Luisa de Jesus is a granddaughter of Lai Rusu, the first local ruler of Tutuala, located at the far eastern tip of the island of Timor. Luisa was raised in Pitileti, a hamlet of traditional houses raised high off the ground. After the Indonesian army occupied East Timor in 1975, the rugged terrain nearby became a stronghold of the rebel group FRETILIN. Pitileti was burned in the ensuing conflict, and the community was resettled by the Indonesian government.
Much of the textile wealth of Pitileti was destroyed in the conflagration, but Louisa saved a few scraps that her grandmother had instructed her to keep as mnemonic devices—preserving the patterns of striping for the main types of cloth and more importantly, as Luisa says, preserving for future generations “our name and the record of all our achievements.”
Until it was engulfed by conflict, East Timor was a neglected backwater where traditional culture endured with relatively little impact from modernization. For this reason, the story that Luisa tells—about the power of a cloth so potent that it could destroy a community’s coconut trees—is fundamentally conservative in its outlook. Rarely today would one find such a story told with as much conviction as it is by this remarkable woman who retains her aristocratic bearing despite the suffering her community has experienced.