Caites, the Evolution of Pre-Hispanic Footwear?

Very little research has been done about pre-hispanic footwear in Mexico and very little is known of its use, symbolism, construction and materials. However talking to anthropologists in Mexico its clear that many consider Tzotzil ‘Caites’ sandals from Chiapas a remanent of pre-hispanic footwear (known as ‘Cactles’, or ‘Cactli’) and pre-hispanic traditions.

In San Juan de Chamula in Chiapas, I saw no locals wearing ‘Caites’. There is however a statue in the main Plaza where a local man is shown wearing ‘Caites’.

‘Caites’ are a kind of  ‘Pata de Gallo’ Huarache worn by indigenous groups in Chiapas, mainly the Tzotzil.

The heel patch on ‘Caites’ comes in different lengths depending on status of the wearer and occasion. In some communities ‘high backed’ taller heel patches are used during the fiestas, some more than 25 cm long.

The main reasons why ‘Caites’ are considered to have pre-hispanic origins is probably because the heel patch and the strip of leather thong which connects it to the sole look similar to sandals seen on pre-hispanic murals and statues. However it should be noted that ‘Caites’ are less sophisticated in nature and are also many missing elements such as symbolism and graphics.

The Domincan Friar and Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolome de Las Casas who was also famous observer and defender of the indigenous traditions and population during the beginning of the Spanish conquest wrote about the beauty of pre-hispanic footwear and how it was even sewn using gold thread.

“Hacia tambien alpargatas tan delicadas y tan lindas de aquel canamo y algodon muy ricos, cosidos a hilo de oro…” Batolome de Las Casas.

Below are images from the Olmec-Xicallanca Cacaxtla mural at Tlaxcala, where elaborate pre-hispanic sandals are clearly visible.

An Aztec Mural from the Museo del Templo Mayor, shows graphic design on the heel of the sandal.

The Aztec Eagle Man statue in the Museo de Templo Mayor, Mexico City, has sandals with the common ‘double thong’ design.

Maybe the only symbol on ‘Caites’ to survive Spanish conquest could be the leather ‘rosette’ divider patch that is seen on this example below.

Photo from the book ‘La Tejidora De Vida. Coleccion De Trajes Mexicanos de Banca Serfin’.

The ‘Rosette’ divider can also be seen on these 19th century Aztec costume sandals and on the right is a photo of the more recent Tzotzil ‘Caite’ with a plain leather divider patch.

The lack of graphics and symbolism on ‘Caites’ and reasons for their possible disappearance from pre-hispanic sandals can be many. The symbolic designs on pre-hispanic sandals we know were embroidered or painted on the heel patches typically worn by only the wealthy and ruling Aztecs; they could have been banned by the Spanish to take away all authority from them. Or maybe the Aztec influence never completely reached the people living in the highlands of Chiapas where ‘Caites’ are worn and their sandals have always been simple and unadorned.

Photos of Tzotzil men from the book ‘Mexican Indian Costumes’ written by Donald Cordry.

An excellent book and anthropological study called ‘Mexican Indian Costumes’ written by Donald Cordry also states that much of the traditional everyday dress worn by indigenous people has been toned down over the years due to the ridicule indigenous people received by the ‘Mestizos’ every time they went into town. Maybe that could be another reason for the disappearance of the heel patch designs and symbolism on ‘Caites’.

But the missing detail which puzzles me most is why and when the second strip of leather that falls between the middle toe and the 4th toe on pre-hispanic sandals disappeared from the design of ‘Caites’. Below is a good example of pre-hispanic Aztec footwear showing the ‘double thong’ design, from the Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City. Also from the same museum a painting showing the rich graphics on pre-hispanic footwear.

Are ‘Caites’ the missing link between contemporary Huaraches and pre-hispanic footwear? So far my research brings me to believe that they are not. Most likely huaraches evolved from pre-hispanic sandals similar to the ‘Caites’, but unlike the ‘Pata de Gallo’ I don’ believe ‘Caites’ lend themselves well  to weaving experimentation.


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