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Growing Up with Beads in a Mexican Village

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In two small Mexican villages of Oaxaca beads are very important. The people of both villages are Mixe. The villages of Mixistlan and Yacoche are difficult to get to, way up in the mountains.

Boys get a string of beads at the age of one along with their first haircut. They keep these beads all their lives.

Girls also get a string of beads at this age, but not the haircut. And, these are only the first beads they receive. Throughout their lives they add to the collection. Some they buy. Their husband gives them some when they marry. And they inherit their mother's beads, because makes sure that they were given out equally to all her daughters.

By the time a woman is an older lady, she might wear as many as three and a half pounds (1.6 kilos) of beads all the time. Heavy, true, but she is proud to wear them, because they show the world who she is, who her family is and what village she comes from.

Most of the beads are plain white. A few green and blue beads from Europe 100 years old are added for decoration, but the best ones were made in China 200 years or more ago.

How did 200 year old beads get from China to these small, isolated Mexican villages? Under the Spanish, a big Spanish ship called a Galleon was loaded with silver from Mexico and Bolivia at Acapulco, Mexico. It would cross the Pacific Ocean (a fairly easy ride) to the Philippines, which Spain also controlled. There, merchants came from all over Asia (India, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and especially China) to trade for the silver. All the goods of Asia then went back to Mexico. The crossing back was usually worse than the one out.

Back in Acapulco, the goods were unloaded and taken up steep mountains to Mexico City on the "China Road." In Mexico City they were sorted. The best things, like precious stones, porcelain and silk, would be carried across Mexico to Veracruz. That ship would rendezvous with ships coming from Venezuela and Columbia at Cuba. They sailed back to Seville, Spain, together for protection against pirates and countries at war with Spain.

The cheap things, like glass beads, stayed in Mexico. Exactly how the white Chinese beads got to these villages, I cannot tell. Nor can I tell why the people began to love them. All I can say is that for at least ten generations these beads have been protected and cared for. And it has been a long time that one-year old boys and girls were linked to the old history that connects them to China.


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