The vibrant colors of Guatemala’s indigenous weavings that appear on traditional blouses called huipiles, skirts and other items have deep symbolic meaning for communities across the Central American country, but they are also closely linked to the promotion of tourism in the country. Guatemala. The intricate designs greet tourists in promotional material at the airport, and businesses and non-governmental organizations have sought to capitalize on the designs.
Over the past six years, Indigenous women have sought to challenge the exploitation of their sacred conceptions by promoting legislation that would protect their collective intellectual property rights. On September 5, the Association of Women for the Development of Sacatepéquez, or AFEDES, and the weavers of the Ruchajixik Ri Qana’ojbäl movement, which means Guardians of Our Knowledge in the Kaqchikel language, presented its latest bill that would protect its weavings.
The proposal is supported by members of the left bloc in congress, and its presentation to legislators marked the fifth congress of weavers, which brought together hundreds of weavers of their movement from across the country to discuss and exchange experiences and weavings in Guatemala City. Yet the weavers have also sought to find cross-party support for the legislation, hoping the law will progress in the current congress.
“We defend the weavings, because it is also part of the defense of our land, of our territory,” said Ixchel Guorón Rodríguez, weaver and member of the movement of Tecpán, Chimaltenango. “It’s part of a legacy that our grandmothers left to us, and we see different issues around the misuse that’s already being done by others.”
But the task is daunting, especially since the current congress has done little to promote legislation that benefits the people and has been accused of rampant corruption. The bill still needs to be debated in Congress.
The movement emerged in 2016 after concerns over the appropriation of indigenous weavings in products sold by businesses owned by non-Indigenous Guatemalans, particularly Maria’s Bags. The movement grew after weavers in the city of Santo Domingo Xenacoj felt exploited in producing weavings for the company. To make matters worse, over the past decade the sale of cheap weavings made with computers has grown in communities, affecting the livelihoods of weavers.
“The industrialization of textiles affects the income of weavers,” said Guorón Rodríguez. “We are very concerned that they can patent a design and weavers cannot weave [it] in the future.”
In 2016, the movement mobilized to demand and propose reform to the Guatemalan congress that would protect the collective intellectual property rights of their weavings. The legislation included six key points, but most importantly, it would recognize Indigenous communities as the collective authors of their designs. But the proposed reform has not advanced.
“There was no more interest in [it]like all laws that favor indigenous peoples,” said Guorón Rodríguez.
The failure of the reform and the current bill are only part of a larger campaign led by the women of AFEDES and the weaving movement at large. They also seek to promote the use and ancestral value of handwoven clothing in Indigenous communities.
Promoting the value of traditional clothing
As the movement challenged the appropriation of their weavings, they also set out to challenge the use of indigenous women in the national and international marketing of tourism in Guatemala.
Despite promotional tourism, there is a stigma associated with the use of indigenous clothing – the hand-woven skirts, pants, shirts and huipiles used by indigenous men and women across Guatemala. Predominantly white non-indigenous communities, particularly in economic elite circles, associate the use of traditional clothing with a sign of poverty and ignorance.
According to the Guatemalan government’s 2018 census, just under 45% of the population identifies as indigenous. The actual number, however, is likely much higher, with some Estimate that 60% of the population is indigenous. These populations also experience higher rates of poverty and state neglect. Indigenous women in Guatemala constitute the majority of the 59% of the population who suffer from poverty.
The stigma faced by indigenous peoples in Guatemala is rooted in systemic racism. As a result, many young people chose to wear more Western clothing and dropped their languages.
“We realized that weaves were no longer used by young women because of racism and the systematic exclusion of women, especially those of us who wore the [Indigenous] clothing,” said Milvian Aspuac, one of the leaders of AFEDES and one of the earliest members of the movement. “So it worried us because it meant losing our identity.”
In response, women in the weaving movement sought to promote the use of indigenous clothing, the value it has for communities, and the art of weaving.
Following the reform proposal in 2016, women in the movement initiated the formation of community-level weaver councils that would oversee and authorize the use of designs by people outside the communities. Since then councils of weavers have been established in at least 15 communities.
A key part of these councils has been the promotion of weaving classes that pass on the art and knowledge of their ancestors. In Tecpán, at least 50 young people, including men, have joined the classes to learn the art of weaving since the board and classes launched in 2017.
Shared experience and documentation of meanings
The significance of the various intricate patterns found on Aboriginal weavings has slowly been lost as younger generations choose to wear more Western clothing. Faced with the loss of the history and stories contained in the weavings, the women of AFEDES began to collect knowledge about the meanings of the weavings.
“It’s the recovery of our historical memory,” Aspuac said. “Why did our grandmothers leave these symbols on the sleeves? What did it represent for our grandmothers? It is important that we maintain [the meaning from the weavings] overtime.”
The Kaqchikel Maya community of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Chimaltenango, which is 22 miles from Guatemala City, was among the first communities to join the effort. For them, it all started when a company attempted to use and allegedly claim the intellectual property rights to their designs.
“Our creations were getting lost,” Gloria García García, 59, a member of the Mayan Kaqchikel Weavers Council, told Xenacoj. “So with AFEDES and our advice, we started to analyze the meanings of the weaves.”
They began working to document the oral history of the drawings. Through meetings with senior weavers, García and the other members of the weavers’ council collected photos, drawings, and documented meanings of the designs that appear in the Huipiles.
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Among the drawings of rabbits, four-legged chicken, flying squirrels, flowers and other plants, they found images that are no longer in use, including a dead chick in an egg, which symbolized life and dead. The women also found a deep connection between the designs and the sacred Mayan calendar, known as Choj Q’ij. In the community of Santiago Sacatepequez, women discovered that a snake symbol on the traditional skirt contained exactly 13 points, which corresponds to the calendar system. Another of their findings is that symbols have been copied, adopted and reproduced from other indigenous communities.
AFEDES has now worked in at least seven indigenous communities, including Tecpán, to collect the meanings of the different patterns. The weavings hold generations of knowledge that the Spanish invaders tried to erase by burning the Mayan books when they invaded the area in 1524. But 500 years later, the knowledge continues to be passed down in the weavings.
“Books are weaves,” Aspuac said. “These are the books the colony couldn’t burn.”