Guatemalan Women Weave Life into Textiles
Guatemalan indigenous women do not get enough credit. In a country where civil war was status quo for decades and the culture of many was repressed by only a few, going through life with a hopeful outlook and keeping one’s head up bordered on extraordinary.
This past Winter Term I traveled to Guatemala with nine other Oberlin students, as well as a guide from the Oberlin organization Santa Elena Project for Accompaniment, John Gates and our translator, Anne Getzin, OC ’05. We intended to learn about the country and, more specifically, the very people affected by its enduring conflict.
We went through a spider web of travel, getting caught up in different places, leaving bits of ourselves stuck there in danger of fading out of memory. The people we spent the most time with — still just beginning to get to know them — were the returned refugees, the Mayan people who were forced to escape to Mexico during the war to escape massacre.
They had been shy. Shy with their Spanish, because it is a second language to them, and shy with their native languages, for it was this very display of culture that had been repressed in them previously. Women were very reserved, not ready to offer their ideas freely or vigorous in conversation.
Then we came to Copal AA, and something subtly changed. It was a heartening place — fuel for the idealists of the world. Three different types of Mayan people had come back to Copal AA after the war, automatically granting the village one progressive trait. From there, slight variations on the ethnic norms evolved to turn Copal AA into a relatively outspoken community.
This was particularly evident in the behavior of the women. The Mam Mayan women, especially, had become leaders, creating a women’s weaving cooperative, forming a health clinic that served not only Copal AA, but also several surrounding villages.
It was this last organization that most clearly communicated the unique quality of the village. Cooperative was a word that I had always associated with more liberal societies in the U.S.; finding such an organization in Guatemala, a place much more conservative than the U.S., was unexpected.
These women worked together to sell their textiles on slightly larger markets in other towns. They were a part of a larger women’s organization local to northern Guatemala, including several indigenous women’s groups. While we were there, they held an exhibition to display bags and cloths that they had woven. The native women agreed that each individual would produce the same value in textiles, so that sales would be as fair as possible.
Rows of bags hung on clotheslines, attached by their own straps. Colors were diverse, but nearly all were deep and substantial – berry-tinted maroon and violent purple. If you ran your fingers across the fabrics, they rose and fell minutely over the ridges created by patterns and different colors. The cloth was thicker than that of textiles in the larger cities where markets sold vast amounts of lesser-quality goods; it seemed valid, more real. Seeing the faces of those who had made them wove their humanity into the cloth along with the regular threads.
Often, SEPA buys from these women in bulk and then brings the pieces back to
Oberlin, selling them at special events and the farmer’s market. Buying a
bag or a table runner is a simple way anyone can support these women and their