Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Inspiration: Maya de Mexico

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What do you all think of tourists' souvenir garments from the 1950s? I always suspect there's something not-quite-politically-correct about it, but I do love the Mexican garments of this ilk. I've recently seen a few by Maya de Mexico, and they're lovely. I can't find a lot of info on the company, but it's clear that all the pieces were made in Mexico City and were brought home by American tourists.

I'm majorly coveting this skirt, mostly because I love the combination of cotton and sequins.

Here's another lovely Maya de Mexico piece, a two-piece separates set that presents the appearance of a dress.
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Many Mexican skirts of this era were handpainted, which is an interesting sewing puzzle. The pieces must have been embellished post-cutting because they manage to create perfect border prints on a circle skirt, which is an impossibility with a traditional printed border fabric. The skirts also have a lot of sequin embellishment, like this flamboyant example:

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Here's another example of a separates set, this time in a kitschy matador/sombrero print.

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Aztec motifs were also very popular.

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What do you think of these designs? I love the mixture of humble cotton day pieces with exquisite embellishments. I'm particularly taken with the idea of hand embellishing a print circle skirt with sequins.

I'm especially interested to hear what you all think of the politics of these garments. Back in my grad school days, this is what we would have called "cultural appropriation," a convenient borrowing of minority customs and dress as a novelty for the tourist classes. (I try to shy away from grad school language these days, but sometimes it can't be avoided.) Of course, post-war America took fashion inspiration from all over the map. (Just think of sarong dresses and cheongsams worn by American military wives.) And these appropriations made for some of the most fascinating styles of the time, teh rare pieces that we love to talk about today. Whatever your thoughts on the political connotations of Mexican souvenir garments, I don't think it can be denied that these are incredibly interesting pieces of fashion history. What's your take?

43 comments:

  1. Personally, cultural appropriation bothers me more when it is being used to represent or make money for the dominant culture. Also, when the act of appropriation excises spiritual/religious meaning from the objects being appropriated.

    My question with tourist fashion is: are these garments being made in and purchased from their country of origin? Or is it North American companies knocking off authentic pieces for a profit? I don't personally see a problem with the former but the latter bothers me, for the reason listed above.

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  2. wow! I really like the shape of this shirt and dress! lovely :)

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  3. I think it's great that people see another culture and are fascinated by aspects of it, clothing included, to support that industry. I view this like bringing home any other souvenir - is this any different than my uncle sending my grandma silk robes from Vietnam in the 1970's? My mother purchased her wedding dress in Mexico City, in a traditional and simple style - although she had to add 5" of lace to the bottom to support her billowy 5'7" frame - neither of my parents are of Mexican heritage, my mom just dug the look in 1975. I love the artistry and the shape of these skirts and wish I had some!

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  4. I love Mexican art and clothing is no exception. Each Mexican state has it's own style of clothing and elaborate embroidering and motifs. Some of the garments I've seen from Chiapas are absolutely breath taking.

    ~Sewjourner

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  5. I'm not as bothered by these pieces as I would be if the garments were in a more 'authentic' cut. I'm more OK with someone using traditional design motifs from another culture on 'Western' style clothing than I am seeing a (usually white, usually middle class) person dressing like they are a Mexican peasant farmer. Somehow that always ends up looking like a costume to me - and it seems disrespectful and almost mocking. I'm thinking of Marie Antoinette dressing like a milkmaid and playing at being a farmer...

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  6. Manufacture of the garments provided employment for indigenous workers. Cost of these souvenirs brought more money into Mexico's economy than trinkets would have done. Dissemination of one's culture through trade is less violent than through warfare. I see no problem with these lovely garments -- cross-cultural tourism makes us more tolerant of the "stranger," and thus more likely to treat those of other cultures with dignity and respect when next we encounter them.

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  7. Those outfits are lovely, and I see no problem with wearing a garment from another culture, as long as the garment does justice to the culture. Now, the wretch-inducing faux-suede "Indian" (as in Native American) Pocahontas-wouldn't-wear-one-to-her-own-funeral dresses flooding the stores of France, those are an example of when cultural appropriations go Bad.

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  8. I have some skirts. Mine are handpainted and sequined. LOVE THEM....it's a cultural thing for me personally. I also have a lovely wool Mexican jacket with two dancers appliqued on the back of the jacket. It's probably from the same fashion era or possibly from the 40s. Anyway, it's a unique piece that I once got offered $500 for it off my back...kept the jacket. These are old pieces that reflect a more simple time. You can't find things like this now, made with the quality of these garments. Whenever I go vintage shopping, I always seek out a Mexican skirt to see what's out there.

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  9. I don't think this is politically correct: in fact, I think these pieces are really interesting historical pieces when thought about in terms of the relationship between Mexico and the U.S.

    I have a traditional hand-embroidered top I bought in Mexico: it wasn't cheap and I don't wear it very often, but when I do people always ask about it and I get to tell them about the beautiful women in Oaxaca that were wearing them and making them and gave me dried crickets to eat while they showed me their work. Sure, it's a souvenir, but it means so much to me because of all of that.

    I've always wanted one of these vintage Mexican skirts for summer: so fun and so beautiful!

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  10. I see nothing wrong in it at all. Seeing a national style merged with another is interesting and has happened since the year dot. There's a difference between using and being inspired by elements of other countries traditions and just wearing national dress.

    It would be like me, as a Scot, getting upset at people wearing tartan! That would be silly, it's everywere. However, it gets a bit irritating seeing people with very tenuous or no links wearing full highland regalia! Definitely a difference there.

    Oh and some of these are beautiful.

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  11. These are original skirts, made in Mexico by women of that culture. You can tell that a lot of work, care and pride went into each garment. I am fine with that. What I don't like is an oversimplified cartoon, "authentically" made in China, sold by the hundreds at a tourist shop.

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  12. Those are beautiful! (And now I want to hand paint a border print on a circle skirt. As if I don't have enough on my plate!)

    Like the others, if they're made by Mexican people working in (for the time/place) fair conditions, what's to object to? I think history is all about the dialogue between cultures, inspiration running both ways. If it's happening peacefully, via commerce, as opposed to through war, conquest, and slavery---then we should be delighted. Are the Mexican crafters stretching and re-defining their art to accomodate American tastes? Doubtless. But art is all about stretching and re-defining. If we were to take these as, perhaps, authentic examples of what a traditional Mexican woman wore, obviously we would be mistaken, but there's nothing wrong with appreciating them for what they are---unique, fabulous pieces born of a cross-pollination between two cultures.

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  13. Coco Fusco has a really good essay on cultural appropriation from native cultures called "Who's Doin' the Twist" in her book English is Broken Here. I didn't see the essay online, but here's someone's blog ABOUT it with some good quotes from it: http://is.gd/q4EeEU.

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  14. Is it bad to say that I love a bit of cultural appropriation? I like to buy these pieces vintage and wear them while touring the country of their inspiration (if not origin). I also like to sew my own versions, when possible. That matador dress is truly wonderful. Though don't listen to me, I could be a bad person.

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  15. These pieces are fabulous. I would love to try my hand at painting a circle skirt one day with similar artwork.
    As far as the political aspect of it goes, I see nothing wrong with these pieces being sold to tourists so that the honest hard working people in mexico can make a living. It validates their art that people come from other parts of the world and chose to spend their money on these works of art. I'm sure that the artisans put a lot of hard work in to it and I can only hope they got a fair price for their wares. As a Latin woman I can only say that it is nice for others to appreciate your culture and want to wear a garment inspired by it. We ourselves wear our culture with pride. My only hope is that the people wearing these garments appreciate the culture and the people as a whole. If you can appreciate a skirt from Mexico, I sure hope you can appreciate a person from Mexico as well. - Lucha Lovely

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  16. Oh dear, I never thought of this this way. I lived most of my life in San Antonio and similar types of outfits are in the stores down there and some of us wore them, especially during Fiesta week in April, celebrating Texas Independence from Mexico, celebrated by all cultures. We just embraced the local heritage and enjoyed from fiestas with cascarones, clothing and terrific food!
    Laurie

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  17. I actually wrote a paper touching on this subject for one of my undergrad classes. It was based on an article in the Journal of American Folklore about Mexican campos, traveling shows that went between the US-Mexico border during the early part of the 20th Century. Essentially, the traditional Mexican costumes were diluted to reflect audience preference and culture, and Mexico recognized the potential income selling watered-down ethnic dress to tourists. I don't see anything wrong with these lovely items or Mexican/Maya/Inca inspired designs. What I see as wrong is the appropriation of such things without an understanding of the culture from which they originate, like Asian character tattoos--you shouldn't get them because they're trendy, but because you have a love, appreciation, and understanding of the cultural significance.

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  18. It is clothes like this that make me wish that more of my Great Grandmother's culture (Mexican) came down through the generations to me. Unfortunately, even her own children got virtually none of her culture other than the food. And I can't even eat the food because I'm allergic to peppers.
    Personally, I don't have a problem with souvenir garments as long as they are made in their country of origin. At least the money to make them is supporting the people whose culture is being represented. Plus, I would rather see something like your lovely examples than a "My parents went to Mexico and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" that is made in China.

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  19. As we become a more global people, items like these will be valued for their authenticity and beauty. I travel in the southwest every year, and it is disheartening to see the drek being offered to tourists. These clothes are works of art.

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  20. I'm a native San Diegan, and I grew up visiting Tijuana regularly. As long as I can remember, I've always had the traditional embroidered cotton peasant tops and dresses from TJ. My Mom and I purchased all the tiles and lots of beautiful decor for her new house in either Tijuana or Tecate. We feel like we're honoring the craftsmen of Mexico and supporting their business. To me it's a very special part of living in Southern California.

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  21. Oh! I LOVE all those garments. Nowdays they don't do them anymore, those were done in the 50's, I searched in google about a skirt I own (it is my mom's actualy) but this fabric doesn't exist anymore.
    Of course they were hand painted and till now days people who do it are payed very very low.
    Our mexican "artesanos" are great! they do great things including clothes.
    Here I leave you a link to one post were I am wearing one of those skirts.

    http://lizzyinlovewithvintage.blogspot.com/2009/10/falda-circular-de-los-50s.html

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  22. My parents travelled to Mexico several times in the 50s (the University of Miami had a summer program there, and my father taught several courses). They had some clothes made--shirts and skirts, very simple things, nothing as dramatic as these. I wore some of those clothes in the 70s...now they're long-gone, but I still have the buttons!

    I'm all for buying things that are hand-made in the actual country. Made in China? Not so much.

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  23. I love the lines of these garments. They look like they were designed with the American market in mind, as the style points match up to the trends of the time. As to cultural appropriation-- there are good points and bad I suppose. Take the example of the Cowichan sweaters. When knitted by the Salish people in the traditional style and using the traditional methods and motifs, they were sold for a fair price to tourists and provided income for the native people while sustaining their traditions. When the American manufacturers took the ideas and started making machine-knitted knock offs to sell for cheap, the original knitters were sold out and suffered the loss of their income as well as the traditions associated with the sweaters. They ceased to be an honorific of the culture and instead were an appropriation. So if the sale and production of culturally significant items for sale to tourists benefits the root culture, then I think it's awesome. When we choose instead to purchase cheap knock-offs inspired by that culture without a benefit to that root culture, it's not good.

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  24. Well I like the idea of buying a souveniere that can be worn. And I think that american's are especially interested in other cultures art etc and it seems ok to me to sort of use that. I mean we don't get upset when we see souvenire pieces from florida with oranges on them.

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  25. OH, my goodness, these are fabulous - especially the second example. I've never seen anything like them. I'd LOVE to own something like that - or better yet, to make something like it. Looks like it would take about a year!

    I don't think that these garments are politically incorrect at all!

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  26. I'm about as white-bread and ethnicity-challenged as one can get, and as such I have trouble sensing what might or might not be inappropriate or even offensive to other cultures.

    Things like weapons or war memorabilia that represent a past cultural tragedy, or repurposed religious objects, or images that are clearly insulting caricatures of a culture, seem like clear-cut cases of offensiveness.

    But with certain forms of art, including fashion, I guess it would be best to inquire of someone who comes from that culture. I remember some sort of a controversy during the Olympics about use of Aboriginal cultural symbols - symbols which were designed and selected with the intent of honoring, not offending, the First Nations. Just another reminder that it should be the offendEE, not the offender, who makes the determination.

    It's funny because I would probably think to ask a Japanese friend whether it was questionable for me to wear a kimono, but I might not think to ask a Mexican friend about one of these lovely tourist dresses. Maybe living in the Southwest for so many years has made me less sensitive to other cultures. Something for me to think about!

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  27. I must be simple minded, but I don't understand why it would be not PC to wear these gorgeous garments! That black and gold two piece is fabulous! If only I could find something like this to wear. I think my mother had a similar skirt. I don't know if it is still at her house. I remember it being black gold and white, but I thought it was a wrap style. They are simply beautiful, feminine outfits.

    Judy

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  28. It's ironic that no one mentions cultural appropriation when Americans go to France and buy couture ;-). I think the clothes pictured are universally lovely, and treasuring them honors the culture that produced them. On the other hand, the bales of cut up kimonos, intended for crafts, tend to make me weep.

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  29. I love all of the garments you chose, particularly the toreador skirt! Oh, what I wouldn't do to have that in my closet! As someone who is a quarter-Mexican and was regularly gifted embroidered peasant blouses and dresses by my fully Mexican family growing up, I don't really have a problem with this phenomenon. In recent years I've purchased embroidered tops for myself at local museums during Mayan and Frida Kahlo exhibits. I see it as Mexican people sharing a part of their heritage and tradition that they are extremely proud of in a manner that is appeasing to another culture. Now, if you told me that they weren't made by Mexican hands in Mexico or labor exploitation was going on, I'd have a huge problem.

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  30. I bought a hand-painted Mexican circle skirt when I lived in London (the vintage shop in Alfie's Antique Mall had loads. Mine was on sale, but they are generally not cheap). I loved the colours on it and the fact that the waist is somewhat like a wrap dress. If you gain or lose a few pounds it will still fit.

    As far as 'cultural appropriation'...I guess I didn't think of it that way. I think of it more as cultural appreciation.

    I love your blog, by the way. x

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  31. Pretty clothes. Grad school profs need to get the sticks out of their butts. That's right, I said it.

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  32. i'm making some. they're absolutely gorgeous, and i love the idea of handpainting & embellishing a border.
    i'm sick of studying, and thus will not be delving into any sociopolitical ramifications at the moment. *ooooh, pretty things!*

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  33. the Maya de Mexico was a very high quality manufacture of not only clothing but shoes,purses and belts, this was not only for tourists many high society mexican lady's wore them, they were high price back in the 50-60's they are unique and very well made your pics are testimony of their beauty and durability, exploitation I never seen them like that, my mom used to have several skirts and shirts that were hand painted and hand embroider.

    It's a shame that now you can't find that same quality of clothing.

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  34. That two-piece is a stunner! I don't care who made the lovely dress. Companies the world over try to make popular products (so they sell, right?) at the lowest possible cost. I don't care what color somebody is and they should be able to wear any dang thing they think is pretty. Fashion is difficult enough without attempted to infuse it with "politically correct thought". Is the spirit behind this garment ideologically pure? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a d*mn.

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  35. I was not aware of this style, so for me it has no connotations with tourist fashion :-) I loved the golden two piece one - looks like a beautiful bodice with a great skirt to match. How does the skirt stand up like that?

    Gertie can I just use this comment to tell you that I salute you for your amazing work? I am waiting impatiently for your book (can we pre-order it?) and for any future sew-alongs, recommendations, tutorials and courses you might be releasing! You are so talented, as a writer, a video presenter, a seamstress and a teacher, and you've affected my sewing greatly. All the best from Israel! xoxo

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  36. The black/gold 2 piece dress is absolutely stunning! It's funny how back then that was a souvenir and these days it would be a postcard.

    I don't think there is anything political or not politically correct about these items, its stupid to put politics into a dress bought on holiday.

    http://www.houseofslater.com

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  37. These are beautiful pieces but, as some others have pointed out, I think when buying or wearing these kinds of garments a person needs to have an understanding of the culture from which the item came. There needs to be more of a connection than just, 'oooh, this looks pretty!'

    In particular there needs to be respect for the people of that particular culture. When these things are consumed with no understanding or regard for the people who made them, particularly in a society where people from that culture might be marginalised or experience racism, it can feel to minorities that the people of the dominant culture are saying to them, 'we like your culture, and the beautiful things you make, but we don't like you. So we're going to take these and we don't care what happens to you'. It can be very alienating.

    I think that this still applies when the people of that culture are producing and profiting from Western consumption. The uneven power relationship means such transactions still need to be approached with cultural sensitivity.

    Obviously, it can be done and when done well I think the exchange can enrich both cultures.

    p.s. I can't wait for your book!

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  38. The garments you've featured are lovely, but I think it would add more to the discussion of cultural appropriation if you showed some of the plainer designs/fabrics. My take is that we all are influenced by cultural elements that speak to us, and when mixed with a western or modern shape it can be good. I don't particularly like things that are purportedly 'authentic' but are, in fact, mass-produced far from the culture in question and with no benefit to them.

    My uncle did an exchange program in Mexico in the 50's and brought back several pieces of jewelry for my grandma which I have the pleasure to own now, as well as a skirt for my mom. The skirt was a wrap skirt originally, with a hand-painted border of Mexican-style stucco buildings - a cityscape, if you will. It's a natural colored cotton, not terribly heavy, and unlined. I'm not sure if it was meant for the tourist trade or not, nor the manufacturer as the tag is missing.
    In the 70's my mom refashioned it as a poncho and wore it as a convenient nursing cover-up. After that it hung in the front closet and I always wished it were a skirt. Finally in college I got up the courage to make it back into a skirt, though the shape wasn't the best since my mom had already cut and sewed it. It ended up being as close to a circle skirt as I could get, with the addition of a waistband and a side zipper. With a black knit boat-neck shirt and a wide belt, it definitely had a retro look. I still have the skirt and hopefully I'll get back into it someday.

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  39. I think saying "its stupid to put politics into a dress bought on holiday" is part of what makes this kind of thing a problem. Most westerners don't even see or acknowledge the inherent problem with cultural appropriation or "appreciation" as some like to call it. Sure, none of us want to be made to feel guilty about "borrowing" or "being inspired" by fashion or art from other cultures, but we have to strive to be RESPONSIBLE about it. The comparison to French couture is an interesting one. I'd invite you to ponder the difference between what you think couture designers in France are paid for their designs and what you think the makers of items like this are paid. not to mention the bright, garish caricatures of Mexican culture emblazoned on the fabrics of these dresses which does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes and minimize the cultural significance for the actual members of the culture at hand. Is French couture mocking or exaggerating French culture? Not to mention the complete difference between a dominant imperialist culture, France, and a marginalized and oppressed country like Mexico. Just because it's "artsy" and "looks cool" doesn't make it okay. sometimes clothing IS politically charged, and ignoring that it incredibly irresponsible and ignorant. It IS possible to "support" or "appreciate" Mexican culture and art without putting on your cute little Mexican countryside costume.

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  40. Maybe if they WERE cute little Mexican costumes, or bright, garish caricatures of Mexican culture, I would be more inclined to consider political connotations associated with them. As it is, they are more an example of dissemination of their culture and art, minus the matador one, which is not even a caricature, but a representation of a fact of life in Mexico. There is no wink wink nudge nudge irony, no Mexican equivalent to blackface, no degradation of the original art forms that inspired them, no profiting by outside corporations or individuals just out to make a buck off the culture of another people...they are outfits in an attractive form, representing the culture and beautiful workmanship of the people the buyers had just come all the way to visit; and to be worn and appreciated by others outside of the traditional peoples who create them. There is a difference between wearing something inspired by the beauty you had seen while visiting a place outside of your normal culture, and slapping on a sombrero with neon pompoms dangling from the brim to say yeah, I went to Mexico, look at the crap they got there. One is "responsible", ie, does not further stereotypes and fosters a wider audience to the beauty of another culture; the other is crass, tasteless, and goes far to engender distaste at the thought of it. Lumping the two together, and assigning the same lack of thought and shallow motives to both of them is unfair, imo.

    Leaving aside blatant disrespect, mockery, ignorance, etc, the idea that it is culturally insensitive to honor an aspect you love about another culture by wearing a piece of it's beauty, is almost ludicrous to me.

    This is all completely leaving aside that American culture as we know it today would not exist without melding every and all cultures that sit within it, and that firmly includes the Mexican culture. We have no individual identity. We are every and all cultures, combined to make our one American one. And I, for one, think that is completely awesome.

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  41. My grandmother Trancito lived in Nogales, Arizona, and during my childhood up through my early twenties (30 years ago), my mother and aunt Rosalva would take my sister mom and I with her shopping across the border into Nogales, Sonora, and there two blocks away was a Maya de Mexico store. I assume there was a chain of them in Mexico. They had beautiful handmade and embroidered gowns shirts blouses etc for men and women. I still have a very heavy embroidered turquoise satin top and full skirt with an accompanying white lace starched headdress. Very beautiful store that was always so magical to me! I have good memories visiting there dozens of times.

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Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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