Death & the Maiden’s own Sarah Chavez presents the rebozo. For centuries, broken-hearted mothers have wrapped their lifeless infants in them for burial and covered their faces with it to signify mourning. The use of the rebozo as a shroud was once so common in Mexico, many artisans created them solely for this purpose, whereas today, only a few remain.
A rebozo is a long, flat garment used by women mostly in Mexico. It can be worn in various ways, usually folded or wrapped around the head and/or upper body to shade from the sun, provide warmth and as an accessory to an outfit. It is also used to carry babies and large bundles, especially among indigenous women. – Wikipedia
No one in my family wore a rebozo once they arrived in America. Traveling from Mexico in a covered wagon, like many other immigrants during California’s pioneering era, they quickly learned to adapt. For most Mexicans, adapting meant not only abandoning your home for a new one, but your culture, too.
I inherited my first rebozo by chance when I took over my friend Rosario’s teaching position. She had left it behind hanging on a coat hook. When I tried to give it back, she refused saying, “No, no you will need it. It’s yours now.” She was right. As someone who is constantly cold and feels unsettled without layers of clothing on, or a blanket even during the uncomfortable heat of summer, it wasn’t long before I took it down from its place on the hook and wrapped it across my shoulders. It was immediately comforting. As the weeks and then years went on I wore a rebozo almost daily and in a way, it became a part of my identity. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that this simple piece of fabric was an iconic symbol used by Mexican women to change not only their own lives and identities but the course of history.
The rebozo as we know it is believed to have originated during the early colonial period and was inspired not only by the handwork of indigenous peoples but the Spanish as well. By the 1800s it seemed that women of all classes and backgrounds wore a rebozo, using it in many different ways. Most often worn for both warmth and fashion purposes, it has been an indispensable tool for mothers, providing support during the pregnancy and labor process and later, as a baby carrier. A useful medical aid as a tourniquet for wounds and headaches or sling for broken bones.
Death is inherently linked with the rebozo as well. For centuries, broken-hearted mothers have wrapped their lifeless infants in them for burial and covered their faces with it to signify mourning. The use of the rebozo as a shroud was once so common in Mexico, many artisans created them solely for this purpose, whereas today, only a few remain. These special garments for the dead must also be infused with aroma de luto, the scent of mourning. A multi-step process, some ingredients are woven into the garment, such as spanish moss. Fabric may be exposed to an occasional smoking process where herbs like sage or rosemary that give off a pleasant odor are burned in close proximity. Finally, the threads may be soaked in cloves, rose petals, water lilies and cocoa. Some of the process can be seen in the following video:
Lilies and cocoa are both part of Mayan mythology and the intimate relationship they cultivated between the living and the dead. Mayan priests would drink lily water to facilitate communication with the dead. For them, the cacao tree was regarded as a holy tree – life sustaining but also a portal to death. It was representative of blood, their ancestors, women, and the underworld or land of the dead.
Once it had firmly established a permanent place in the daily lives of Mexican women, the rebozo would move on to becoming far more than a fashionable tool. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 as a protest to the long-standing dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Many women played a vital role in the war as Las Soldaderas who often followed their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers into war. They initially took on work that sustained the men who were fighting – setting up camp, cooking, and providing medical care. However, many Soldaderas quickly took on tasks and roles that moved them far beyond the realm they had traditionally been relegated to by men.
Venturing out into battlefields when the fighting was over, the women searched corpses for supplies and valuables, hiding their bounty within their rebozos. Firearms, ammunition and other weaponry was often smuggled within the folds of a Soldadera’s rebozo. Unsatisfied with allowing others to fight for their cause, some women took up arms and fought on the front lines, often taking the place of their deceased loved ones, filling their military roles. In an effort to maintain their femininity they often wore “plundered finery, wearing silk stockings and dresses, sandals and straw hats.” – Benjamin Keen & Keith Haynes, A History of Latin America, 2008.
Throughout the Revolution more and more women began to take initiative: “In Puente de Ixtla, Morelos, the widows, wives, daughters and sisters of the rebels formed their own battalion to ‘seek vengeance for the dead.’ Under the command of a stocky former tortilla-maker by the name of China, they carried out incursions throughout the Tetecala district. Some dressed in rags, others in elegant stolen clothes–silk stockings and silk dresses, huaraches, straw hats and cartridge belts–these women became the terror of the region.” – John Womak, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, 1970.
One of the many notable Soldaderas was Petra Herrera. She fought under Pancho Villa, concealing her gender to do so, calling herself “Pedro” and dressing like a man. “…Herrera blew up bridges and demonstrated extraordinary leadership abilities…having gained a reputation as an ‘excellent soldier’, one day she showed everyone her braids and shouted ‘I’m a woman and I will continue to carry out my duties as a soldier using my real name!’ … Petra Herrera continued to fight in combat and took part, together with some 400 other women, in the second Battle of Torreón in May 30, 1914…Perhaps it was because her worth as a soldier was never formally recognized that Petra was motivated to form her own brigade which quickly grew from 25 to 1,000 women.” – John Womak, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, 1970.
Another woman from the Mexican Revolution worth noting here, is Maria Zavala nicknamed by the soldiers La Destroyer. She began by doing welding work but later became known for making sure dying soldiers were given a good death. In some instances this meant she assisted them in dying a quicker and less painful death.
While Las Soldaderas were feminist revolutionaries in the physical realm, artist and revolutionary in her own right, Frida Kahlo used her art, words and fashion to “fight” in the intellectual and cultural realm. According to an interview with Circe Henestrosa, the director of the fashion program at Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts, Kahlo carefully chose her clothing to reflect her beliefs and project her identity. She adopted the Tehuana style of clothing worn by women in the in the state of Oaxaca. Photographs of Kahlo’s family depicting her mother as a young child show that her ancestors wore this style as well. It is particularly significant as not only were rebozos part of the costume but, as Henestrosa explains, “The Tehuantepec Isthmus is a matriarchal society, so that means women dominate the culture; they administer the society. Frida Kahlo didn’t just choose any dress from Mexico. She chose a dress that symbolizes a very powerful woman.”
Today, most Mexican women own a rebozo. It has become an emblem of Mexico, feminism and memento mori. When I wear a rebozo I carry on my shoulders the words, songs, deeds, joys, courage, grief and wisdom of my ancestors. When I die, a rebozo will serve as my shroud, imbued with the stories of my own life and passed on to the next generation of women to come.