Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Tale of Two Chinas - Week 12

Welcome Moldova and Bangladesh to the journey!  Nice to have you join in!

I received some feedback this week regarding my notification postings on Facebook, Twitter, Etc.  The latest issue I am having with Blogger is that every time I post a new blog, apparently it promotes only the Week 1 blog and not the current week's posting.  Personally, I like to believe that it's because my blog is #1!  I looked into it and it appears that it is correctly identifying the new blog title; however, it states week 1 on the link.  No worries, it will still take you to where you need to go, just click on it to get started.

To clarify again, when I advertise on Facebook or other social network it is because I have published a new post on Blogger, regardless of what Blogger advertises or states in the link.  The promoting and sharing feature on the website is free and beggars can't be choosers!  But to reiterate, I will be publishing a new blog post during the day on Sundays each week.  If you get a notification it is because a new one has just been published and is eagerly waiting for your reading attention.  You can also use this web address to take you directly to my blog:  

This week's blog is about the China poblana dress.  The word China is pronounced
"Cheeeeeeeeeenah!"  It has no relation to the Chia Pet, but is just as unique and interesting, if not more so.  Sounds a little like "Chia," just add a "N" sound to it without changing the way you are pronouncing it! "Cheeeeee - Naaaaaaaah!"  I think you got it!  Moving on!

Let's explore together the history, use, legend and tale of two China dresses.


I like the clear and simple information Wikipedia provides on the history of the China poblana.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

"China poblana (or, Chinese Pueblan) is a term that refers to two elements of the culture of Mexico that have been related by name since the end of the 19th century, although the elements they incorporate are much older.  In its most commonly and widely used sense today, it is the name of what is considered the traditional style of dress of women the Mexican Republic, although in reality it only belonged to some urban zones in the middle and southeast of the country, before its disappearance in the second half of the 19th century.

In a narrower sense, it is the nickname of Mirra [(1609-1688)], a slave, belonging to a noble family from India brought to Mexico through the Spanish East Indies, who has been credited since the Porfiriato with creating the china dress.  After converting to Catholicism in Cochin - an Indian city where she was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates -, Mirra was given the Christian name Catarina de San Juan, the name she was known as in Angelopolis where she worked as a slave, got married and eventually became a beata - a religious woman who took personal religious vows without entering a convent.  Upon her death, Catarina de San Juan was buried in the sacristy of the Templo de la Compania de Jesus in Puebla, in what is popularly know as Tumba de la China Polana or Tomb of the Chinese Pueblan.  (Note that in Hispanic cultures at the time it was common to use the term chino to refer to all persons of Asian descent, regardless of actual ethnicity.)"

There are many documented accounts of this 17th century legend.  I would encourage those of you interested in it, to further research it yourselves as there are many variations of the legend.  The accounts, although similar, do not all agree with one another, especially in the specifics of Mirra's origin, the specific intent for the dress and so on.  Some question whether Mirra, aka Catarina de San Juan, actually ever existed.  Another account that I found interesting comes from  Here is what they have to say about Mexican Chinas:

"Many legends have been attached to the China (pronounced cheena) outfit, including the romantic story about the oriental princess sold as a slave in the city of Puebla, who then fell in love with a Creole, and created her wedding gown based on the local fashions but decorated with oriental motifs.

The truth behind the costume is that every three months a ship carrying goods from the Philippines known as "Nao de China" (Ship from China), anchored in Acapulco.  The aristocratic ladies purchased a textile known as "castor" [or, "beaver"] to make skirts for their female servants, called "Chinita" or "china".  The word is completely disassociated from any Oriental background.  As the length of the fabric was not enough to reach the floor, an addition of silk was sewn at the top of the skirt to complete the length. 

With time and dedication the women embroidered or applied sequins [lantejuelas and camarones (literally shrimp] to highlight the oriental decoration of the fabric.  The modern China Poblana's outfit is so saturated with sequins that the historic "castor" fabric (which is only made in Puebla and Mexico City today) can only be seen if you turn the skirt inside out." -copyright Jose Luis Ovalle "

Regardless of the actual origins of the dress, it has a special place in the hearts of the Mexican people who revere Puebla, the city that defeated the French on May 5, 1862 to eventually win its second independence.  There are many terms used for the garment in addition to the China Poblana.  Other terms used are:  China Dress, China Puebla, Mexican Peasant Dress, Puebla Dress, Mexican Folk Dress, Mexican Folklorico Dress, Campesina Dress, Huipil, Vestido tipico de Mexico, Trajas Tipicos, Boho Dress (short for "bohemian").  Each style for these terms varies slightly.  A China Poblana typically is a white blouse and a colored skirt rather than a full length dress.  There are numerous accounts of how the dress was worn and used in Mexican society.  For the purpose of this blog we be looking at how the china is used in folklorico dancing.


The china dress is used to dance the beloved Jarabe Tapatio dance, aka The Mexican Hat Dance. says this about the costumes of the Jarabe Tapatio:

"The typical male and female costumes to dance it were used one hundred years apart from each other.  The China Poblana was the female servant outfit of the early to mid 1800's.  The charro suit decorated with silver buttons, came about with the emergence of the Mariachi around 1930 after going through numerous evolutions, from the hacienda supervisors to the modern urban musicians."

Other accounts attribute the dress' use heavily in Cinco de Mayo celebrations (which celebrate the historic Battle of Puebla), as Jarabe Tapatio is also danced with women wearing Jalisco folklorico dresses as well.  Commonly today the dress is used to dance the Jarabe Tapatio regardless of the holiday or occasion.  And as folklorico continues to progress and develop, traditions are compromised and new uses for the dress are created.  I have seen many folklorico groups use the dress for dances other than just the Jarabe Tapatio.  Personally, I like the respect and exclusivity of the dress to be only worn for the Jarabe Tapatio.  I feel that gives the National Dance of Mexico respect, recognition and pride it deserves. 

Folklorico dance groups have revived a version of the dress that is patriotic and bears the coat of arms of Mexico, which includes an eagle, snake and cactus.  Other images that can be found on the china are:  The Aztec calendar, geometric and floral shapes, a man and a woman (which are a depiction of either the courtship dance Jarabe Tapatio itself or of the legend of Mirra, depending on what source you read), dancing characters, Chinese or Oriental images and/or other images that depict Mexican culture.  These images are often embroidered with sequins, beads and bugles (a type of bead).  Chinas may be fully sequined, referred to as a china de gala or professional china, or they may be partially sequined, referred to as a student china, or they can be a combination of both sewn embroidery and sequins.  They come in a variety of colorful arrangements and are worn with a hoop underneath so that the skirt can be appreciated for its full beauty.  Check out these images of the china I found on line. 


If you have been following my blog you have read how I have been involved in many areas of the dance group.  One area has been that of costume assistance.  Not only do I help in obtaining costumes, but I have been actively working with Richard in organizing the large storage full of folklorico costumes and accessories the group owns.  It is a folklorico addict's dream.  It has been a fun and labor intensive task.

As costumes wear out and are no longer suitable for the stage, they are often discarded and replaced with new ones.  Nothing personal against the costume, it has served its purpose and now its time for it to move on in life - the dumpster.  When possible, the expired costumes are converted into practice skirts or other practice costuming that is used in rehearsals.  Other times, they get donated to people who recycle the fabric by disassembling the garments and restitching them into doll clothing or other craft creations.  Costuming that is in good condition but is no longer being used in our group is either sold to another group or dancer or is donated to a group that can not afford costumes. 

(On a side note, many people are familiar with Cirque Du Soliel productions that are all around the world.  Their shows are a wonderful spectacle to behold.  One thing I noticed they do with their old costumes is some of them are sold as souvenir memorabilia and some of them are shredded and then put into a clear glass Christmas ornament bulbs, along with the name of the show, and then sold as collectible souvenirs.  All that colorful fabric in the bulb is lively to look at.  This would be a good idea for folklorico groups to fund raise money for their groups.  Collectible folklorico ornaments with retired costuming fragments from the group, along with their name.  Folklorico and collecting enthusiasts could then purchase and collect all the different bulbs from all the different folklorico groups.  Seems like a good idea to me.  What a great way to own a piece of folklorico history.  What do you think?) 

China Purchased in Tijuana in 1977

Herencia Mexicana (originally named Nuestra Herencia) had four china dresses at one time.  Two were purchased 17 years ago from one of the mothers that had three daughters who danced, Carmen, Michelle and Nina.  After breaking way from St. Mary's folklorico group, Michelle and Nina became instructors at Nuestra Herencia.  The mother had bought the two chinas a little over 36 years ago in Tijuana (1977) for about $300 a piece.  "At the time Tijuana was the only place that you were able to get any kind of costume like that," according to the mother.  At $300 each, that was a lot of money to come up with and between the mother and her sister they gathered enough finances to buy the dresses.

At one point in history, two of the four china dresses were donated by Herencia to the Mission Church in San Bernardino that had a folklorico group.  The remaining china dresses included one of the two purchased from the mother.  The other, was one purchased in the 1990's.  These dresses were worn by Richard's sisters, who were original members of the group.  Above and below are some photographs of the two china skirts.

China purchased in the 1990's

In the fall of 2011, Richard decided to sell off the group's costumes to the dancers and begin to require dancers to purchase their own costumes.  This would be a way for the group to keep its operating costs down.  Briefly, all the costumes went up for sale.  Ironically, none of them sold.  Then Richard reconsidered and the costumes were taken off the market.  Whew, good thing!  Providing costumes is one way Herencia sets itself apart from other dance groups.  Herencia continued onward with the costume collection in tact!  Looking back, had the costumes sold, it would have been an unfortunate thing and ultimately the group would have suffered. 

These two chinas are the highlight of the costume collection in my opinion.  Many have commented on their beauty, especially on the china from the 1970's.  They have been worn by many dancers over the years and have been used for countless performances.  In essence, the dresses themselves are a tradition and heritage in the dance group.  I can only speculate how many performances they have been part of.  They have weathered over the years from use.  Look closely at the photos and you will see sequins have fallen off and they are in need of some serious repairs.  The green silk need to be replaced, especially on the one from the 90's.  With the sequins missing, the red castor fabric is exposed, mostly along the bottom of the skirt where it hits the ground at times during performances.  There are some areas on the skirts that have been re-sequined over the years, but major restoration is necessary.  In addition, the blouses that go with theses china skirts need replacing all together.

It would be easy to retire the chinas and replace them with new ones.  Quality professional chinas run between $400 to $600 each.  That would be the easy thing to do.  However, I think it would be a tragedy.  So I have started a "save the chinas" initiative!   I'm probably the only wedo in history to start a campaign to save folklorico dresses.  Can you picture me out on the street corner holding signs and yelling, "Save The Chinas! Save The Chinas!"?  It is possible to do, they can be fixed!  They sell all the materials to do it in the LA Garment District, the area of Los Angeles that sells fabric, trim, ribbon and everything else you can imagine related to sewing.  There are even a couple of seamstresses up for the tedious and time consuming task.  It would be a labor of love.  Of course the cost in materials and labor would run about the same as buying completely new dresses.  A small price to pay for the preservation of these classics. 

Recently, Richard had three china hoops made that go under the skirt.  Why three?  Well I would like to think that one is for the china from the 1970's, another is for the china from the 1990's, and the last one is for a new china to be purchased in the 2010's.  How awesome would it be to have all three chinas worn on stage during a performance at the same time.  What a unique display of heritage and tradition.

Never did I imagine that I, Michael Smith, age 38 and a white man from the Midwest, would be writing a blog about two Mexican china dresses during my lifetime.  How bizarre is that?  All I can say is that these two dresses really must be something for me to do such a thing.  So who's with me?  Who wants to "Save The Chinas!"?  How special it would be to have everyone donate a little something and restore these beauties.  That would be a great way for everyone to share in a folklorico experience.  I hope before the conclusion of this blog, I will be able to provide an update with pictures of the restored chinas.

In closing I thought it would be fun to show some photos of me with dance partners in china dresses.  Here you go, and yes were doing the Jarabe Tapatio.  Until next week, wedo out - "SAVE THE CHINAS!!!!"

With Jessica Ramos (Images de Mexico) - First Time Performing Jarabe Tapatio
at Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant in Montebello, CA
With Sirila Alvarez (Herencia Mexicana) - Private Event
Yes, she is wearing the original china from the 1970's!

With Norma Elena Perez Juarez (Images de Mexico) - Durado Cultural Foundation Event

Contact Information for "The Big Wedo":

Google E-mail:
Facebook: One Big Wedo (Guero)
Twitter: Michael Smith @onebigwedo

Contact Information for Ballet Folklorico de Herencia Mexicana:

Richard Solorzano, Director: (909) 201-1957
Facebook: Herencia Mexicana

Note: Looking for your own adventure or journey? Herencia is a great place to find one!  Folklorico lessons and performances are both available. Herencia Mexicana performs for private & public events of all kinds. Book your event today! Herencia Mexicana welcomes new students. No previous folklorico or dance experience required.  All are welcome.

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