Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives

Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives

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Against the backdrop of Guatemala, this book presents portraits of artisans working in the ancient traditions of the Maya paired with insights into the creation of the textiles and the events that have affected their work. Weaving, spinning, and basket making have sustained the Maya economically and culturally against the pressures of change and a 36-year civil war that decimated their population. Their persistence in continuing traditional art has created some of the loveliest, most colorful textiles the world has ever known. Artisans share their personal histories, hopes, and dreams along with the products of their hands and looms. Their stories show determination in the face of unimaginable loss and hardship which instill an appreciation for the textiles themselves and for the strong people who create them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780983886075
Publisher: Thrums Books
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 10.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Deborah Chandler is the creator and director of Weaving Futures, where she has had the pleasure and honor of working with many Mayan weavers. She is the author of Learning to Weave. She lives in Guatemala. Teresa Cordón is the owner of the award-winning Comercial Naleb, a handwoven hat business. She is an avid provider of education and marketing for the work of Mayan artisans. She lives in Guatemala. Joe Coca is a photographer of people from all walks of life over five continents, industrial products and installations, architecture, food, and especially handcrafted textiles and other artisan goods. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt


Cecilia Cirin Chacach

Saquitacaj, San José Poaquil, Chimaltenango Kaqchikel

My favorite story about Cecilia Cirin, age fifty-nine, comes from her childhood. Her father had livestock — cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. The horses were pack animals, and Cecilia remembers their taking charcoal to the market in Guatemala City. Cecilia was on one horse, her father on another, and five more horses carried charcoal. They headed toward the city, a two-day ride away, and spent the first night in Chimaltenango (now a 45-minute trip in a pickup). They arrived in the city on the second day, and for the next few days sold the charcoal in the market. Although the trip back still took two days, those days were easier, and they moved faster with the pack horses traveling light.

Growing up, Cecilia had many of the chores and learned the lessons of all girls in her world: herding the animals, breaking the cornstalks to speed the drying process, carrying lunch and water (in a tinaja, a clay jug on her head) to her father and brothers (which is when she met her best friend, Emeteria), grinding corn on a piedra de moler (grinding stone made of volcanic rock), and cooking. And, of course, spinning, weaving, and dyeing. By the time she was thirteen, she was adept at all of those tasks.

Sadly, the year she turned thirteen, her father died of an illness. Her three sisters were already married, and her three brothers were already drunks, so it fell to Cecilia and her mother to tend to everything. Then, when Cecilia was just fifteen, her mother died of an illness. And because fifteen-year-old girls could not live alone, she got married and moved from the town of San José Poaquil to the nearby aldea (village) of Saquitacaj, where Emeteria lived also.

The aldea where Cecilia lives is about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from San José Poaquil, which is about a half-hour drive from San Juan Comalapa. In the early days of political boundaries, the 1800s and beyond, Poaquil was part of the municipio (county, the most important political subdivision in Guatemala) of Comalapa, as were San Martin Jilotepeque, and Santa Apolonia. Not until the 1890s did the towns break off to become their own municipios, and by then the patterns of the women's huipils, patterns unique to each area, had long since been well established. San Martin was a center of weaving for the area, with the weavers selling many of their textiles to other communities, and thus influencing the local designs. Comalapa was the political and market center, and many ideas spread from there. The huipils of Poaquil were, and still are, nearly identical to those of Comalapa, with noticeable influence from San Martin. Those influences — in part — explain the complexity of the Poaquil huipil, which is also the huipil of Saquitacaj and other aldeas around Poaquil.

Complexity hardly begins to describe these huipils, each of which has most, if not all, of the following weave structures:

Warp-faced plain weave Weft-faced plain weave
Creya (unique red stripe), pick and pick, or mixed designs Single-faced brocade Double-sided brocade

This is a huipil woven "by the hand of a woman." When a huipil is woven on a draw loom, it is said to be woven "by the hand of a man" and is less valuable.

Double- or two-faced brocade Balanced plain-weave
Marcador Semi-marcador

The neck, after being turned in and stitched, is then embellished — with embroidery, a beaded edging, and other techniques.

Those are the weave structures and techniques. The materials may include any or all of the following: various kinds of cotton, acrylic for warmth, rayon, silk, or metallic threads; and for the neck, velvet, beads, or other trims.

Creya, the red shoulder stripe that distinguishes the Comalapa and Poaquil huipil, is named for a cotton yarn called crea that was imported from Europe. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the creya is that it is a weft-faced stripe woven on a warp-faced warp. A very fine weft is used for the stripe, one so fine that it may take an hour to weave an inch. For a period of time, the red stripe was woven with blue, but now red is more common once again. Not all Poaquil huipils have the red stripe, but many do. By all accounts but one, the red stripe has no symbolic significance. The one exception comes from Gaby, one of Cecilia's daughters, who has studied in the city as well as in the village. She told us that the red stripe represents discrimination against and physical abuse of women.

Cecilia, her daughters, and daughter-in-law all still wear traje (traditional clothing) because they are more comfortable in it. While they showed us their huipils, they discussed trends, saying that there are fashion changes every year. The base cloth color changes, separator stripes get wider or narrower, and the images become bigger or smaller. The images can be animals, flowers of vastly different styles, flower baskets and vases, little human figures, cupids, and a wonderful variety of geometric shapes. The colors can be strong or soft, solid or manchado (space-dyed), and more or less background may show through. And though the elements that have been included from San Martin are there, the huipils are clearly distinct. Finally, in spite of what seems like endless variation, it is still possible to identify a huipil from Poaquil or Comalapa amid all the other huipils in Guatemala.

Cecilia and her husband, Manuel Gonzalez Ovalle, started their family with four daughters, working their land. They grew vegetables and raised fowl and other animals. They were close to Manuel's parents, who were bread bakers in Poaquil, and their daughter Ana went to live with her grandparents when she was two. Even though the roads were barely in existence, one of their proudest possessions was a car. Life was good.

During those years, part of Cecilia's work was to clothe her family using her loom. She bought raw white cotton in the market and brought it home to spin on a supported spindle, then sometimes dyed it with local plants. To weave her huipils, she used that yarn as well as commercial yarn. After she had woven enough for her household, which required far more cloth than the huipils for herself and her daughters, Cecilia would weave to sell, earning a little extra income for the family.

Meanwhile, her friend Emeteria lived just houses away, was also married, and also had four children. The two women continued to have a strong bond, which became an anchor in the storm about to hit them.

On Christmas Eve in 1981, Cecilia and her family were at home. At 7:00 p.m., the Judiciales (the most vicious division of the police) arrived at their door. They took Manuel away, along with everything they could steal, which was everything, leaving Cecilia and the girls home alone, with nothing. Not far away, they also took Emeteria's husband, and took her as well, putting her in the local jail. They burned everything, leaving her small children behind to fend for themselves.

Emeteria came home after three days. On the fourth day, they found Manuel's body on the highway near Sumpango, some 32 kilometers (20 miles) away, totally burned. They never found the body of Emeteria's husband. Four years later, as Manuel's father was walking down the street selling bread, the army handcuffed and took him away as well.

Thus ended that chapter of Cecilia's life. She and Emeteria were twenty-seven.

Cecilia Cirin was born in 1954, at a pivotal moment in the life of Guatemala. That year ended the "Golden Age" of Guatemala and began a time of internal unrest that lasted more than forty years. By the time she was four years old, Cecilia had already lived through the rise and fall of six presidents, all military. She didn't know it at the time, of course.

Officially, the war lasted from 1960 to 1996, ending with the signing of peace accords between the military and the guerrillas. It was a dark time, and even those few who were not directly affected were living in a world filled with fear. Although the guerrillas are not totally innocent, in the end, the military was declared responsible for most of the violence. Some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared and many, many thousands more went into exile in Mexico, the United States, or anywhere else they could go to be safe. Those who could not get out of the country often hid in the mountains, subsisting on whatever they could find; many of those were children whose families had been killed.

In some cases, entire communities were targeted for destruction, so if some few did manage to escape, they needed to keep where they came from a secret. The fastest way to identify a woman from a distance is her huipil, and so many women had to shed their huipils for the first time in their lives. At the same time, when one is running for her life, packing huipils — or anything else — is not an option, so for that reason, too, women's clothing began to change. It takes three to six months to weave a huipil; to buy a huipil, one needs money and a market. These were not available to those on the run.

Opinions as to why some areas were hit harder than others are countless. Whatever the reasons, every town named so far in this story is included on the list of those hardest hit by army violence. (Artisans whose stories are included later in the book also live in areas on that list.) Many programs were developed to help war widows and orphans. Tejidos Guadalupe, with which Cecilia and Emeteria worked for five years, offered programs for 300 war widows and an orphanage that at its peak took care of 125 children. People told Cecilia that she should give up her children because she would obviously not be able to take care of them. Her response was, "Just because you have lost your husband doesn't mean you can't raise your children."

Sugar, bananas, coffee, and cardamom (and in the past, cotton) are considered the traditional crops of Guatemala, the biggest food crops for export. Of those, only bananas have had their own stable work force. The rest, being seasonal, survive by the work of migrants. Many people talk of going "to the coast," a phrase that doesn't necessarily refer to an area close to the coast but one that's lower in altitude. In some cases, whole families go; in others, only the father or the males or the older ones go. It depends on many factors, the primary one being what they have at home, such as other jobs, small farms, babies, and aging parents. Considered by most to be a real home-breaker in terms of absence, migrant work is also a home-saver in terms of providing a badly needed income.

The conditions are tough, as they are for migrant workers anywhere. In Guatemala, the situation is complicated by being multilingual. There are twenty-two Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, as well as Xinca, Garifuna, and Spanish, which means that many of the migrant workers cannot speak with each other. Some fincas (large farms, plantations) send trucks to bring people from farther inland at the beginning of the season and return them at the end. Other people come and go on their own. Some go with pre-set contracts, others go looking for work. There is no single story.

In Cecilia and Emeteria's case, migrant work saved them. From October through January of 1983 and 1984, they went to a coffee finca, taking their children with them. They very quickly learned that they could do better making tortillas for the other workers than picking coffee themselves, so that became their work, starting at 1 a.m. every morning. They also made wicker baskets for the pickers to use, which they sold for ten cents each. Thinking about that time, Cecilia would smile. "It was good. Our children had enough food then."

"Weaving was a necessity," Cecilia says, but I also loved it. I sold some, but mostly I wove for my family."

A home has more textiles than simply clothing. In a world without disposables, consider towels for both kitchen and body, cloth to cover food, diapers, baby carriers, head protectors (from rain or sun), market bags, bedding, and much more. Clothing for the girls and women includes huipils, of course. The skirts, called corte, are usually woven on foot looms. Fajas (belts) are backstrap woven. Sobrehuipiles (over-huipils) are a far more elaborate and fine version of the usual huipil, with the distinction that they are longer, wider, and often lightweight. They're worn over the top of the daily huipil and corte for special ceremonies. There was never a time when Cecilia had nothing to weave.

Also during that time, Cecilia wove and sold huipils. She figured out that what she earned selling three huipils gave her enough money to pay for help with her own harvest. She still had the land her husband had left her, but the oldest of her four daughters was only nine when her father was killed, so the girls were too small to do much farm work just yet. Besides, it was time for them to learn to weave, which they did.

Three years after Manuel was killed, Cecilia married Marcelo Quin Velasquez, a vegetable wholesaler whose wife had died of an illness some time earlier. As a comerciante (commercial businessman), his success had inspired some jealousy in someone and, as was common, he was picked up by the soldiers and tortured for three days. He was then released. He continued as a comerciante, and in his and Cecilia's twenty-four years together, they had four more children, three girls and one boy, making seven girls and one boy altogether. The family believes that when Marcelo died of headaches in 2009, it may have been in part from the long-term effects of the three days of torture. (Emeteria, who also remarried, had eight children, seven boys and one girl.)

Over the years, Cecilia's health has deteriorated. She has not been able to weave for some time because of poor eyesight and a bad back. She has aches and pains all over, and now her hearing is bothering her. All of that makes life more difficult, but it is not her highest priority. As has been true since the very beginning, keeping her family strong is the focus of Cecilia's life. Of her eight children, who now range in age from twenty to forty, six daughters live close by, in the same village, and are in and out of her house constantly. Of those six, one is the widow of an alcoholic husband; she has six children. The other five are married and also have children.

Cecilia cries, missing the other two children. Her only son, now twenty-eight, has been gone ten years, living in the United States. He sends money back to Cecilia and his wife and daughter, who live with Cecilia. He and his wife are building a new house, attached to Cecilia's; when he comes back, that will be their home.

Cecilia's daughter Ana Maria works in Guatemala City. You will meet her later in this book. Ana's son Manuel, thirteen, lives with Cecilia. Ana works as a live-in domestic, and her last couple of jobs have not allowed for Manuel to live with her. Raising a son costs money, as Cecilia knows, and so while she is very sad to have Ana so far away (a four-hour bus ride), she knows that it is necessary. Like her brother, Ana also helps support Cecilia, and in her case that includes the use of land and animals that she owns in the village. Thanks to cell phones and family gatherings, Cecilia has not lost all contact with Ana, but she does miss her and wishes she lived in Saquitacaj with the rest of the family. (So does Ana.)

Because everyone is sad that Cecilia lives alone — meaning that none of her daughters lives with her — they have family gatherings every weekend, for general togetherness and also to weave together. Ana can only get to the gatherings every other weekend. Then, she revels at being with everyone, especially her son, whom she misses terribly. They all look forward to the day when their brother can be with them, too.

Cecilia Cirin is a monument to resilience and strength. Rising above impossible situations, determined to keep her family intact, this is a woman who understands what it means to be alive. Cecilia's daughters dote on her, giving her all the love and attention they can. It is clear that they adore her. Emeteria, with her own painful aging body, still lives a few doors away. The two women continue to be best friends, the one constant in each other's lives for more than half a century. After losing both of her parents when she was so young, Cecilia has spent her life striving to maintain what she values most: above all else, family. In spite of formidable odds, she has achieved her goal.

Hogares Santa María De Guadalupe and Tejidos Guadalupe Santa Apolonia and San José Poaquil

In 1985, The School Sisters of St. Francis, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, opened Hogares Santa María de Guadalupe in Santa Apolonia. It's an orphanage for children who lost one or both parents to the Armed Conflict. Chepito, age seven, became the first new family member. Julio, age one, came second. At its peak, Hogares had 125 children, all from within a radius of 15 kilometers (9 miles). Often in sibling groups, the children were brought in by family members, neighbors, godparents, or others who knew they needed help. Other children, abandoned or orphaned, were sent by the children's court. Designated a "permanent population," the children came as infants through age eight and stayed until they were eighteen. At the age of ten, they chose the way they would contribute to the orphanage family. They then began to learn such skills as sewing, repairing shoes, or carpentering. And, of course, they went to school.


Excerpted from "Traditional Weavers of Guatemala"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón.
Excerpted by permission of Thrums Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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