Background: In the Highlands of Guatemala today many Maya women practice backstrap loom weaving, an art which has been a distinctive part of their culture since before the arrival of the Spaniards. The continuation of this type of weaving is one way women have resisted the culture imposed on them by their conquerors.
In the last two decades it has been difficult for women to maintain their weaving skills. During the recent civil war in Guatemala the military tried to stop the Indians from practicing their traditional arts. Fearing that those who were fighting against them were using the Indians to support their cause, the Guatemalan military attacked Indian villages, destroying over 400 and killing hundreds of thousands of people. They smashed thousands of weaving looms and even studied huipil design patterns to tell which villages people came from. A person was automatically suspect if they came from a village where the military suspected there to be anti-government forces. Many Maya fled Guatemala to become refugees in other countries. In spite of the harshness of these years of civil war, and of the poverty in which numbers still live, many Maya women continue to wear their traditional dress and to maintain the ancient art of backstrap weaving.
Why Women Weave: Some of the reasons why women weave and wear their traditional clothes are revealed in the following short accounts. Read these accounts to discover what women say about the importance of weaving in their lives. Then follow the directions.
1) After reading each personal account, write a sentence or phrase in the space provided stating the main idea(s) expressed in the account.
Think of answering the following questions:
- Why does this woman (or women) weave?
- Why is she so concerned with maintaining her weaving skills?
- Is she finding it hard to continue to weave?
- What are some of the problems she faces?
- Does she find satisfaction in her weaving?
2) In your opinion, which account is the most powerful? Why?
3) Write a short report on: Weaving as Cultural and Economic Survival for Maya Women.
Use the main ideas from each account as the basis for your report. Include the problems women face as well as the satisfaction they get from weaving and wearing their traditional clothes.
Consider using quotes from the account you felt to be the most powerful to illustrate some of your points.
1) "My mother had a custom of taking fifteen or twenty huipiles to another town to sell them once a year. She would go to another town where there were a lot of tourists. It is very important for me to weave because once, when we didn't have enough money, we went down to another village, and I sold two huipiles which had been used very little, and that way we were able to make it through the hard time."
- Unidentified woman, 1980s
2) "Many of our male comrades recognize this wealth of knowledge that we women have. Our women have known how to struggle for our culture. It's women who preserve the art of weaving; we are the weavers. Our knowledge concerning weaving, our art, is very advanced. That's why many people everywhere consider the Guatemalan woman to be an artist. And weaving is an art."
- Rigoberta Menchú, 1983
3) "When one has suffered discrimination and oppression, one starts to feel like they're not important. So many people are telling you, 'You're not important' you start to believe that your dress isn't worth anything. After finding out what the colors and designs mean in the huipiles, though, you feel more Indian, more part of the culture. Learning about the designs on my dress and the colors has been the most important part of my healing from the torture this year."
- Unidentified woman, 1986
4) "The army is so astute that they can detect in a moment where a woman comes from by her blouse, her huipil. And if they see a woman in the capital city who is from Patzun, she will be suspect. They will say, 'Ah ha! Out there in Patzun there are guerrilla movements, there are people's organizations.' So the Indians say, "Well, it is not to our advantage to use the traditional dress."
- A Maya Leader, 1980s
5) "I can't get accustomed to taking off my traditional clothes. I can't adjust to putting on other clothes. I can only wear other clothes for an hour or two. I can't leave my dress, it's part of me. Without my dress I don't feel calm inside, I feel like I'm missing something, something from me..."
- Unidentified Women, 1980s
6) "In most of the refugee camps (in Mexico), women are making an effort to continue weaving, though not the same designs they did in Guatemala. They are doing this out of necessity, for they now have many needs. Even though our designs are not the same, the act of weaving represents something very important. It shows people on the outside that we want to live, we don't want to die. Through our art we can express our feelings and one forgets for a moment what one has lived through."
- Elena Ixcot, 1987
7) "Many Guatemalan (weavers) must produce their art for sale. They are obligated to sell their whole form of expression, their art, in order to contribute to the family. It is important that when we see a weaver's product that we see the inspiration of the ancestors, the strength of a great culture. But we must also see it within the context of a social system and an economic and political order which is very unjust. One of the greatest problems is that there are plenty of people buying Guatemalan crafts who pay producers low prices and make big profits at national and international markets. For these reasons communities see the need to organize into small cooperatives to move towards a better future. Aj Quen (an organization which means "Weaving Together" in the Cakchikel language) was born as a solution. Aj Quen looks for alternative markets - people that understand the situation of the weavers, are willing to buy products at a fairer price, and who want to learn more about the problems of countries like Guatemala."
- Ileana Cordon, director of Aj Quen, 1992
8) "I am 12 years old. I used to go to school. But I don't go to school anymore. I must help my mother do laundry for the plantation owner's family, because we need the money. Our water comes from a stream, about a mile from home. Everyday I go there with my friends, and we carry water back in large water jugs, balanced on our heads. Many afternoons, the girls in my community get together in the shade of a huge tree and do our weaving. We talk and weave, and our grandmothers sometimes join us to tell stories."
- Juanita Tzul, 1992
9) "I used to weave and sew all of the clothes for my family but thread is every expensive now. Sometimes I have to buy clothing made in Taiwan or El Salvador. I did make my huipil, and I have worn it everyday since I married, 30 years ago. I teach the young girls how to weave and that makes me very happy to see them carry on our traditional patterns."
- Juanita Tzul's grandmother, 1992