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La Tehuana / Miguel Covarrubias

Curatorial Remarks

The young woman featured in this painting is likely not a specific person but Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias’ representation of a national symbol: the Tehuana Woman. Dressed in her festival finery, she sits serenely at the edge of a celebration. Gold coins cascade from her ears and neck, vestiges of the wealth that flowed through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec when it was an important international trade route in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[1] Goods traded sparked innovation by women from Tehuantepec (Tehuanas), a center of Indigenous Zapotec culture. In the early 1900s, Singer sewing machines were introduced through Isthmian ports.[2] Tehuana women, long recognized for their weaving and embroidery skills, began utilizing the machines to embellish their clothing with intricate designs like the lemon yellow and black star pattern adorning the garments of the Tehuana Woman. Bold bands of pattern would have been chain-stitched around the neckline and contours of her brilliant red huipil, a loose tunic-style top worn and woven by many Indigenous women in Mexico and Central America for centuries.[3]

The style of the sitter’s voluminous skirt with a lace ruffle reflects the agenda of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz who ruled the country intermittently between 1876 and 1911.[4] Diaz promoted European culture and styles, and many Tehuanas adopted the hoop skirt as a modest alternative to the form-fitting skirt they had worn previously.[5] After Diaz was ousted, and following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the government rejected European and imperial influences and instead looked to the country’s Indigenous people for inspiration. Mexico’s emerging urban middle class and cultural elites were drawn to aspects of Indigenous life, including clothing styles. The blending of brilliant Zapotec artistry with European fashion appealed to high-profile Mexican women such as artist Frida Kahlo who appropriated Tehuana styles and wore them on the world stage.

By the 1920s, Tehuana women had become a symbol of Mexican identity.[6] Many Mexican modern artists, fascinated by elaborately dressed Tehuanas and their vibrant culture, depicted the women in their work. Miguel Covarrubias wrote about and produced illustrations of women from Tehuantepec in a 1942 article for Vogue magazine and in his 1946 book Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Like his artwork, these studies romanticized Tehuana women and served in part to document what the artist mistakenly assumed were vanishing traditions.[7] Tehuana clothing continues to evolve and remains central to the identity of women from the Isthmus today. Especially during festivals, ceremonial dress kindles local pride.[8] Teresa de Jesús Rosado Desales, a Tehuana embroiderer, relayed that the elaborate outfits “...belong to us and to our culture; we wear them for our fiestas and for our weddings. It’s what makes us elegant!”[9]

While Covarrubias’ painting may not depict an individual, the young woman featured is unmistakably a Tehuana. Perfectly poised with hands resting in her lap and a neat bow atop her braided hair, she is rendered in great detail. Behind her, loose brushwork lends dynamism to dancers spinning across a village square adorned with colorful papel picado (paper banners). Famous throughout the world, this young Tehuana is at home amidst a gathering in her own community.

Alison Rossi, Director of Learning and Community Engagement, 2024.

[1] "Oculto En La Tela: Historias De Traduciones Y Culturas," Brownsville Historical Association,; Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 259; Francie Chassen-López, "The Traje De Tehuana as National Icon: Gender, Ethnicity, and Fashion in Mexico," The Americas 71, no. 2 (2014): p. 294.

[2] Chloe Sayer and Alexandra Palmer, Mexico Clothing and Culture (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum of Art, 2015), p. 116; Chassen-López, "The Traje De Tehuana as National Icon:," p. 303.

[3] The huipil is a pre-Hispanic garment that has evolved over time. A shortened version of the huipil was popular with women from Tehuantepec by the late 19th century. By 1930, the short huipiles worn by Tehuana women were no longer handwoven, but were often made from velvet or from printed and patterned cotton fabrics imported from Manchester, England. See Sayer and Palmer, Mexico Clothing and Culture, p. 111 and 116.

[4]See Sayer and Palmer, Mexico Clothing and Culture, p. 112, for more information about the starched, pleated flounce of fine lace known as the holán.

[5] Chassen-López, "The Traje De Tehuana as National Icon”, p. 302 explains the renovation of Tehuana dress in Porfirian Mexico.

[6] Chassen-López, "The Traje De Tehuana as National Icon,” p. 289 details how the Tehuana became a national symbol appearing in advertisements, school texts, films, and on Mexican currency.

[7] Covarrubias, Mexico South, pp. 264-265: “To the new generation, the local costume is more and more the badge of provincialism, and all are adopting the unbecoming modern dress.”

[8] Sayer and Palmer, Mexico Clothing and Culture, p. 116.

[9] Ibid, p. 119. Includes interviews with Teresa de Jesús Rosado Desales and Carlos Gallego Ruiz filmed in 2014 for the Royal Ontario Museum.

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La Tehuana; Tehuana Woman
Miguel Covarrubias (Artist)
possibly between 1940 and 1950
gouache on paper
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
0247.1475; 39424
Not On View

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