Jesús the embroiderer –a Gender Bender in rural Spain
Andalucía tends to be very traditional, undeniably conservative and often ultra religious. Be it because of its century-long ties with the Catholic Church or its rich history, chances are that if you live in small town Andalucía, you might at times wonder if you have stepped into the past.
Ronda, our hometown, certainly fits that bill, with fourteen religious brotherhoods, dozens of churches, and handful active convents in a town of less than 35.000 people. We are speaking tradition with capital T. Of course, there are rondeño men who change diapers on babies, drive kids to school, do the family shopping and maybe even mend the occasional sock. Equally, we do have professional women with higher education, who hire house cleaners, invest in stocks and drive sports cars. The last two mayors in town have been female, a testament to that rural Andalucía is not all what it used to be. Yet, when it comes to gender patterns, much remain the same. Husbands are still the primary breadwinners in most families, while the wives are often amas de casa, or housewives, caring for offspring and ageing relatives. If she in addition juggles a paying job, the home is still considered her primary responsibility, not to mention the family ironing…
When it comes to hobbies, the gender divide gets even more pronounced. Women in our neighbourhood might sign up for Flamenco or Hip Hop classes or a peineta workshop (the tall Spanish hair combs), while local men customary spend their spare time in their campo, dealing with livestock. Alternately, they will sit around our plaza shooting the breeze with the other men or watch sports at a local bar. Men here like to be considered manly or dare I say macho, which actually means male in Spanish, not male chauvinist.
The conventional roles of the sexes are deeply ingrained and hard to break out of, so you can imagine our surprise when we met Jesús Muñoz Muñoz (36), a local man with a passion for embroidery.
The first time we saw Jesús, was inside the dimly lit Medieval- looking holding for one of Ronda’s religious brotherhoods or hermandades. He was sitting surrounded by other embroiderers – all female and all stitching away at a feverish speed. The velvet capes that they were working on would clothe life-sized statues of Christ and Virgin Mary, which were to be carried through town in processions of the devout during the upcoming Semana Santa (Easter). Since it was only a few weeks left until this holiest of weeks in the ecclesiastical calendar, all hands were on deck, or as it were, occupied with needle and thread.
While embroidery is his passion, Jesús daytime job is helping his mother María in their antique- and gift store in the historic part of town. Jesús’ great grandfather started an antique dealership in Ronda in 1921, and though the family business has changed through the decades, some traditions still remain. The very same great grandfather came with the initial idea of creating a brotherhood for Ronda’s gypsies in the early 1950’s. Though they didn’t receive official approval until decades later, la Hermandad de los Gitanos, (or la Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jésus de la Salud en su Prendimiento y María Santísima de la Amargura), is now one of Ronda’s biggest and most important brotherhoods. Minding their religious statues is something they do not take lightly. The garbs of the statues must be perfectly preserved, restored and at times renewed, as outfits change depending on the sacred occasion.
I ask why a young man chooses to spend his spare time embroidering golden curlicues onto religious frocks in this time and age. Why volunteer for a religious brotherhood in the first place?
“To me, all the brotherhoods and what they stand for are beautiful”, Jesús explains.
Jesús has chosen an intricate and time-consuming hobby, demanding the patience of a saint. Neck pain and strain of the eyes are common complaints amongst the embroiderers, he tells me, though I think blood drain from pricked fingertips is more of a risk. Just like the throne-carrying costaleros, the embroiderers’ dedication can be seen as another form of penance.
The materials used for the needlework are silk, gold and silver threads. The best supplies are found in Sevilla, which Jesús calls Andalucia’s centre for Semana Santa. First, each embroidered section gets drawn out on the fabric, next they get bulked up with felt, and finally they are covered in miniature decorative stitches and knots, depending on the desired effect. Jésus is not only a master of religious embroidery. He has also given classes in the fine art of this type of stitching. Though a woman initially taught him to embroider, and all of his ‘disciples’ have been female, traditionally this was a task often performed by men. Some male embroiderers from Sevilla even became famous for their skills with gilded thread.
But how do people in Ronda view Jesús choice of hobby today? Are there snarky comments from the more machista and less open-minded residents?
“People are sometimes surprised at first”, he lets in, “though they usually show respect and admiration for my work.” Maybe this is not so unexpected. His embroidery is after all representing a long and venerable Andalusian tradition.
But what if he had been brought up in Madrid instead? Would he still have been doing embroidery, I ask him. No, he says without a second hesitation. If he lived in Madrid, he would be in fashion.
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Need a gold embroidered robe, or have you got a religious mantle to restore? Contact Jésus at firstname.lastname@example.org
or drop by Tres Marías, C/ Armiñán 39, Ronda, Andalucía