"We want to make our art visible to the world, because it is a part of our culture and represents the traditions of Colombia." --Reinel Mendoza of Divino Niño
Zenú artist and Cooperativa Divino Niño Founder Reinel Mendoza’s goal is to bring visibility to the longstanding tradition of woven Colombian aboriginal handicrafts. He also strives to preserve cultural pride by employing an extended family of more than two-hundred direct and indirect family members of Zenú descent whose roots date back more than 3,000 years B.C. Reinel has been working with caña flecha (arrow cane) since he was nine years old. Born in the town of Tuchin, indigenous ancestral land in the Department of Córdoba in northwest Colómbia, he learned weaving from his grandfather and mother. Traditionally, members of the Zenú community learned skills and techniques informally through apprenticeships in various settings. Weaving has been passed down “from grandfather to father to youth and children,” Reinel explains, and entire families and villages are involved in production.
Men were responsible for planting and harvesting the arrow cane. After being dried and split, the women would braid the material by hand and the men would bind the braids together. In modern times, the men use a Singer pedal sewing machine to stitch the braids. They use natural dyes that help bring vibrant colors to their work.
Cooperativa Divino Niño artists hand weave the widely-known traditional sombrero vueltiao that people have worn in Colombia for over the last 300 years as part of the country’s national costume. Hat motifs are very meaningful because they identify an individual and the communities where people come from. “Probably it represents hierarchy and status, designed mixing hundreds of symbols, representing ideo phonemes, to build a collective knowledge of labors and occupations,” Reinel says. Culturally, the use of hats is very specific. During work days, the Zenú will wear low-quality hats, while those of the finest quality are worn on festival days and for sports delegation during special events.
Besides specializing in the sombreros, Cooperativa Divino Niño also creates beautiful bracelets, handbags, and home décor infused with traditional designs. Even if people don’t recognize certain symbolism in the weaving patterns anymore, or their meanings have been lost, they are still integral to the Zenú handicraft-making process, says Reinel.
While he leads and promotes the annual Sombrero Vueltiao Festival, Reinel’s marketing colleague Magno Caterino Lopez promotes the co-op. They both work tirelessly to improve community life standards, with a focus on the underprivileged and marginalized—“a common effort; A common reward,” Reinel says. Cooperativa Divino Niño members live in houses located in close proximity to one another and spend time maintaining their properties, as well as taking care of children and animals. Duties also include making decisions that benefit the common good.
Creating handicrafts is a crucial part of the community members’ lives, and Reinel defines the co'op’s success by its visibility in the world. He attributes that to working with organizations around the globe, such as the International Folk Art Market. Additionally, Magno says being known has resulted in other positive effects. “We don’t just yield revenue…now the community has access to drinking water, after dealing with government bureaucracy, and fortunately there are no longer energy blackouts.” Their wish list is long, but “the battle does not end and there are many things we want to do and learn, to make it better,” he says.
Both encourage the Zenú people to take pride in their traditions and grow the business seeking new sustainable markets where they can do business. “We look beyond, and new generations are learning our legacy, so they need to be prepared for a global growing market.”