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Gabino Silva: Hammock Maker

by John Tarleton
March 1999

SAN AGUSTINILLO, Mexico—A compact Mexican man with a bushy moustache and a twinkle in his eye was standing in front of a rectangular, wooden frame in the shade at the bottom of an arroyo. He was working on his latest creation: a matrimonial-sized hammock with a very Mexican color scheme of bright yellow, pink, green and black. Yellow- breasted chihueros were singing in the canopy overhead. The ocean that he used to ply for a living was just out of earshot.

“I Like to Use My Mind”

The man paused from his work to describe how he had drawn up the color scheme. Then, he he bent down low in front of the frame and pointed at a group of four, tightly interwoven black and green threads that changed color depending on which way he turned the hammock. He drew out the pattern in the dust and talked with the excitement and the conviction of someone who is always experimenting and teaching himself something new.

“I like to combine colors,” Gabino Silva said. An unlit Gratos cigarette was wedged between his lips. “I’ll be working on a hammock and then I’ll think of a new combination and I’ll rush over to draw it in my notebook. I like to use my mind.”

Gabino, 45, first went to work in a turtle slaughterhouse when he was 16. Later, he became a fisherman who caught everything from red snapper to shark. He has an 8th-grade education and a tireless curiosity. He reads everything from Reader's Digest to Plato’s Republic. A shortwave radio is always nearby to tune into newscasts from around the world. And, 14 years ago he made the creative leap from repairing large fishnets to teaching himself how to make some of the most colorful and durable hammocks in all of Mexico.

“They make a damn good hammock,” said Jonathan of Burlington, Vermont. He has been coming to Mexico for three years and never before had been comfortable in a hammock. “The hammocks are so big you can lay anyway you want and your body is evenly supported. It’s like being weightless.”

Glen of Taos New Mexico has been coming to San Agustinillo since the mid-1980s. And, he has bought some of Gabino’s hammocks to resell in the United States. “It's high quality,” he said. “The design, the color, the strength. What I tell people is that they’re getting a really fine piece of furniture.”

Hard Times

Hard times propelled Gabino’s transition into hammock making. San Agustinillo is a tranquil fishing village of 150 people (plus a sprinkling of winter snowbirds) located on the sun-splashed Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, 500 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Fourteen years ago, it had neither paved roads nor electricity. And when middlemen in Acupulco cut the price they were paying to members of the village’s newly-formed fishing cooperative, Gabino found himself scrambling. He had to support himself and his partner Zita and their five children who were subsisting on a diet of rice, beans, squash and corn tortillas plus whatever else they could catch: iguanas, turtles, fish, crabs, snails, grasshoppers and large, bean-sized black ants that flourish at the beginning of rainy season.

Learning How to Make a Better Hammock

Gabino’s brother-in-law showed him a basic, one-color hammock made in Juchitan, 240 km to the northeast. He studied the hammock carefully and was confident that he could make a better one. However, he was broke. A friend lent him the money to buy his first supplies. And he has been making hammocks ever since.

“Gabino has learned to make hammock by dissecting hammocks. He's mostly self- taught,” said his friend.

Nowadays, Zita, all five children and a half-dozen neighbors are all weaving in their sparetime, following Gabino Silva's intricate designs. The family sells the hammocks from their small restaurant at KM 7.4 on the highway from Puerto Angel to Mazunte. Silva closely inspects each hammock. And he assesses fines for any lapses in quality.

“I don’t receive many flawed hammocks,” he said.

Gabino has continued studying the designs in other weaving from as far away as the Yucatan and Guatemala and incorporates their best aspects into his own work. His hammocks have anywhere from four to 23 colors. Some of his most colorful productions, he says, have been inspired by San Agustinillo’s fiery sunsets.

His individual-sized hammock has 960 super-fine #9 nylon threads. The matrimonial, 1220 threads. The hammocks are double and triple re-enforced in high stress points. And, they come with a lifetime guarantee. Each hammock takes about five days to produce.

“I’ve always tried to be the best at whatever I do,” Gabino said. “If I didn’t continue making good hammocks, my customers wouldn’t believe in me.”


The Pacific Coast of Oaxaca Website
Real Oaxaca

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