Master Weaver Naan Chaya Méndez Garcia
Naan Chaya met us in the narrow alley between the houses where numerous dogs were laying about. She informed us that just yesterday one of the dogs bit a man on the leg so we were happy for her protection even though she might just clear 4'4" in height.
She began weaving on the backstrap loom 72 years ago at the age 8 and has been weaving ever since. She never went to school and cannot read nor write including her name. Though she doesn't speak spanish she understands it well acknowledging my questions and then answering Amelia in Tz'utujil, the local Maya language. Naan Chaya was 18 years old when she married and with a big smile told me that her parents neither chose her husband nor obligated her to marry - they married because they were in love. She bore 12 children, 7 of whom are still alive, and she has 17 grandchildren. All of her daughters are weavers.
As a child Naan Chaya sold her weavings to a man in the neighboring town of San Pedro and made 8 cents from each one. It doesn't seem like much but she said at that time with 8 cents you could buy as much or more as what you can buy from the sale of a weaving today.
She does not like to work with intricate jaspe designs anymore because it's too much work to line up the figures so as not to weave them blurry. She does incorporate jaspe in many of her shawls, but of a simple classic style. Naan Chaya used to make her own natural dyes but again it's just too much work (I love this woman!) and prefers to buy her threads already dyed. Her weavings have a mix of both naturally and synthetically dyed threads.
On the morning we visited her at home, she was weaving a lienzo – a length of cloth that Cristina will then cut apart and make into something else, a purse or hat or apron. The dark polished wooden sword/beater she was using was her mother's given to her many years ago. She pointed out how smooth the stick is. When asked what she enjoys weaving the most she said the scarves and shawls out of fine cotton, later adding that truth be known she'd be quite happy to retire from weaving after 72 years of it but her husband became sick and can't work so the weaving continues. Lucky for us (not the husband part, of course).
She wondered if there was a way that I could help the weavers so I explained to her that I was buying the weavings to resell and that when I sell them she would be getting more money back. She seemed pleased with that idea and thanked us. As we were leaving Naan Chaya told us that if someone has a design of their own, she'd be happy to weave it for them!