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The Rebozo Way Of Life

from The Journal of Family Life, Spring 1995

In 1983, I sold almost all of my possessions and boarded a bus for Mexico and a new life -- I sat beside an old friend and new love, the man I had chosen to father my children, and we carried with us the dreams of hope and determination to do right that guides many of us into parenthood -- the ultimate act of faith in the future of humankind.

A vague notion that we wanted to spare ourselves and our children the neuroses of "civilization" and a desire to observe and participate in a culture where the accepted place for an infant was in mother's arms seemed like good enough reasons to make the move.

By the time my first child Van was born in May, 1985, I had practiced with a variety of traditional rebozos (Mexican shawls worn by women and girls of all ages, for warmth or for protection from the strong sun, during ceremonies, or to carry whatever's needed at the moment, be it merchandise, a baby or small child, and soon found a way I could enjoy my son held close to my body while I had free use of my hands. Being rich in spirit, few in material goods, and gypsies by choice and business (buying and selling gems and textiles, and our own jewelry), we came in daily contact with the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Thus we discovered by firsthand experience their beliefs and practices about babies and family life.

I was delighted to find that they valued the "traditional forty days" of rest and recovery after birth as a time mothers and new babies need to stay at home, often in bed, given plenty of time to "fall in love," to get to know each other's needs and rhythms, and to recuperate from the physical effort of birthing. In fact, when I took Van out to register his birth a mere sixteen days after that event, neighbors warned me not to let others glimpse his face, so that he would not be affected by the "evil eye."

As he grew, and we traveled in buses across and through the country, I was struck by the love and acceptance of babies. Everywhere women, girls, and even men asked to hold and play with the baby, and would greet him directly (as well as me) when we came in contact. The baby was not a nuisance or a pest whose place was in a quiet room at home, away from society at large. In fact, children of all ages here accompany their parents on business, errands, and to work at times---out of necessity, perhaps, but also out of love. The acceptance is genuine and innocent, thus avoiding the fear of strangers and kidnapping so focused on in the U.S., and allowing a norm, for example, of children of all ages waiting with their parents in bank lines, where they are joked with or distracted by other adults should they show signs of impatience, instead of being glared at and incited to be more and more rambunctious.

Baby equipment, basically considered a necessity in our neighbor to the north, is mostly used by those eager to be Americanized. Traditionally, babies sleep in the same bed as their mother (or both parents, may nap in a hammock (which my little ones relished), and are held in the mother's arms or rebozo, or by another loving relative, not distanced in a plastic baby seat, swing, or left lying in a crib. Car seats are not required, and so babies may be held in human arms, even in private cars. During extended travel by car with my second son, Gaby, I sometimes held him, nursing on demand, which I personally consider a safe and loving option. Little ones may also sleep lying down in a car, tucked into a safe place, instead of being propped up or falling down behind their straps. In this way, they are protected by their horizontal position as well as by their state of relaxation and physical well-being.

In general. though, there are far fewer cars, especially among the indigenous population. Walking is the most common method of transportation, and people are not afraid to carry heavy loads. Having spent their whole lives lifting and doing physical work, the ordinary people of Mexico do so matter-of-factly; people do not assume they will be injured by constant carrying, and usually they are strengthened by it. Also, the need to carry heavy loads, aside from those moved on burros and other beasts of burden, facilitates a special kind of cooperation, especially among family members. A common sight near open markets is a pair of adults or adolescents, of either sex, each with one hand holding onto an overflowing plastic woven shopping bag between them, walking side by side in perfect rhythm, to wherever they call home.

Another sight that still always thrills me is to see teenage boys walking arm in arm with their grandmothers down the street. Although they enjoy the companionship of their peers, they are not ashamed of their family connections at this age, and children generally live with their parents until they are married, and sometimes after that as well. Physical affection between family members and friends is the norm, for all ages and sexes, and two boys, or a teenage girl and her mother, may walk along holding hands as we only do with lovers or small children in our culture. School girls and even grown men walk hugging each other around the shoulders. I am happy to see my own sons, now seven and nine, be able to spontaneously express their affection to those they care about, including others of their own gender.

In this society, proper greetings and courtesy are very important, and children are taught from an early age to acknowledge every person they come in contact with, no matter how young or old. In this way, children learn that they are valuable, contributing members of society, rather than appendages of their parents, or invisible, as it seems they are in so many social contexts in the U.S. When a Mexican comes into the waiting room of a doctor, lawyer, or other professional, he gives a clear, general greeting to all who are already present, before finding a place to sit. When introductions are made, children as well as babes in arms are included, and even their hands are shaken.

I believe it is the importance of the family as well as acknowledging the spiritual in so much of their lives that makes Mexico such a generally safe place to live and raise children. My children jump on their bikes and ride across town, play unsupervised in the parks, run to the corner store even a half hour after dark. It is such a relief, and so less complicated and restricting, to know they will be safe to explore and enjoy their childish pursuits in a community and nation where they are cherished and protected.

For me, it's important to know how I can honor and learn from ancient cultures, and continue to honor my own self and my roots. This means in part not romanticizing the indigenous -- all the previous images I've shared are indeed precious, and have been inspiring to me. I have chosen not to emphasize the lack of sanitation, or the ignorance, poverty and hunger that are often a part of the scenario in indigenous groups still struggling to assimilate 20th century attitudes and materials (plastics, soft drinks, etc.). This is not because I do not see these things, but they are not what I receive as gifts from these peoples.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Barbara Wishingrad, after 12 years, is still living and raising her children in Mexico. The traditional woven shaw (rebozo) and its numerous ways to wrap and wear babies fascinated her and led her to wear her own babies in this time-tested way. She has developed the Rebozo Way Cultural and Educational Project, an international organization dedicated to promoting in-arms parenting. Through a photography exhibition, a video available in both English and Spanish, brochures on rebozo how-to, history, and related subjects, the Rebozo Way attempts to educate and inform those in modern cultures who are open to receiving guidance from age-old ways, and to use them in the context of a modern lifestyle.


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