The woven hammock was the first New World craft tradition recognized and accepted by Europeans. On October 17, 1492, Christopher Columbus noted in his diary the curious "hanging beds" of the Taíno people on the island of Boriquén, now Puerto Rico. These jamacas protected them from soggy terrain, snakes, and forest animals. European sailors put them to use immediately, and the renowned sixteenth century Spanish chronicler, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, highly recommended them to Spanish travelers. The hammock, still woven today in the Puerto Rican towns of San Sebastián and Las Piedras, is an icon of Puerto Rican traditional crafts and of Native American contributions to Puerto Rican identity.
José "Compay Ché" González was born in 1918 into a family of hammock weavers in San Sebastián's Barrio Robles neighborhood. He began weaving hammocks when he was seven years old, his mother teaching him to extract and prepare fibers (cabuya) from the maguey plant in the fashion of the Taínos encountered by Columbus, and his father teaching him to weave. In 1943, he married Doña Juana Pérez, the daughter of a well-known hammock weaver, and in the late 1940s, he and his father-in-law became the first modern weavers to make hammocks from cotton (cordoncillo). While the convenience and increased productivity afforded by cotton soon replaced maguey fibers as the preferred material, González's respect for the ancient method led him to continue the practice alongside his cotton hammock weaving. The process of scraping the pulp from the maguey fibers, washing and drying them, and coloring them with natural dyes is a tedious process, an art in itself. He has taught the ancient craft to anyone who asked, sharing his knowledge freely and taking on several long-term apprentices. Puerto Rico's veteran crafts promoter Walter Murray Chiesa writes: ". . . Don José González remains a true living monument, a great artist and a gentleman. His dignity, his friendliness, his generosity, and his loyalty to the art of hammock weaving have been so great, that I do not know any other living person so worthy of representing the greatness and nobility of our master, consecrated craftsmen." These qualities also have earned him the title "El Hamaquero Mayor" (The Great Hammock Weaver) among the hundreds of fellow weavers on the island.
José González has woven hammocks, "the poor man's bed," for 75 years, and is determined to continue his craft. "I will never stop weaving hammocks," he says. He creates various sizes, colors, and styles of hammock, as well as "hammock chairs" and miniature, doll hammocks. In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous craft festivals were dedicated to him. In 1996, he received an honorary doctoral degree from Puerto Rico's Universidad Sagrado Corazón, and in 1997, both the Puerto Rican House of Representatives and Senate officially recognized his work.
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