Image credit: Tania Anchondo.

Every morning, Paula Holguin, a forty-six-year-old Rarámuri woman, turns the lock on the corrugated metal door of the sewing workshop she founded within Oasis, the government-funded Indigenous compound she arrived at nineteen years ago with her husband. Inside, she sits at one of the six sewing tables. She takes a strip of fabric to attach to the main body of a skirt, places the fabric on the sewing plate, and presses lightly on the foot pedal. Head bent slightly over her work, she glides the fabric across the plate as the needle vibrates. The room is silent except for the hum of the sewing machine. Light filters in through the barred windows, casting a sheen on the cement floor. Holguin often leaves the door slightly open to listen to the sounds of her neighbors coming and going from the small cinder-block homes that line the corridors of Oasis. A woman’s plastic sandals shuffling across pavement. A small child throwing a ball against a wall. Water flowing from one of the utility sinks. Holguin and her husband left for the city when the seeds they planted failed to sprout in the hard land. Throughout the Sierra, the Rarámuris’ homeland, semi-arid land was turning to dust. Mothers and fathers walked out of the mountains, their children dying in their arms, to find help in nearby mestizo villages. Women could no longer nurse their babies. In Oasis, Holguin gave birth to six children: four daughters and two sons. Because they had arrived at Oasis as a young couple, and because her husband had earned a reputation as a strong construction worker throughout the years, her family had achieved greater food security than perhaps any other in Oasis. She returned to the mountains several times a year to visit relatives and bring food to the Rarámuri people who remained. For Holguin, the rectangular concrete building that houses the workshop is a physical manifestation of the resistance that’s built each time Rarámuri women sew. Since she and her husband fled the small wooden house and plot of land on which they once grew corn, squash, and beans, this is the space in which Holguin has felt most in control of her and her people’s future.

In Oasis, a place named for the nearby arroyo and the water it holds during the summer months, Rarámuri people are no longer starving. But they suffer persistent food insecurity and racism. On the streets of Chihuahua, the city in which Oasis is located, mestizos hurl insults at Rarámuri women, who stand out in their bright, ankle-length dresses. Child traffickers and cartel recruiters visit the compound on a regular basis, and mestizos come by to sell paint thinner to children. Holguin understands these new dangers intimately—one of her sons became addicted to sniffing paint thinner as a young teenager—but she says that a return to the conditions of the Sierra is impossible for her people. Thriving in the cities is their only choice, and Holguin’s plan is to grow the Rarámuri workshop that employs women in her community to make commissioned garments. This way, Rarámuri women can gain control of their time, labor, and income. They can spend less time standing at city intersections or at the entrance of stores, hoping that mestizos will give them enough coins to buy that day’s food, and can focus instead on creating the traditional dresses that are central to the Rarámuri rituals their people are trying to keep alive so far from their mountains.

Oasis is the oldest and largest of the nine government-funded compounds in Chihuahua. It’s home to about 500 Rarámuri people. Most of the people I know in this community believe that Onorúame, the Rarámuri god, withholds rain clouds out of anger. Onorúame is angry, they say, because the mestizos continue to invade the mountains to steal silver, limestone, and water. They plant the “bad crops”—as a Rarámuri woman named María Refugio calls marijuana and poppies—which take too much water and do not feed people. Onorúame gave the Sierra to the Rarámuri people as a refuge after the Spaniards invaded the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rarámuris’ original home. Onorúame intended for the Rarámuri people to grow their own food on the land he had given them. But the lack of water, and the enslavement of their people by mestizo drug growers (and, previously, American miners), is causing Rarámuris to abandon the mountains. They walk through forest and along a two-lane highway to reach the compounds the state government began building in the 1950s to house those fleeing the mountains. In the Sierra Madre of western Mexico, years of persistent drought have driven 35,000 Rarámuris—half their population—to the compounds in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez. 

I learned to sew alongside a child named Yulissa, who was eight years old in 2010, the year I began my field research in Oasis. Her mother, María Refugio, was amused that I, a twenty-four-year-old woman, did not know how to thread a needle. She wanted to know what my mestiza mother had taught me instead. During every trip to Oasis since, I’ve joined Rarámuri women in the clearing in front of the chapel to sew. They bring with them plastic shopping bags overflowing with floral-printed fabric, threaded needles tucked into the folds to mark the place they had stopped working the day before. If it’s winter, they sit in the sunlit middle. In the summer, they move into the shade cast by the chapel. Fabric spread across their laps, the women bend over their work, stitching the ankle-length frocks that proclaim their Rarámuri identity. Sewing such dresses by hand is a process of piecing together different-sized strips of fabric, often in different colors, sometimes with different patterns. In Oasis, women tend to own four dresses at a time, though the number and the dresses themselves fluctuate frequently, as women redistribute them amongst themselves through an elaborate dress-betting ritual that is tied to their tradition of competing in foot races. Mothers teach their daughters to stitch starting at age six, when they sit them down in the sewing circle with a strip of plain fabric and a threaded needle. During the years that I spent sewing alongside Rarámuri women, I’ve learned that the purpose of a Rarámuri dress is not simply the creation of a beautifully designed, expertly stitched garment. The meaning, too, lies in the community of dressmaking and the exchanging of dresses.

Throughout Mexico, there is a common narrative that the Indigenous person arrives in the city and is grateful to learn the ways of the mestizo, the people of mixed race who make up the country’s majority population. The common perception that mestizaje create a homogenous and hard-working—and therefore peaceful—society is a dangerous myth that has led to the attempted erasure of Indigenous, Black, and Asian cultures in Mexico. In truth, the modern city enables international corporations to set up factories throughout Latin America, cause pollution, and pay substandard wages. The city attempts to force Indigenous people to acquire the traits that make them hirable: the Spanish language and standardized work uniforms. The city is where Mexico’s Indigenous people are most pressured to forget the knowledge their people passed down across generations. But where there is erasure and forgetting, there is also resistance. By using the memories and stories kept alive in their hand-sewn dresses, Rarámuri women are creating a future for their people—a future that sees them thrive in the city.

In 2013, Holguin petitioned the Chihuahua state government for funds to clean out the existing Oasis building and add six sewing tables. The workshop had been built in the 1980s, but had fallen into disuse over the years. In the early 1990s, the government locked its doors, leaving six Singer sewing machines sitting inside among trash and mice. When the government provided the funds to clean out the workshop, Holguin envisioned the space as a place for Rarámuri women to dream and work together. She wanted the workshop to function as a cooperative, to ensure that each seamstress earned equal wages for each garment she created and so that each seamstress could have a say in the direction of the business. While Rarámuri women didn’t commonly use sewing machines to make their own dresses, Holguin believed they would be useful in helping the women sew more quickly without sacrificing precision or artistry. Saving time on clients’ orders means more time the women can dedicate to their own sewing. She often joins the sewing circle in the clearing before the chapel, but feels that a dedicated space legitimizes the women’s work. Recently, she created a Facebook page where she posts photos of the workshop and the dresses they make for sale. When I last visited, she laid out a blueprint she had asked a mestizo friend to draw. It showed a second floor added to the existing building, with more sewing machines and spaces to store fabric and projects.

But Holguin has struggled to recruit women to work with her. With the help of two mestiza women who have taken an interest, Holguin often travels to Mexico City to pitch work to nonprofits, hospitals, and government agencies dedicated to preserving the country’s Indigenous peoples and their cultures. But the projects don’t come often enough and are frequently poorly paid. It is because of this instability that she has struggled to convince seamstresses to forego their usual ways of earning income. Most Rarámuri women earn money by standing at busy intersections and asking mestizos to give them coins, while others sell a variety of handmade crafts to mestizo-owned nonprofits. Holguin feels especially resentful towards the seamstresses who take jobs at mestiza-owned workshops that produce Western clothing with Rarámuri designs stitched onto them. These workshops hire Rarámuri seamstresses as a way to brand themselves as ethical, and thereby avoid accusations of cultural appropriation. In truth, they have created their branding around a narrative that blends Rarámuri designs and Western clothing—an aesthetic that plays directly into the national myth of unity achieved through the mixing of Indigenous and European cultures. This, we are led to believe via a steady stream of Instagram stories and magazine images, is inclusive fashion.

 

May 2019

This community’s sense of identity, and the traditional knowledge shared among Rarámuri women during their sewing circles, is why I hesitated to respond when Humberto Leon, creative director of the fashion house Opening Ceremony, contacted me in May of 2019 to ask if Holguin would be interested in selling traditional dresses for retail in their New York City, Los Angeles, and online stores. He had read an essay I’d recently published in the New York Times about the Rarámuri women’s efforts to keep their dressmaking tradition alive. Leon explained that Opening Ceremony was doing a Year of Mexico, a capsule collection created by designers with origins in Mexico. He was moved by Holguin’s efforts to start her own workshop, and emphasized the importance of supporting Indigenous knowledge.

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim started Opening Ceremony in New York City in 2002 after working as lead designers at Gap and Kenzo. The store’s namesake brand, designed by Leon and Lim, sold young, emerging designers alongside major brands like Dries van Noten and Alexander Wang, whose garments were priced at thousands of dollars. Many of the capsule collections Opening Ceremony carried were available for only one season, spurring a devoted following of shoppers who wanted their clothing to tell a story or capture the essence of a place or moment. Soon after opening their first store in Soho, New York, their store became a destination for celebrities and downtown youth alike. By the time they staged their first runway show, years later, the brand had become the most anticipated name of New York Fashion Week, positioning them as cultural influencers around the world.

I was sitting in my screened-in back porch in my Minneapolis home when I read Leon’s email, eating a grilled cheese sandwich to stave off the nausea that came in waves during the first trimester of my pregnancy. To say that I was surprised is an understatement; I felt as if my work had taken a turn that I, as a writer early in my career, could never have anticipated. When I felt a rush of pride, my vision clouded momentarily, as intense emotions could make me lightheaded during that stage in pregnancy. I closed my laptop and walked outside for fresh air.

I didn’t yet know I was expecting again when I pitched the story to the New York Times. Two weeks later, when the editor accepted my pitch, paired me with a photographer, and set up dates for travel, I had already taken a pregnancy test. Though I wasn’t feeling nausea and fatigue yet, I knew that the travel dates—during week ten of my pregnancy—would coincide with the peak of my nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. My nurse-midwife had said to expect to feel changes in my body sooner, and more intensely, with each pregnancy, and this was my fourth (I had miscarried only a few months before). I called her in advance to ask for anti-nausea medication, which I had never taken before. In my other pregnancies, I chose to follow the standard medical advice to avoid unnecessary medication, but this opportunity was too important. It was my first international assignment for a major publication, and a step closer to the book deal I had been working toward for nearly a decade. 

In Oasis, I was moved that my Rarámuri friends welcomed me back, and demonstrated their trust in me by allowing Malin Fezehai, the Times photographer, to document them. Friends introduced me to new babies, and children, now grown tall, shyly hugged me. But now, as I paced my yard and processed Leon’s inquiry, I thought about my first weeks of my field research in Oasis. One September morning in 2010, I arrived at the communal kitchen inside Oasis to talk with the women and see if they would let me cook with them. My goal was to conduct “participatory research” and gain insight into Rarámuri women’s lives. But they had other plans. For weeks, the Rarámuri women refused to acknowledge my presence. Once, someone left a dead mouse on the seat of the stool on which I sat for hours each day to watch the women cook. An anthropologist had warned me that it would take time for the Rarámuri women to speak to me, that I needed to see myself as part of a long line of mestizas who sought to erase their people. I needed to be patient, and show my commitment to them by visiting every day. I thought about the gratitude I felt when a young woman named Carolina finally asked my name, and how their trust in me over the years was a privilege I should never take for granted. 

I thought, too, about the countless times fashion houses have appropriated Indigenous designs. It had happened to the Rarámuri only ten years before, when Nike created the barefoot running shoe to capitalize on the Rarámuris’ tradition of running—and winning—marathons barefoot, or in thin, tire-rubber sandals. By telling Holguin about the commission, I worried I would become complicit in that kind of cultural appropriation, disguised as homage (the designer Carolina Herrera would very soon stir controversy in the fashion world by using Mexican Indigenous designs and calling them as such). But by denying Holguin the opportunity to work with Opening Ceremony, I was complicit in withholding wages and perpetuating hunger. 

I didn’t feel like I could agonize for more than a few minutes. I imagined that Leon was used to having his emails answered promptly, and that any delay might cause him to move on to another designer. I knew that at that hour, Holguin was likely to be in the sewing room, as I often heard the hum of the sewing machines in the background when we spoke. I pictured her in the large rectangular space, a small fan perched on the edge of her sewing table, the windows open to circulate the heavy afternoon air, and the shelves holding reams of flowered fabric and spools of colorful thread.

Though I had never imagined that my writing would bleed into business and entrepreneurship, I felt enough confidence in my relationship with Holguin and other Rarámuri women to discuss this deal and explain the potential risks and benefits as I saw them. I knew I could admit to her when there was something I didn’t understand, and that I would do my best to find the right answers for her. I also knew that I was the only person with relationships in Oasis who spoke both English and Spanish. Most of the women had no concept of New York City or Los Angeles, having been raised in a culture that willfully ignores the township borders established by the Spaniards five hundred years before. Opening Ceremony meant nothing to them, just as the New York Times had meant nothing to them. But Holguin had clearly articulated her goal to me during the reporting for the essay: she wanted to create a workshop that employed Rarámuri women in making traditional dresses to sell. Her simple, clear message grounded me. I dialed her number.  

I said a hurried hello, and told Holguin there was a designer in New York City who wanted to buy Rarámuri dresses. She said yes before I had finished explaining. 

 

Image credit: Tania Anchondo.

 

June 2019: 4 months until deadline, 135 dresses to go

Opening Ceremony wanted to know whether the Rarámuri women made their dresses by hand or machine, the kind of fabric they typically used, and the color palettes. There were market considerations they had to take into account when ordering dresses for retail: American buyers prefer a lightweight skirt—did the cotton have a heavy drape? Did the colors fade after one wash? Would the women be willing to create a one-piece dress instead of the skirt and blouse combination they typically wear?

The Rarámuri dressmaking tradition dates back to the 1500s, when the Spaniards invaded the Chihuahuan Desert. By the mid-1600s, Rarámuri people had retreated to the gorges of the Sierra Madre mountains, establishing their rancherias and developing running as a way to quickly redistribute food in a land that receives intermittent rain. When the Spaniards followed, they sought to corral Rarámuri people into their pueblo system, with a Catholic mission at its center. But for the Rarámuris, the mountains provided refuge.

Photographs taken in the mid-1800s by anthropologists show Rarámuri women wearing skirts woven of grass. They did not wear tops for most of the year, so that they could easily breastfeed their infants and toddlers. Throughout the 1600s, Jesuit priests compelled Rarámuri women to wear dresses that fully covered their bodies. Over time, Rarámuri women adopted the cotton fabrics brought over by the Spaniards, but modified the cut so that they could continue breastfeeding. While some Rarámuri women continue to wear the original version of the dress, which consists of a top and skirt sewn together, a more popular version is a two-piece dress consisting of ankle-length skirts and a loose-fitting top. The functionality of the top is obvious to any mother who has ever breastfed: the women cradle their baby, and tuck them under the top without so much as unsnapping a buckle or pulling down a panel. When the children become toddlers, the women continue sewing, uninterrupted, even when the child lifts up the blouse and latches onto her breast.

Rarámuri people practice korima, a way of living founded on the understanding that people are part of the land, and the land is part of the people. When this understanding becomes intimate to a culture, reciprocity—the English translation for korima—guides all people’s actions. Reciprocity is bound to the idea that time is cyclical. The return of the rain and the harvest are sufficient proof to the Rarámuri people that Onorúame loves them and provides them with what they need. In return, he asks only that the Rarámuri people treat him, and the mountains he gave to them, with respect. 

 Dressmaking is one of the manifestations of korima. Even though Holguin made her new home in the Chihuahuan Desert, she carried the mountains of her homeland with her wherever she went. She stitched onto the hems of her floor-length skirt and blouse one row, sometimes two, of white triangles—mountains against a field of flowers. Holguin says she and other seamstresses sew these in “so that they stay with us.” The straight lines, portrayed through brightly-colored piping, represent the land on which the mountains sit. The Rarámuri women favor bright, floral patterns that make them stand out and convey a sense of expansive time and space: fields of flowers stretching to the edge of the horizon. These designs are living artifacts, conveying a sense of history and the future.

Several times a week, Rarámuri women bet dresses during their foot races. The winning team divides the dresses amongst themselves, gaining not only a refreshed wardrobe, but a new way to proclaim their Rarámuri identity. Frequent running ensures equitable redistribution, so that every woman receives an opportunity to wear a new dress. In this way, dressmaking has become central to the community-building and knowledge-sharing that keeps Rarámuri culture alive.

In my thinking and writing, I critique capitalism as the driving force behind the Rarámuri people’s poverty. I grew up crossing the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. During these crossings, my family taught me to give Rarámuri people my spare change. As I grew older, I learned to challenge the narratives of mestizaje that Mexico—and my family—perpetuates. The idea that Mexico’s prosperity depends on achieving “la raza cósmica” was first proposed by writer and philosopher José Vasconcelos in 1925, in an essay by the same name. In his vision of a cosmic race, Vasconcelos argues that the mixing of cultures is the only way to bring forward the best traits of the European, Indigenous, African, and Asian ancestors of the Mexican people. Vasconselos’ ideas became so ingrained in the Mexican social fabric that I grew up hearing references to “la raza” on the playground. As I got older, I heard friends and relatives allude to dating light-skinned people as a way to “mejorar la raza”—improve the Mexican race. Today, sociologists and cultural critics like Mónica Moreno Figueroa urge mestizos to see past this myth for what it truly is: an assimilation tactic aimed to erase Black, Indigenous, and Asian lives. This erasure is woven into global capitalism, which is rooted in the American plantation system that relied on enslaved peoples labor.

This is why the buying and reselling of Rarámuri-made dresses sounded an alarm in me. As long as the power dynamics inherent to capitalism continue to exist, there is no ethical way for Opening Ceremony—or any retailer—to conduct business with Indigenous people. Even if Opening Ceremony paid the Rarámuri seamstresses what Americans call “fair trade,” they would still earn significantly more through their markup. This deal would help shape their image too, even as Rarámuri women would continue to face daily violence. By facilitating this deal, I would move from documenting Rarámuri resistance to encouraging assimilation. 

On top of that, imposing a capitalist structure on the Rarámuris’ work was yet another way to exert pressure on them to assimilate. Although Opening Ceremony asked us to provide a timeline for the project, they made clear that they wanted to receive the dresses in accordance with their Year of Mexico. After speaking with Holguin and Anchondo, and considering my baby’s due date in November, we proposed a September delivery date. This would give Holguin four months to source the fabric and create 135 dresses. Though she said this was ample time to complete the dresses, I know that one of the ways Rarámuris actively resist assimilation is by abiding by cyclical time—part of the korima principle of exchange. In Rarámuri culture, people do not use money, but rather grow their own food (on the land Onorúame gave them) and redistribute it to families whose crops are failing due to drought. Their actions and values are guided by the belief that the harvest returns, as long as they care for the land. Cyclical time is at the heart of their economic practices and remains deeply embedded in Rarámuri culture (and in much of mainstream Mexican culture). Even with displacement to the cities, Rarámuri people still try to abide by sharing economy practices, and the cyclical calendar to which they are tied.  

Despite the fact that this is more difficult to accomplish in the city, where money and store hours determine what and how much you will eat and when you can buy food, the Rarámuri women in Oasis sew and cook and care for their children on their own timeline. Even though I have asked dozens of women, and observed them for hundreds of hours, I could not say with certainty how long it takes a Rarámuri woman to sew a dress. She could work all day and night to complete the dress if she wants to have it ready for an important festivity. Or she might take months, undoing stitches and switching out the color of the piping and the triangles until she finds the design that she wants. 

I had already responded to Leon to let him know that Holguin was in. But because I was concerned about Holguin’s willingness to meet industry expectations, I contacted my friend Tania Anchondo, a field researcher and photographer who works often in Oasis. When I told her about the deal with Opening Ceremony, she expressed that this was an important opportunity for Holguin and her seamstresses to earn income and publicity, which would allow them to finally grow their own workshop and potentially find even more lucrative business deals. I thought about traveling to Chihuahua to help with the project, but wasn’t prepared for the additional expense. Anchondo agreed to work with Holguin in person, and to help me establish timelines and pricing with Opening Ceremony. Though she helped me understand that I was to become an active participant in the very economic systems I seek to critique and overturn, I knew I was not going to undo centuries of colonization and systemic oppression by stepping out of this project, either.

Leon expressed his delight at Holguin’s agreement to work with Opening Ceremony. He connected me to his buyers, and we began an email conversation about fabric, cut, and sizing. We talked, too, about pricing. Neither Anchondo nor I had experience charging for clothing: she has sold photography, and I write and edit on commission. It felt strange, somehow immoral, for us to be the ones to set the price for Holguin’s dresses, even though we were the only ones with fluency in Mexican and US currency. To help us make our decision, we priced the fabric on the Telas Parisina website, the popular chain of fabric stores. We learned from Holguin that she typically sells her dresses for 400 pesos—about $20 USD. We researched the cost of other dresses on Opening Ceremony’s website and confirmed through a Google search that the mark-up was somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. We were shocked. I told Anchondo over the phone that I would cry out of fury if I saw a celebrity wearing the same dress that puts the lives of Rarámuri women in danger on a daily basis. It felt wrong, too, that Opening Ceremony would earn tremendous profits from dresses that hold traditional knowledge. But I reminded myself that the payoff would literally keep Rarámuri women alive—in the end, we agreed to sell women’s dresses, girls’ dresses, men’s shirts, and dolls marked up by 60 percent, and then a bit more, relying on nothing other than our intuition of how much they might be willing to pay. 

The money Opening Ceremony had promised to pay for the dresses was unprecedented, at one hundred dollars per dress. In Oasis, even well-off Rarámuri families live on just ten dollars a week, buying bags of beans at the big box supermarket up the road and rationing the portions. The fee from Opening Ceremony would be enough to support the seamstresses and their families for at least three months, and would be more than any Rarámuri family has received under federal or state aid. At the same time, money doesn’t hold the same meaning for Rarámuris as for mestizos, who often criticize them for refusing to work in the very factories that are purported to support them through job creation. They criticize them, too, for spending the little money they obtain on fabric for their dresses. But to the women, the knowledge and the memory of the mountains and rivers sewn onto their dresses is a source of life that has always meant more than financial reward. 

 

July 2019: 3 months until deadline, 135 dresses to go

Word soon spread around the community that Holguin had secured a lucrative business deal. Soon, Juanita Moreno, the Rarámuri governor of Oasis and a seamstress who sells her wares to local nonprofits, approached Holguin about dividing up the work among seamstresses who are not part of Holguin’s collective. Holguin declined, citing lack of loyalty. Shouting ensued. 

As I worried whether the women would be able to resolve their conflict, I filled out Opening Ceremony’s order forms. They had agreed to deliver 30 percent of the money upfront, so that the women could use the funds to work on the Opening Ceremony dresses instead of trying to collect enough coins on street corners for that day’s meal. We settled on color patterns, fabric, and sizing. We determined how many adult dresses, children’s dresses, dolls, and men’s shirts they wanted. I filled out four separate order forms, one for each store. I emailed them to ask questions about confusing retail and business terms. We exchanged hundreds of emails, which I read during breaks from work.

In the meanwhile, Holguin and Moreno reached a resolution on their own. Holguin approached Moreno while she was washing clothes and told her that she and other seamstresses could participate in the project. When I asked Holguin what motivated her to share the project with Moreno and other women, she didn’t answer. I didn’t push for clarification—I know, through years of experience, that Rarámuri women find “why” questions annoying.

The conflict apparently resolved, Anchondo and I backed off and let them work together to plan and execute the project. We let them know that we were available if they had any questions. We reminded them of the order delivery date—September—and promised that we could be available at a moment’s notice to answer any questions.

 

Image credit: Tania Anchondo.

 

August 2019: 2 months until deadline, 135 dresses to go

Weeks passed. My belly grew. The leaves on my crab apple tree turned dark green, and bunches of small red apples began to grow. At the doctor’s office, I saw my upturned nose on the sonogram. I ate and drank water at a pace my body demanded but my mind found exhausting. 

In late July, seven weeks after Anchondo accompanied Holguin to shop for the fabric, Anchondo and I started to worry that the Rarámuri women weren’t working quickly enough to meet the September deadline. They worked on machines for short periods, then abandoned them to sit outside and sew their own dresses by hand. After a heavy rain, they searched the city’s arroyos for edible herbs. Most evenings, their shouts of “weriga” and “weh-mah”—“run faster” and “run with all your strength”—sounded through the neighborhood. 

What if Opening Ceremony canceled their order? I brainstormed with Anchondo through a hurried exchange of Facebook messages. She suggested that a designer friend of hers could visit Holguin and teach her to make patterns. That way, the women would not spend so much time measuring the fabric—a task that took up a good portion of their working day. Rarámuri women usually measure by sight and had little experience using the metric system. Opening Ceremony had requested standardized measurements and a button at the waist, but the women use a woven belt to tie the dress at the waist, so an exact waist circumference is unimportant to them.

Anchondo’s friend agreed to provide the services pro bono. We pitched the idea to Holguin, equating the pattern-making to a time-saving tool similar to the sewing machine. Prior to the designer’s visit, I decided to introduce myself through WhatsApp. Anchondo was out of town that week, so he would be visiting Oasis on his own. I worried that Holguin would be more reserved around him without Anchondo present, and I wanted to advise the designer to be patient and non-assuming, as I myself had been advised a decade before. Three hours later, he texted me to say that the meeting had not gone well. “Why?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he said. “She didn’t listen to me. Before I knew it, I was out of there.” He included some laughing emojis.

“I understand exactly what happened,” I replied. Holguin had used the same passive resistance tactics to get rid of him as other Rarámuri women had previously used on me. Later, I learned that Holguin had refused to acknowledge the designer’s presence in her workshop. He had left after a short while, not wanting to press her. Later, Anchondo wondered whether it would have made a difference if she had been present when the designer arrived at the workshop. It didn’t matter, we decided; ignoring the designer was Holguin’s way of telling us that we should not interfere without being asked by her. I felt shame that she couldn’t tell me directly that she did not want the designer present.

After this incident, I dreamed about writing the following email: “Rarámuri people abide by cyclical time, and don’t care about production schedules or standardized measurements. Pay them generously, and don’t expect to have a set go-to-market date.” But what good would that do? I felt sure that Opening Ceremony would grant extensions, but a due date as a might-happen-might-not does not work in market economies. It seemed more likely, too, that Opening Ceremony would simply lose interest, and decide to move on in pursuit of another trend.

Two weeks later, Holguin called to tell me that her son, Fernando, had died in a car crash earlier that day. Holguin was in the mountain municipality of Guachochi to distribute food she and her husband had brought from the capital. That morning, she had met privately with the Mexican president, Andres Manuel López Obrador, who was visiting the mountain villages to hear directly from Rarámuri communities about the drought and hunger plaguing the region. Holguin had urged him to send enough aid to feed thousands of people in the Sierra. There to accompany his mother, Fernando drove home that afternoon to see his family and rest before his early-morning shift at a road construction site. His pickup truck swerved off the road. The three young Rarámuri men inside, sons and husbands and fathers, died trapped in their seats, waiting for help to arrive. 

“Tell the designer that I will not be able to deliver the dresses on time,” Holguin said. It was evening where I was, and a cool breeze rushed around the fire-red maple, through the hexagon window, and over my bed, where I lay watching TV, shifting from side to side in an attempt to alleviate the dull ache in my lower back caused by my seven-months-pregnant belly. I told Holguin I would handle the business deal, to not worry about the money. But in saying this, I felt disgust that a clothing brand had the power to pressure Holguin in the hours after her son’s death.

Immediately after hanging up, I dashed off an email to the production manager to let them know that their order needed to be delayed due to the sudden death of Holguin’s son. The manager responded that same evening to express condolences and to say that Holguin should take the time she needed. I hated the thought of interrupting Holguin’s mourning with an update about her business deal, even though it had more at stake for Holguin and the seamstresses than any other communication in her life—perhaps even more than her two meetings with the president. I wasn’t sure how much time Opening Ceremony was willing to give, but I called Holguin back to tell her not to worry, that the deal would carry forward, to take her time. “Gracias,” she said, and I could hear the relief in her voice.

 

Sept 2019: 0 months until deadline, 135 dresses to go

One afternoon in early September, I stood on my eldest child’s elementary school blacktop. The wind had swept dried leaves against the chain link fences. My two sons climbed the jungle gym, blending in with others wearing brightly-colored fleece jackets. I was freezing in a maternity dress with no tights, since I had failed to buy maternity versions on a recent trip to Target.

Holguin had returned to her workshop soon after Fernando’s wake and burial. It was worse to sit in her house doing nothing, she had texted. There were too many families relying on this project, and they looked to Holguin for guidance. She wanted to keep the original September timeline, suggesting that perhaps Opening Ceremony would order more dresses if she delivered them as promised. I, perhaps naively, thought this was a possibility too.

 But throughout August, Anchondo reported that the women, including Holguin, continued to sew at their own pace. When the women failed to deliver in early September, I told Opening Ceremony that the death of Holguin’s son had indeed made it difficult for her to keep to the project timeline. This was only partially true, but I didn’t want to complicate matters by explaining the historical factors behind the barriers we encountered during this project. Opening Ceremony asked that we keep them updated, though I felt that the threat of cancelation was still present.

Holguin called as I watched my sons play. We started our conversation asking after each other’s children, and her about my pregnancy. With measured casualness, I asked her how the dresses were coming along. She said, in Spanish, “ay van,” a phrase that translates roughly to “they’re coming along.” So I decided to try to motivate her with the promise of financial incentive. I started off by describing summer-turning-into-fall in Minneapolis and moved into the Thanksgiving holiday that would be coming up in just a couple months. On that weekend, I told Holguin, there would be a large, nationwide sale in which most Americans go shopping. It would be an excellent opportunity for Opening Ceremony to sell the Rarámuris’ dresses, so it was in her best interest to deliver them in the next two weeks.

Holguin said she would talk to the other women, who had been dancing matachines. I was surprised to hear that they had held their prayer dances in September, since I had only ever seen this activity during the Easter holiday and the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I asked her why. Holguin responded, “Because we want to.” 

 

Image credit: Tania Anchondo.

 

November 10, 2020: 2 months past deadline, 60 dresses to go

After the birth of my first child, in 2013, I found myself missing pregnancy. I didn’t miss the physical discomforts, but, in a perverse way, I missed how, when the due date felt impossibly far away, I experienced time as something that stood still. I missed how the immediate demands of my body took precedence over my writing deadlines and daily responsibilities. 

I sat on my sofa on the night of November 10, my due date, eating Starbursts from my sons’ Halloween buckets. I went to bed at eleven and fell asleep promptly. Thirty minutes later, I awoke to a tightening in my belly and an ache that grew stronger with each passing second. By next morning, my newborn son was in my arms. I checked my phone to see if my mother, who was watching my two sons at home, had messaged me during my labor. Instead, I saw a message from Anchondo. With her help, the women had sent their first shipment the day before.

At the end of September, the seamstresses had finally begun to assemble the order. Anchondo and I suspected that the upcoming feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, on December 12, was motivating them: Every year, Rarámuri women spend weeks preparing their fermented corn beer, sewing elaborate dresses, and saving money for the cow they sacrifice to honor the Virgin, whom they believe is Onorúame’s mother. When we realized this, Anchondo and I decided that we would not pressure the seamstresses any more, and that I would simply provide cheerful and vague updates to Opening Ceremony to try to stay in their good graces. I also promised myself that if Opening Ceremony eventually backed out of the deal, I would fight to make sure they paid the seamstresses for their labor.

From my hospital bed, I wrote to Opening Ceremony to notify them about the shipment. The dresses were arriving late, and the shipment was partial, but they were on their way. I turned off my phone, and did not turn it back on for days.

 

December 2019: 3 months past deadline, 135 dresses delivered 

One December evening, Holguin sat at one of the sewing tables, a plastic shopping bag filled with cash beside her. On the table before her was a sheet of notebook paper on which her daughter had written the name of each seamstress, the number of dresses she had sewn, and the money she was owed. Holguin had attended elementary school sporadically in the Sierra, and knew how to write some. Her daughters, raised in Oasis, had all attended the school within the settlement and learned to write in Spanish and Rarámuri.

As each woman approached the table, Holguin and her daughter asked her to sign beside her printed name. She then received the cash she was owed, counted before her by Holguin’s daughter. Anchondo watched from the side. She noted that Holguin’s daughter, who had attended nursing school, followed the standard business protocol of record-keeping and transparency. But it soon became apparent that most of the women did not know how to count money, and many suspected they had been cheated. As the women spoke up, Holguin and her daughter defended themselves. They showed the ledger they had kept. They argued that they had no reason to keep money to themselves. A woman countered that this was not true; withholding wages was a way to get revenge on the women Holguin had wanted to keep out of the project.

Anchondo called me that night, upset. The conflict had, once again, devolved into furious shouting. It was also challenging anew the sharing economy the women had fought so hard to keep alive. During excursions to city intersections to ask for money, I have often seen Rarámuri women split their coins evenly, or give extra to the family most in need. Sharing has always been not only a method of survival, but of remembering that the well-being of one depends on the health of all. To hear now that the seamstresses accused Holguin of lying and stealing—and were attempting to extract more money from her—made clear to me that the project had entrenched in the women the pressures of capitalist time. Community was eroding. I had supported capitalism instead of their sharing economy. I promised myself that I never would again, though I suspect that this resolution was an attempt to elide my own complicity.

When the dresses were finally unveiled, in January of 2020, Opening Ceremony posted on Instagram a photo of Catalina Aguirre, a sixteen-year-old mother of one who had participated in the project. In late summer, Opening Ceremony had sent a member of their company and a photographer to document the women at work. Seeing Catalina’s image on the Opening Ceremony Instagram both moved and disturbed me. My feelings of shame intensified when I saw commenters accuse Opening Ceremony of appropriation. But then I remembered that, ten years ago, when Aguirre was only six, she spent hours each day standing at the drive-through window of the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken waiting for mestizos to give her coins or a portion of their takeout. Knowing Opening Ceremony’s fees will keep her and her family fed for months, I mustered the will to tweet once about the collaboration. Then I stayed silent, not even telling my closest friends about it.

In the year since the collaboration was unveiled, Rarámuri seamstresses have designed their own logos and set up virtual stores on Facebook and Instagram. Yet attracting clients continues to be their main obstacle, especially when mestiza-owned workshops secure attention from magazines like Vogue México and sign deals like one with a Mexican airline to sell Rarámuri-made facemasks. Still, Holguin credits the Opening Ceremony collaboration with showing the seamstresses how to better organize themselves to meet a future production timeline. She admitted to me that the deadline gave her so much anxiety that it became difficult to work, which is why the dress order was sent in two late shipments. She hopes to continue selling dresses and wishes that more people around the world knew the beauty of Rarámuri dressmaking. Because she continues to abide by korima, Holguin invites everyone who wants a Rarámuri dress to wear it. She sells her dresses to non-Rarámuris because her people must learn the market system in order to survive. But she still believes korima is what will save us all from the intensifying drought. She also hopes the dresses will inspire people to learn and practice the principle and begin to erode the capitalist system that harms our interdependent world. This logic of circularity, of return, has helped her community stay close. As for myself, I have since turned my focus to a book on Rarámuri resistance I had recently sold to a non-profit publisher. I also believe in listening to Holguin. On the few occasions I have worn a Rarámuri dress outside of Oasis, I tell the story of the woman who made the dress. I talk about the mountains stitched onto the hem and the land that extends across the skirt and blouse, territory in which Rarámuri people welcome me if I am respectful.

Victoria Blanco

Victoria Blanco's first book, Out of the Sierra, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Literary Hub, Catapult, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She is from the sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children.

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