Jalapa, she joined her at the harvest and helped around her clothing business. That is how la señora. Adelina later learned to tailor all sorts of garments, just like her mother knew how to.

The sun started to come out again in this struggle. In this search for new sources of income and inspiration, Adelina turned to embroidery again, especially after receiving a lot of support from government dependencies who invited her to events to showcase her talent, and culture, and that highlighted the beautiful embroidery that is Jalapa. With this she got to travel around Oaxaca and around Mexico, showing the work that they made and that is how Adelina and her mother began making this a widely recognized form of embroidery and how people around Oaxaca began asking for this embroidery in particular.  

Adelina Suárez embroidering one of her many Jalapa huipiles

 

La señora Adelina Suárez embroidering one of her many Jalapa huipiles. Courtesy of Ana Elvia Zarate.

After the high demand for their embroideries, la señora Adelina decided to open up a workshop and has since dedicated the past twenty five years to this trade, never looking back. When speaking about their workshop, Ana Elvia, Adelina’s daughter, pointed out that they do not have a “traditional” workshop where all artisans get together and embroider all the time, as it is seen in some communities of artisans who dedicate their income to embroidering. Instead, all artisans who work there do this in their free time. Most of the people who work there have a main job that they attend daily and it is only after returning home on their free time that they work in their embroideries, sometimes at night, depending on the deadline they have.

The workshop Las Flores de Zarate was founded approximately twenty-five years ago. Initially, the workshop consisted only of women. However, today the land is not as fertile as it used to be so crops are hard to harvest and even harder to sell. Thus, people in this community broke away from traditional ideas of “embroidery is for women only, not for men” and they learned how to do this, being taught by their female partners, and joined the workshop. That is how the colectivo Las Flores de los Zarate became a workshop of families helping each other.

This grew even more during last year, when the pandemic hit. For Ana Elvia, la señora Adelina, La señora Antonia, and her community the pandemic was extremely difficult. They were deeply impacted as the only income they had at that time was their embroidery, and nothing more. No one was buying crops, so there was no point in harvesting. People who had emigrated to other places had to return for different reasons and they had no other income. So a lot of people and families turned to embroidering and would do nothing but embroider. They would save their pieces, even if they would not sell them right away, with the hopes of selling them later on. Today things have improved but they are still in the process of recovering and taking advantage of those pieces that were saved.

Today, the workshop Las Flores de Zarate is made up of family. There are over ninety people ranging from all ages, women and men, who are involved in the process of creating these works of art. In their community most of them are family and, if they are not related by blood, they are considered as such because of the time they have known and worked together. Among this community, respect is the basis of it all; from a very young age all adult people are called “tío” and “tía” (auncle and aunt) even if they are not related as a show of love and respect.

Children from the community learning how to embroider.

 Children from the community learning how to embroider. Courtesy of Ana Elvia Zarate.

The process of how these blouses are made is by first outlining on top of a piece of rayón fabric the shape of the blouse and cutting it to tailor them. The blouse is then tailored to size. Artisans then draw the figures, leaves and birds that will go on the blouse to serve as a guide to make the embroidering. The process of embroidering just one blouse can take from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the artisan who is embroidering and how quick is their technique. After finishing the piece it is delicately hand washed to get rid of any traces of marks or loose threads that it might have. Although they pre-wash the fabric and threads before making one blouse, this final step assures that the blouse will not shrink once people have them at their homes.  

Jalapa embroidery piece in process

 

Jalapa embroidery piece in process. Courtesy of Ana Elvia Zarate.

Jalapa’s embroidery designs with the big birds and greenery are inspired after the flora and fauna found in the region, Jalapa de Díaz, full of green areas with many animals. According to la señora Antonia, before Adelina and Ana Elvia’s times, anyone could find all sorts of birds and animals by simply walking outside their homes. However, nowadays it is not as easy to spot them unless one were to head over to the mountains nearby and look for them specifically.

The real meaning behind these embroideries, however, as la señora Antonia tells, is a deeper and more powerful one. With the belief that women were meant to stay home, serve men, and attend to every need of the family, women would be looked-down upon if they were to be out in the street. Instead, they were to stay home and the only leisure activity they had was to embroider. From their windows, women would see beautiful birds flying everywhere, jumping from tree to tree, singing as loud as they wanted to, and showing off their colorful plumage. For these women, these birds represented all they wanted to be: FREE. With this display of freedom in front of them, women found all the inspiration they were looking for and began reflecting what they wanted in their lives in the beautiful embroideries found in a Jalapa Huipil. Creating these beautiful embroideries women would sell their garments and, as a consequence, gain their so-desired freedom back. 

Adelina and her mother were one of those women who sought their independence and freedom, inspired by the beautiful birds that we see represented in these astonishing huipiles. Even more, they broke away from stereotypes and created a beautiful workshop and colectivo that involves men and women helping each other. 

four jalapa embroideries hanging in burgundy, gold, yellow, and green

 

So, what do you think? For us, it was an honor being able to listen to Ana Elvia, la señora Antonia and la señora Adelina’s life-stories and are humbled to be able to share them with you. For us these are stories that show the power behind embroidery, culture, and tradition, and one that makes us even more passionate about Mexico and its people. 

If you would like to check out Las Flores de Zarate’s work, be sure to check out our Jalapa blouses and wait for more that is coming!

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