Monday, 23 November 2020

The tradition of natural fiber in Costa Rica

Fiber as a cultural patrimony. Sadly, in Costa Rica cabuya has been replaced by plastic and other synthetic materials.

The 2018 Costa Rican National Prize for the Patrimony of Intangible Culture (Premio Nacional al Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial Emilia Prieto) was awarded to Juan Olivado Camacho Leiva (aka Martina) for his work in preserving the traditional art of cabuya fiber.

 

78-year-old Don Martina weaving cabuya fiber

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This is a craft that has all but vanished in Costa Rica.

Cabuya the plant is a member of the Agave family that supplies a sturdy durable fiber that can be woven into shopping bags, horse cinches, saddlebags, pocketbooks, etc. It makes a strong rope or twine (mecate) with many uses. Sadly, in Costa Rica cabuya has been replaced by plastic and other synthetic materials.

A cabuya plant cultivated by the collective

The craft of cabuya fiber is still very much alive in some nearby countries (e.g. Nicaragua). It is also common in Colombia where it is known as fique.

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In Costa Rica, this traditional craft endures in San Isidro de El Guarco, Cartago—on the road leading south to Pérez Zeledón. There is a collective of artisans working to continue the tradition of cabuya and educate Costa Ricans about this natural fiber. The collective is called La Cabuya Cuenta (also written as La Cabuyacuenta), meaning Cabuya Matters.

 

Don Martina pulling cabuya leaves to remove the fiber

The cabuya plant supplies long—five feet or so—soft flat leaves. These leaves are pulled through a metal frame to strip the outer layer of the leaf from the fiber. The fiber comes out as fine threads, several feet long.

 

These threads are then washed and dried before being spun into thicker thread or cordage that can be woven into a variety of useful objects. Thread can also be dyed to achieve many lovely colors. This dyed thread or cordage can then be woven into decorative patterns.

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A woven cabuya pocketbook

One of the things cabuya was used for was saddlebags—alforjas. The durable nature of cabuya makes it an excellent material for rough usage. Agricultural workers heading out for a day’s work would use alforjas to carry their lunch, water, and other supplies.

 

Saddlebags in Costa Rica did not require the ownership of a saddle or even a horse for that matter. The saddlebags were just slung over the shoulder, giving a good distribution of weight front and back.

La Cabuya Cuenta operates a store and demonstration center in San Isidro. There is a good assortment of beautiful useful items for sale—pocketbooks, baskets, large shopping bags, etc. It is a wonderful place to shop for an extra special gift.

I congratulate don Martina on winning this prestigious prize—it is entirely deserved.

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Jack Donnelly
Jack Donnelly is a writer, photographer, and speaker living in San Pablo de Heredia. His topics of interest include Costa Rican folk culture, national traditions, traditional cuisine, ecotourism, and wildlife. Donnelly is the author of COSTA RICA: Folk Culture, Traditions, and Cuisine which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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