I first met Christine Eber at the Weave A Real Peace (WARP) annual meeting in 2016. Her moving keynote address about her work with the Maya Women in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, made me an instant admirer. As an anthropologist, Christine began eighteen months of field work in Chenalhó, Chiapas, in 1987, work that continues today. She’s dedicated herself to supporting Maya women, their families, and their communities. She’s helped start a weaving center, and with a group of American friends, also started Weaving for Justice, which is a nonprofit that helps women’s weaving cooperatives in Chiapas sell their work through fair trade channels. Weaving for Justice also find support in the U.S. to meet the needs of weavers’ families and communities.
Christine has already published two important books related to her work in Chiapas: The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico and Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town, so when I learned that she’d written a novel, When a Woman Rises, I imagined it would be terrific.
When a Woman Rises is set in the Maya township of Chenalhó, Chiapas, a place Christine depicts beautifully and with clear understanding. The novel centers around Veronica, a teenage girl who is working for an organization to record the life stories of local women. Veronica persuades her mother, Magdalena, to tell the story of her childhood friend Lucia who has been absent from the community for many years.
It’s a deceptively simple plot. As Magdalena tells the story of Lucia, their friendship and their struggles, a larger narrative unfolds gradually revealing the complex lives and culture of Chiapas. Through the voice of Magdalena, we hear about the community’s painful history, the rise of the Zapatistas, alcoholism, the fusion of Maya beliefs with Catholicism, and so much more.
Of course, a book about the people of Chiapas has to include textiles and indeed, the cultural value of weaving and embroidery is evident throughout. At one point, Magdalena describes to her daughter the parts of a huipil: “The middle piece is called ‘its mother’ and the side pieces are called ‘its arms.’ It’s a living thing, you know. When a Maya woman wears it, she stands in the center of the universe where the ancient ceiba tree stood. There she has power to speak to the saints, God, and all the spiritual beings on behalf of our people.”
When a Woman Rises is also a testament to the power of story—to teach, to heal, to celebrate. These stories, as Christine Eber renders them, have the power to transform the lives of those who tell them and those who receive them, small gifts of promise.