by Mele Martinez
It’s a monsoon summer night and a dozen comadres sit in a circle talking, planning, and organizing in a small retreat room. The sounds of thunder and babies and young children at play add buoyancy to their conversation.
That their children are nearby is telling. “We work at the pace of our children,” one woman in the circle says, “That is how it is driven. By our ancestors and our children.”
Their tether to the ancestors is less audible, but no less vivid.
Wrapped around one woman, is a colorful shawl, or rebozo, which hugs her shoulders and drapes her knees like a celestial robe. The rebozo, says Maria del Carmen Parra Cano, not only comforts her and helps her carry her babies, but also connects her to the other women in the room, to family, to community, and to heritage.
In 2015, after losing her mother and giving birth to her second child, Maria needed help. In a bout of postpartum depression, she asked a few friends for support. Ten women gathered at a Phoenix coffee shop. The next time they met, fifteen women came.
The women provided Maria a support system for the births of all four of her children, she says. “Three here earthside and one in the spirit world, each birth was a new traumatic experience, but I had the collective, a group of women to fall back on.”
The group eventually became the Cihuapactli Collective. “Cihuapactli” in Nahuatl derives from the words “cihuame,” meaning women, and “pactli,” meaning medicine. Today, the collective works to support families and womb health through ancestral and traditional knowledge, including various rebozo practices. Maria serves as its executive director.
Among the collective’s partners are doctors, doulas, educators, therapists, activists, artists, midwives, documentarians, healers, and elders. They represent various ancestral traditions and heritages, including Mexican, Guatemalan, Afro-Cuban, and Filipino.
Perla Farias, a mother of twins, first met Maria in MECha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) at Arizona State University. When the two became mothers, they wondered how to carry their babies into the daily activities of their lives. In the United States, mothers tend to keep and carry babies in high tech strollers, car seats, highchairs, walkers or other paraphernalia. Did it have to be that way?
Their inquiry became a focus for the Cihuapactli Collective, and they found the beginning of an answer with the traditional Mexican rebozo, a long shawl worn around the head, shoulders, and waist, used by women in many global cultures to carry babies and children.
“The rebozo, reclaiming it, would pave the way,” says Perla. But while the women knew the rebozo was central, they didn’t know much about its history. “We tried to seek that knowledge, but it wasn’t passed down to us, even though it is absolutely part of our ancestry. We would research it online, but it was all coming from [sources] that didn’t have our background.”
So, they turned to the collective. In community with each other, the women of the collective found they each had a piece of ancestral knowledge, Perla says. Together they could archive and teach others about the rebozo.
The word rebozo comes from the Spanish “rebozar,” to coat or to cover. But the cloth garment existed in the Americas long before Spanish colonization. Indigenous women of Mesoamerica were the primary weavers of the first rebozos, often crafted with body-tensioned or back-strap otate looms. To create patterns and color variations in the fabric, indigenous women used the jaspe method of resist-dyeing threads before weaving. Rectangular garments of various sizes were used for every stage of life including marriage, birth and labor, baby-carrying, and burial. Spanish colonization brought new methods of weaving, imported materials, and religious conversions that led to new traditions of dress, including the Catholic tradition of covering the head upon entering a church.
With colonization, rebozos were soon influenced by the fringed shawls of the Philippines and Spanish mantillas. New weaving traditions incorporated knotting designs known as “puntas.” Empuntadoras, the respected craftswomen who create intricate geometric designs on the puntas of the rebozo, continued the traditions of rebocería through every generation of Mexico’s history.
The rebozo became an iconic symbol for Mexican national identity when early 20th century artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo artistically or fashionably represented the indigenous images of men and women wrapped in folk textiles. The rebozo appears often in Mexican poetry, music, and folk dance.
Over the last few decades, the rebozo has found fashion in the United States as well, especially with the rise in popularity of natural birthing methods. New mothers-to-be have sought out baby slings, wraps, and carriers of every kind with a growing interest in rebozos, including how the garment aids in both birth and postpartum care.
In their search to learn more about this ancestral garment, the women of the Cihuapactli Collective found that many of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents living in the United States no longer knew much about it. One Cihuapactli member says this is because the legacy of colonialism separated people from long-time cultural practices.
“[They] were told not to live their faith. ‘Don’t speak your language, don’t eat your foods, don’t do anything that makes you different’,” she said.
This separation, speculates another, has been a detriment to new generations of women, manifesting in postpartum depression, anxiety, and suicide as women find themselves more isolated and less equipped to handle the pressures of modern motherhood.
The Collective recognizes the rebozo as a tool for mothering and a representation of communal care of women and families. As such, it works to re-educate women about its use and significance.
“These traditions are in our DNA,” says one Collective member. “We are living proof of what our grandparents and elders who came before us have worked so hard for, lived for, died for. This is what we are supposed to be doing. This is how we are supposed to be living our lives and helping each other.”
For Maria del Carmen, the rebozo has been a crucial part of both birthing and healing. Her third pregnancy felt different than the others, she says. The Collective offered constant prayer and support. Trained partera, or midwife, Angelita Valencia Borbón, served as doula for Maria, assisting her through what became a traumatic birth process.
In a blog post, Maria wrote of the painful process of a stillbirth delivery and the role of the rebozo in the experience. When her induced labor kicked in, Maria wrote, “We had our rebozos ready.”
Her partner used the rebozo to support her during contractions with a practice called “manteada,” where the rebozo is wrapped around the belly or back and is gently rocked to relax and massage muscles and hip joints.
After the ordeal, the Collective provided meals and helped organize a ceremony to help Maria and her family to express their grief. “Comadritas gathered to have a belly binding ceremony for me which was different from our other births,” she writes in the same blog post. “[We] decided to honor our son with services in ceremonia and have danza, a family cremation ceremony and private burial. We had so much community support, it meant everything to us during this time.”
Three years later, Maria still sheds tears sharing this story to the group in the retreat room. But along with the sadness, she finds great joy, too–laughing with women who have walked their own paths of motherhood and sisterhood alongside her. These devoted relationships allow the group to retreat together to plan public activities and workshops that may benefit many more women.
The collective is currently organizing the Ancestor Womb Wellness Gathering, an event offering educational support to the public and celebrating women at all three major stages of life–coming of age, birth and pregnancy, and elderhood and transition. Their hope is that new generations of women will continue rebozo practices for labor and postpartum care, for carrying babies and groceries, for ceremony and veiling, for blanket and comfort, for protection from the heat and the cold, for beauty and fashion, and for the bonds between women and their ancestors.
Melani “Mele” Martinez is a writer, mother, and flamenco dancer from Tucson. She is currently at work on a memoir entitled The Molino and works as a lecturer at the University of Arizona teaching first year writing and food writing courses.
Indigena Mami – A resource-rich website and blog on the rebozo by Maria del Carmen Parro Cano.
Ancestral Womb Wellness Gathering – Eventbrite page
The Mexican Jaspe (Ikat) Rebozo: Comments on its history, significance and prevalence
La Rebocería – a Facebook page and online market honoring empuntadoras of Mexico