By Eloísa Ruano González
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Just a few years ago, Maria Mendoza could not find stores that carried huipiles, loose-fitting embroidered blouses or dresses traditionally worn by Mexican and Central American indigenous women. Often associated with Frida Kahlo, the garments decorated with vibrant flowers and geometric designs were hard to come by until recently when Mendoza started seeing them pop up at shops and flea markets across the Bay Area.
“It was an item you had to get from Mexico,” she said.
Comfy and versatile, huipiles now make up the majority of her wardrobe.
They’re similar to the clothing worn by her grandmother, an indigenous woman from a small village near the Veracruz-Oaxaca border in southern Mexico.
“It’s my way of honoring her and connecting with her,” said Mendoza, a Sonoma State University senior majoring in Chicano studies and sociology. “It’s a form of identity and connecting with my roots.”
Increasingly, Latina students and young professionals throughout the state are embracing huipiles and other traditional clothes, including the tehuana dresses and adelita skirts — long, flowing garments once worn by the military women of the Mexican Revolution.
It’s a way to showcase their culture and show resistance at a time of intensifying anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States, says Roseanna Garcia, founder of Los Angeles-based Latina Fashionista.
While she’s seen the clothing reemerge in the last two years, she said it’s really picked up since January. She’s seen more Latinas showing up to pro-immigration and women’s marches in the attire.
“I’m happy to see Hispanic women, young women, not be afraid to show who they are, their culture and their race, by expressing it through fashion,” said Garcia, whose organization is dedicated to boosting the number of Latinas in leadership positions in the apparel industry.
Young Latinas aren’t the only ones gravitating towards to the embroidered blouses, dresses and skirts. They’re making onto the racks of large apparel companies — some opting for Chinese-made or boho chic imitations.
It can be hard to compete with the cheaper imitations, said Margarita Reyes, a Santa Rosa resident who sells huipiles, adelita skirts and other clothing at the Sebastopol flea market and online. Still, she prefers to buy her inventory directly from the women who make the clothing in Mexico. The clothes comes from Oaxaca, Puebla and Tlaxcala, areas recognized for their embroidery, weaving and textiles.
“This is authentically Mexican. It’s made by hand,” Reyes said of the merchandise at her stall, where dozens of bright-colored floral skirts, dresses and blouses swayed in the wind one breezy afternoon.
Reyes said she has been selling the clothes about two or three years ago. She started with just a few blouses before business began to pick up and customers started to request items.
Blanca Caishpal offers similar clothing at her specialty dress shop, Novedades Blanqui, on Sebastopol Road in southwest Santa Rosa. She started carrying the clothing after seeing a growing interest.
“It has to do with television. All of a sudden, movie stars started wearing them,” she said while showing off a black dress with multi-colored flowers embroidered along the neckline and a large peacock on a bottom corner.
Women purchase the dresses for special occasions, including college graduations, said Caishpal, who has owned the shop for 11 years. A lot of students from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University have come into her store for the dresses and blouses, she said.
The clothing typically is made with “manta,” a natural cotton commonly used by Mexico’s indigenous because of its affordability and availability, said Anthelma Acevedo de Arellanes, a Windsor resident and clothing designer. Each village or region has its own unique embroidery, she said.
Originally from Oaxaca, she’s been adding design elements traditional to her state to her formal wear. She’s added embroidery typical of Oaxaca to gala dresses made from chiffon and charmeuse — a vision she’s had for years.
Latinas aren’t the only ones buying huipiles. Caishpal said Anglos also are drawn to the vivid colors and detailed hand-made embroidery on the huipiles, which Frida Kahlo often wore and depicted herself wearing in paintings.
While she’s a respected figure, the clothing’s growing popularity has little to do with Kahlo and more to do with honoring one’s roots and ancestors, said Maria Aviña Patiño, a Roseland Elementary School counselor who holds a master’s in counseling with a pupil personal service credential from SSU. She’s done presentations on education and mental health throughout Sonoma County and the Bay Area.
“Frida used to dress this way, but it came from the indigenous people,” she said.
At school and throughout town, she’s always seen wearing huipiles, adelitas and rebozos — large, colorful shawls. Sometimes, she said, people stop her to ask why she’s wearing a “Frida dress” and if there is a Mexican festival going on. She takes those opportunities to educate people about her homeland.
“If I don’t dress like that, I don’t feel like myself,” said Aviña Patiño, a native of Jalisco, Mexico. “We have to be proud of where we come from.”
It’s a message she delivers to her students, particularly those who are immigrants. Seeing her dressed in traditional outfits also has motivated some students to wear theirs to school.
Mariana Martinez first started wearing the huipil when she was an undergraduate student at Sonoma State. Now as a Chicano and Latino studies professor and Santa Rosa Junior College board trustee, they’ve become part of her regular attire.
“It was a consciousness, reclaiming who I am — the brownness,” said Martinez, who’s always on the hunt for a beautiful huipil. Although they’re becoming more widely available in the Bay Area, she sometimes buys them online or friends pick them up while in Mexico. She also finds them at Latina professional conferences. Martinez attributes their popularity to the accessibility.
“I don’t wear it for Cinco de Mayo. I wear it because I want to wear it,” she said. “It’s a beautiful work made by people like me.”