Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Servilleta (Napkin) Inscribed with Mateo Yax’s Name



Servilleta (Napkin) Inscribed with Mateo Yax’s Name

Catalogue Entry

When indigenous Americans were forced to adapt to European ways, one of the most novel ones was alphabetic writing. In a famous incident, Bishop Diego de Landa attempted to make a Maya scribe write their “alphabet” by saying the names of letters in Spanish: “ah” for “a,” “bay” for “b,” etc. Since the Maya mainly drew glyphs for words or for syllables, the poor scribe did his best to translate the strange request. In Mayan “ah” was the word for water, so he drew that hieroglyph, and so on. Both parties finally stopped in frustration, the scribe adding a sentence of complaint at the bottom “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Though the experiment in cross-cultural communication seemed a failure at the time, this table of glyphs and his comment actually helped modern scholars decipher the Maya hieroglyphic system beginning in the 1960s.

Centuries later, this Maya textile ingeniously incorporates Western words, now a prestigious appropriation of the foreign writing. In strings that were tied-dyed before they were woven, quite a technical and design feat, the weaver has spelled out a name: Mateo Yax. Mateo is Spanish for Matthew, while Yax is a time period in the Maya solar calendar (January 22–February 10). Individuals born during this time are considered gentle, peaceful, and harmonious. Thus, this man’s name blends the new and the old, a man living in the ex-colony of Spain and sharing a first name with the colonizers, yet simultaneously claiming ancient and ongoing Maya heritage. The surname being Maya links him to his origins through his father’s line, the way descent was claimed in both the ancient Maya and modern Spanish worlds. The weaver, most likely a woman, created this extraordinary cross-cultural mix of writing and ideas to celebrate a man between two worlds.

Geographic Area

Central America, Guatemala, Totonicapán




20th century



Credit Line

Bright Collection of Guatemalan Textiles

Accession Number


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