Desde La Chinaca a La China Poblana
Ariel Wills (MA NCSS 2021)
“La revolución no es lo que dicen los textos, sino lo que hace la gente.”
“A revolution is not what the classic textbooks say a revolution should be. It is what the people do.”
A white, embroidered blouse, a full, red skirt adorned with sequins, and a deep blue rebozo.
Worn together in this chorus, we are the wardrobe of La China Poblana. Today we are a costume for folk dancing in, to don with pride for a national celebration, but once we were looked down upon with disdain. In Quechua, la chinaca means the servant—but who was she?2 She began as the mestizaje woman who lived in the village by her own rules, marked by confidence, independence, and her distinguished role in her pueblo. She was met with fascination by Spanish women, who observed her from afar, without humanity: not as a person, but as an emblem of the heritage and glamour of the colony. They both revered and distrusted her.3 Society stripped her of her identity, and conveniently molded her into a pious emblem of national pride. Today we will share with you the story of a woman known to carry a machete, a national icon, adopted as a symbol of Mexico and the Revolution. Join us as we introduce each part of ourself. Every wardrobe tells a story.
Falda de lana (wool skirt)
I am from the sheep who grew the wool, then lost her coat to the shepherd, who sheared the sheep. Then there was she who sorted the wool, prying twigs and seeds from it in preparation to steam it clean. Next, someone carded the chaos of wool, manipulating the fibers with the rough teeth of the carders until they fell into place. Human hands arranged the wool roving and dyed it deep red with the pigment of the cochineal beetles.4 Who spun the wool into thread? Who wove it into cloth?
My wool cousins in the obrajes were not so lucky. The obraje was a strange place—not a factory, not a workshop, a form of manufacturer. The conquistadors made the indigenous people work there, and demanded the duty of dedicated labor for the authorities in Spain. Some workers who came to live in the obraje came
freely, for the alternative was starvation. For others, there was little choice beyond the life of deception and servitude. If a laborer escaped and claimed their freedom or lost their life, the authority would kidnap their spouse and children and force them to work enslaved.5 The obraje kept 40 children hostage to work off the debts of their fathers and grandfathers. The youngest children began work at five years old.
The woman who made me was not treated well. She was not paid; she was enslaved. She had begun her life as a weaver by trade, and worked at a telar suelto in her family home, as her family had before her. She began to work with the fiber of the sheep, which was sent from across the oceans. A merchant, a man who sold raw materials together with a textile entrepreneur who ran an obraje, sold her wool for her to build her textiles. She borrowed money from her neighbors with the promise to pay them back with interest, but when she could not keep up with the payments for the debt the merchant returned to take her to work in the obraje.
Jubón de algodón (cotton bodice)
I remember the rough texture of my weaver’s hands. She worked at a loom in a small room lined with shelves featuring a rainbow of cotton thread. The room was small, with a pepper tree that reached toward the open window, each day a little closer. I grew accustomed to the people who passed through the room, who shared stories of the space outside those four walls. I can’t say I remember very many, but one day, a voice spoke of a strike in the cotton mill and I felt a pang of familiarity, and within me grew a sense of pride. A woman spoke of her father in the cotton mills, and the dangers that those working there had faced. 14 hour workdays. He could not afford to support his family. What could they do? I listened to stories of those who passed through the room speak of the movement in the country, of the revolution and the terrible conditions.6
Men, women, and even children worked at the cotton mill, which was powered by steam from the river nearby. The cotton was grown locally in Mexico. In the blowing room the bales of raw cotton got cleaned, then carded into long strips of roving, which were wound around large spools. Cables ran up to the high ceilings in the spinning room, where long rows of industrial machinery filled the warehouse. Each row held hundreds of spools of cotton, which were spun into yarn or thread by the many people who spent long hours there each day. Finally, the cotton cloth would be woven. A huge source of economic stability for the country, the cotton industry was financially supported by Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship. While Mexico’s economy grew, the laborers were overworked, underpaid, tired, and miserable.
The cotton bore witness when the workers joined together to claim their dignity. Peasant power at its best, the textile workers were at the forefront of the Mexican workers’ revolution. The laborers were on their own, no political party backing them, no unions, so with little choice they organized to fight their grievances, which included long hours, low wages, and disrespectable conditions. I had chills as the old labor regime was destroyed. In the strike of 1911, textile workers challenged the authority of mill owners and their legacy of more than 80 years of unforgiving labor.7 Along with the mills came a worker’s identity, their community, and their narrative of the world. Tensions grew as conditions in the microcosm of the mill fostered unending misery and pain, while the workers in the mills fostered community. Revolution was in the air. My cotton cousins and I hold the workers’ stories within our fabric—they’re woven into us.
Long ago, I was spun from the fibers of wood pulp. We spent so much time together, when I was like this, purely rayon. I will start my story here. I still have many threads. When I was very new to this world, the rebocero (shawl weaver) pulled my fibers into channels, and tied each one with string. These strings created groups in patterns and thread bundles, which protected the clarity of threads from the color. These techniques were old, developed in ancient times, far before the Spanish came to this land. The rebocero carefully dyed the threads, planning patterns and projecting the future design.8 This was only the beginning of the relationship of cloth and weaver. Following the transformation into blues, turquoise, and black, the rebocero warped my body along his loom, and in abrupt and rhythmic shifts, introduced a weft, matching the pigments into the design he had planned out with care. The fragments locked together as the material began to take shape.
Santa María del Río, in San Luis Potosí, is known for its rich history of artisan weavers and traditional rebozoproduction. Women cherish their rebozos and have special ways to care for them. Here, people crafted wooden chests to store their rebozos, and nestled apples and quinces into the cloth to infuse it with their sweet smelling perfume. Burning herbs such as rosemary also offered a source of fragrance that would stay on the rebozo as a woman wore it out walking in the country.9 In the pueblo, women of all ages would wear rebozos in the most vibrant colors they could find. Wealthy and poor alike would invest in the distinct shawl, prioritizing a rebozoalong with essentials like food and shelter. I am draped around the shoulders, the dependable rebozo.
Vestirse (getting dressed)
Our vocabulary, as textiles, evolves continuously through human history. Quite an ancient technique, textiles are our nonverbal mother-tongue.10 The networks of creators, consumers, and materials provide us with a diagram of existence, of histories past and present. Our fabric intrinsically holds narratives and stories. A richly beaded and embroidered cotton blouse, pulled over one’s head, sings histories of the cotton trade, the labor movements, the shifting of many hands working ritualistically in the cotton mill. The red and yellow flowers lining my collar brightly contrast the regality of the águila, perched on the nopales, with the snake clutched in her beak. A symbol of Mexico.
China poblana carries a burden as symbol of Mexico, tourism, and la mexicana mestiza. The heritage of la mestiza is romanticized. This woman with complex heritage, echoing the legacy and trauma of la conquista, is now abstracted into a liberated, free-wheeling, fetishized image of the Mexican woman illustrated on travel posters and beer cans. In the village, china poblana was mestiza without a master, strong and free. The wealthy could visit the pueblo in her costume, exoticizing her personhood, but in the city she was scrutinized and considered unsavory. Her independence insinuated scandal. Mexico’s many cultures of la gente indígena and the trauma of colonialism are woven into her identity. This paradox we find within the china poblana is not unfamiliar, for many of us live within a similar imposed crisis. Many of us are quite accustomed to the contortionist acts required of modern society. Things have not changed so much.
The red of the falda complements the pure blues of the beads and the rebozo. Many women have lifted the heavy, gathered wool to their bellies and secured the waist with the buttons and the ribbon. In the early twentieth century the china poblana was further spliced into iconographic entropy. From a self-governing village woman to la Virgen de Guadalupe. Now our mexicana mestiza is also virtuous, faithful, pious, and devoted to her faith and her country. She is an embodiment of the Mexican flag, red, green, and white.11
To finish the trio, rebozo shelters the shoulders. Many parts are to thank for the whole. Each component of the costume and the actors who brought it together fortify the foundation of experiences of history. Each time the dress is worn, noticed, and examined, the relationships, institutions, and narratives of our histories stay active, and share the opportunity to be unraveled, woven, reworked, and pieced back together.
Worn together, the harmony of La China Poblana can be found ringing throughout Mexico. Though you may find her camouflaged as a national dream girl, do not be fooled. La Chinaca is a driving force of nature and community. She will not repent for the act of existence. She is woven into the obscurity of reality.
China Poblana (blouse, skirt, and shawl, Mexico), ca. 1925. Gift of Barbara White Dailey. All images courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.
1. Quoted in Jeff Bortz, Revolution within the Revolution: Cotton Textile Workers and the Mexican Labor Regime, 1910-1923 (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 187.
2. La chinaca, and la china have held multiple meanings over the years, including servant, slave, mestiza woman (Spanish and indigenous heritage) and Asian woman. Today, china literally means Chinese in Spanish. The similarity between the two words chinacaand china has been a source of confusion throughout history and translation. The image of the china poblana has been used to perpetuate male power structures by depicting women as symbols and sexual objects with inferior morals. Her femaleness, ethnic origin, and social class define her and are key in her representation of Mexico, the “colorfully dressed, dancing mestiza woman who now represents Mexican food and beer throughout the world.” Jeanne L. Gillespie, “Gender, Ethnicity and Piety, the Case of the China Poblana,” in Imagination beyond Nation: Latin American Popular Culture, eds. Eva Paulina Bueno and Terry Caesar (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 37.
3. “On a visit to Mexico in 1837, Fanny Calderón de la Barca, wife of a Spanish minister, describes the Mexican costume sent to her by a general’s wife in case she would like to wear it to a fancy ball she was to attend. … Calderón de la Barca’s intention of wearing the costume, however, was thwarted by the intervention of several viceregal dignitaries, including the president, the ministers of war and the interior, and others who explained to her that poblanas generally were … unsavory women, that they wore no stockings, and that the wife of a Spanish minister should by no means assume, even for one evening, such a costume.” Ibid., 31–32.
4. Cochineal dye is extracted from the dried bodies of Dactylopius coccus, an insect collected from the prickly pear cacti.
5. Richard J. Salvucci, Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 97.
6. “Operarios, with firm ideas about social class, challenged authority at work from the beginning of their revolution until the end. However, the nature of their challenge differed from that of their Russian counterparts, which is partly why it was overlooked. In Russia, anarchist, socialist, and Marxist political parties questioned the rights of capital … Such ideas and political parties were mostly absent from Mexico’s textile zones. Instead, Mexican workers engaged in a more empirical revolution, with one set of events leading to another.” Bortz, 189.
7. “The 1911 general strike was the critical turning point in Mexican labor history. It was a widespread and unprecedented victory for workers that began as a laborite struggle but also as a challenge to authority. Although workers agreed on wage and work-day demands, in many factories mill hands added local petitions about dignity and workplace control.” Bortz, 190.
8. “The stitch resist and tie resist skirts worn by the Otomí women in remote areas of Hidalgo and Querétaro may well be a folk version of the chinas poblanas. Their decorative design of geometric and floral vines; their color, blue (indigo) and red (cochineal); and their European tailoring are in accord with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pictures and descriptions of the china poblana skirt. The predecessors of the Otomí of this area in pre-Conquest times paid part of their tribute to the Aztecs in tie-dye mantles, as shown in the Codex Mendoza. In former times, the Otomí in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro knew about and practiced jaspe (ikat), in this context sometimes called amarrado (knotted), as well as stitch and tie resist on already woven cloth.” Joanne Bubolz Eicher et al., “The China Poblana,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Latin America and the Caribbean, 2010, 66–71.
9. Chloë Sayer, “Independence and After (1821–1917),” in Costumes of Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985), 96–119.
10. “A traditional textile conveys to the knowing eye a great deal about not only the creators, but also about those for whom it was created. The materials used, the weight and texture of the cloth tell us about the geo-climatic conditions in which it was made. The woven motifs, the use of color, convey the origins of the people, their cultural history, and their beliefs. It also announces in some societies the status of the user, for instance are they single, married, or widowed, to which ethnic group do they belong.” Marie-Louise Nosch, et al., “Textile: The Non-Verbal Language,” in Jasleen Dhamija, Global Textile Encounters (Barnsley: Oxbow Books, 2015), 303.
11. The china poblana “embodies la mujer guerillera (woman warrior) as she literally wears the Mexican flag as her costume.” Gillespie, 34.
Ariel Wills relishes sketching in museums, folk songs, nasturtiums, dancing bachata, and storytelling.