The Sacred Geometry of Mopan Maya Embroidery

by Tanya McNab

Xokb’il Chuy, translating to counted stitches, is the name of a Mopan Maya embroidery that turns geometry into art. True to its name, patterns are sewn using a complex counting system transmitted from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.

The designs depict motifs from Maya stories, such as the sun, moon, or snakes, or the flowers, plants and birds found in their environment. While first created on hand looms for millennia, the art evolved during the colonial period into the hand-stitched embroidery practiced today.

But that’s not the only history that the Mopan Maya hold: archeology clearly establishes the Mopan Maya as the first people of Belize. Not to mention, Belize’s very own name is likely from the Maya word belikin, which means “road to the sun.”

Despite constant pressures to assimilate, the Xokb’il Chuy has endured a hand-sewn record of survival. Against the odds, Maya women have kept their language and culture alive, one stitch at a time. While the Mopan Maya language is anticipated to go extinct in a matter of decades, the counted stitches practice is a living gift bestowed by one generation to the next, in an effort to ensure their continued survival.

This year, the Maya community organization Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) initiated a program with support from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) under its Cultural and Creative Industries Innovation Fund (CIIF) to preserve this cultural wealth. Here, Maya women are being positioned as national artists innovating new designs and bringing their creative products to a wider market, starting with modern fashion designs adorned with Xokb’il Chuy.

Under this initiative, the brand Xe’il Belize was born.

The Birth of Xe’il Belize

Xe’il, which means ‘true to our roots’, is a meaningful brand designed and developed to provide a source of economic empowerment to Maya women while showcasing the dawn of a fashion era emerging from Southern Belize.

Local Belize designer Ronelli Requena designed the premiere collection of garments under the breakthrough collection, titled Yahtz’il, pronounced ya-sil, meaning ‘beloved’ through numerous consultations with the Maya women of the San Antonio Village in the Toledo District. In collaboration with the Ixk’äntz’iit women’s cooperative from San Antonio Village in Toledo, Ronelli trained women within the village to sew these clothing as ready-to-wear items created with the conscious consumer in mind. The premiere collection includes 4 items for women and 1 for men, available in 3 different sizes.

Xe’il is but another example of empowered Maya women reclaiming their future by active participation. Not only does the fashion brand provide direct benefits to these indigenous communities of Toledo, but it intertwines their generational wealth of priceless practices with modern-day slow fashion. Encompassing a new approach to fashion, each Xe’il garment is timeless, while being sourced, produced, and sold locally— valuing each individual along the way.

If you’re interested in supporting this initiative, find more information at www.facebook.com/xe.ilbelize.

Written by Tanya McNab for the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book.
All images, including feature, courtesy Full Memory Photography. Article found on page 80 of the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book. Read more articles from the #BelizeGoldBook below:

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