Gu­atemalan tex­tiles, straight from the weaver’s hands

In San Juan La La­guna, co-ops are chang­ing the lives of vil­lage women

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MAYA KROTH Spe­cial to The Washington Post

You can’t go to Gu­atemala and not be­come at least mildly ob­sessed with its tex­tiles, from the hand-wo­ven skirts worn by Mayan women through­out the coun­try to the huip­iles, or loose-fit­ting tu­nics, vi­brantly em­broi­dered in ev­ery color of the rain­bow.

For me, the love af­fair be­gan the mo­ment I walked into my friend Kristin’s apart­ment in Pana­jachel, a lit­tle lakeside town in Gu­atemala’s western high­lands where she had come to teach English and I had come to visit. The col­or­ful wo­ven fab­ric was ev­ery­where in her place, from pil­low­cases to purses to pon­chos. I im­me­di­ately re­gret­ted not leav­ing more room inmy bag for shop­ping.

Although ev­ery cor­ner tourist shop in Pana­jachel is awash in fac­tory-pro­duced tex­tiles made from in­dus­trial cot­ton and syn­thetic dyes, Kristin steered me to a small vil­lage across the lake where it feels par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing to shop, not only aes­thet­i­cally but also eth­i­cally. In the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity of San Juan La La­guna, dozens of fe­male-run weav­ing co-ops pro­duce beau­ti­ful tex­tiles ac­cord­ing to time-hon­ored meth­ods passed down through gen­er­a­tions, of­ten us­ing or­ganic lo­cal cot­ton and nat­u­ral dyes. The best part? Prof­its are in­jected right back into the com­mu­nity, where poverty and il­lit­er­acy are still heart­break­ingly per­va­sive.

San Juan is one of more than a dozen com­mu­ni­ties that sur­round Lake Ati­t­lan, a stun­ning crater lake that formed about 2 mil­lion years ago. In or­der to get there from Kristin’s, I had to board a small fer­ry­boat at the Pana­jachel pier. As the boat thud­ded across the wa­ter, I could see what made Al­dous Hux­ley de­clare the lake one of the world’s most beau­ti­ful,

even more pic­turesque than Italy’sLake Como. Ringed by ex­tinct vol­ca­noes and a ridge­known as In­dian’sNose (a hik­ing route that re­sem­bles a pro­file), Ati­t­lan has at­tracted prom­i­nent in­tel­lec­tu­als, such asCheGue­varaandAn­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry, who is said to have writ­ten part of “The Lit­tle Prince” here.

I got off the boat at San Pe­dro La La­guna, a back­pack­ers’ haven filled with cheap hos­tels and lakeside bars, and climbed into one of the wait­ing tuk-tuks, bright red mo­tor­cy­cle taxis that charge a dol­lar or two for the bouncy five-minute ride over the hill to San Juan. The at­mos­phere there was more low-key, with few ho­tels or restau­rants and just a hand­ful of tidy streets fes­tooned with brightly col­ored mu­rals and a smat­ter­ing of shops, cafes and gal­leries. Ev­ery­where in town you see women weav­ing some­thing in­tri­cate and beau­ti­ful on back­strap looms — tra­di­tional, por­ta­ble de­vices that the weaver sets up by at­tach­ing one end to a sta­tion­ary ob­ject and strap­ping the other around her body.

There are some­where around 35 co-ops op­er­at­ing in San Juan, con­sist­ing of any­where from three to 75 women each, most be­long­ing to theMayanTzu­tu­jil peo­ple. At the first store I vis­ited, Cultura An­ces­tral, I found Elena Del­fina Uj­pan Perez in her work­shop, weav­ing a ta­ble-run­ner out of li­lac-col­ored thread.

Elena learned to weave at the skirts of her mother, Doña Dominga, as did her six sis­ters, all of whom be­long to co-ops. Be­cause Elena and 10 friends for­mally or­ga­nized about five years ago, she says, they’ve been able to cut out the mid­dle­man and keep more of what they earn in sales. Be­fore, a bro­ker might have paid a weaver only 75 quet­za­les (about $10) for a purse that sold for more than twice as much. Now, that same purse, sold through the co-op for the same price, re­turns up to 90 per­cent of the pro­ceeds to the woman who made it. The rest goes to over­head on the shop.

“It makes a dif­fer­ence in the kids,” says Noe Vasquez, Elena’s part­ner, who notes that be­fore the co-ops formed, most fam­i­lies couldn’t af­ford to ed­u­cate their chil­dren. “Now all the kids in San Juan go to school.”

Across the street, Elena’s sis­ter Fran­cisca runs her own co-op, Asociación Ch’ej­keem, where seem­ingly ev­ery sur­face is cov­ered in cloth. A rack of scarves turns one wall of the shop into a cas­cade of col­ors and pat­terns: peachy-pink di­a­monds and olive-green chevrons and peri­win­kle blue checked with white. Seated on a stool in a cor­ner of the store, Fran­cisca is dressed in a bright am­ber blouse and mul­ti­col­ored skirt cinched in with a wide sash, her slight frame al­most hid­den in the moun­tain of fab­ric that sur­rounds her.

“My­mom­made­thisthread­by­hand,” sh­e­says, demon­strat­inghow­puffs of raw­cot­ton are spun into coarse threads us­ing a wooden spin­dle.

At this, Doña Dominga, the 88-year-old ma­tri­arch, emerges from a back room, ea­ger to talk about her life­long trade. Stand­ing about 4foot-8, she’s del­i­cate but still spry. One mo­ment she’s sit­ting next tomeon the floor with her legs tucked un­der her like a lit­tle girl, the next she’s hop­pin­gup­toshowoff­somede­tail or oth­erona shawl or a purse, chat­ting all the while.

“When I was younger, women only cooked,” Dominga says. “Now they have free­dom to weave and make finer work.”

She seems pleased to have given her daugh­ters a sem­blance of sta­bil­ity and au­ton­omy in a coun­try where women are of­ten marginal­ized. “I taught them the work that I do and now, gra­cias a Dios, they all have their own shops,” she says, proudly.

Another of Doña Dominga’s daugh­ters, So­corro, has led her co-op of 40 women since 1971. Called Botánica, it’s housed in a work­shop space not far from her sis­ters’ stores. In ad­di­tion to shop­ping the fin­ished tex­tiles, visi­tors can see the process be­hind the work. Large pots filled with dye sit atop a two-burner stove, and in the cen­ter of the room, huge bas­kets are filled with fluffy balls of cot­ton, most in shades of white and cream, and some a warm caramelly brown, from a dif­fer­ent strain of the plant.

“We use fruits, veg­eta­bles, herbs, plants,” says Rosario Yac, a 26-year-old lo­cal girl who helps So­corro run the co-op. She walks me to a dis­play in one cor­ner of the work­shop, where sev­eral bas­kets each con­tain balls of cot­ton thread dyed in shades of mauve and gold­en­rod and khaki, as well as a va­ri­ety of leaves, seeds and roots. These are some of the sources of the nat­u­ral dyes thatTzu­tu­jil­wom­en­have used for gen­er­a­tions. Indigo comes from the sacat­inta plant, yel­low from chip­ilín leaves, and groundup palo de cam­peche makes bright blue.

Rosario tellsmeshe and So­corro col­lab­o­rate on the prod­uct de­sign, but the ac­tual weav­ing is mostly done in the women’s homes: “It’s per­fect, be­cause they have kids to raise.”

For those look­ing to sup­port San Juan weavers be­yond just crack­ing open the pock­et­book, a Nicaragua-based Ger­man non­profit group called Proyecto Mo­saico co­or­di­nates “vol­un­tourism” op­por­tu­ni­ties. Vol­un­teers with rel­e­vant ex­per­tise who can com­mit to at least a month-long stay are in­vited to help with ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks such as an­swer­ing emails, up­dat­ing Web sites, prod­uct de­sign, teach­ing English or work­ing at the seedling nurs­ery.

Even if a longer stay is not in the cards, just day-trip­ping to San Juan from Pana­jachel, Santa Cruz, SanMar­cos or any of the other vil­lages sur­round­ing Lake Ati­t­lan feels like a win-win. Onmy last visit, I picked up a strik­ing scarf for my mom while putting money di­rectly into the hand­sthat­madeit— the­hand­so­fa­wom­an­who learned the craft from her mother, who learned from her mother, wholearned from her mother. Next time, I’ll bring a big­ger suit­case.

ROBERT HARD­ING PIC­TURE LI­BRARY LTD/ALAMY

At top, the sig­na­ture tex­tiles in ev­ery color of the rain­bow at a mar­ket in Pana­jachel, a town on Lake Ati­t­lan in Gu­atemala.

JORGE DAN LOPEZ/REUTERS

At left, a dog takes a dip in Lake Ati­t­lan. The lake, in the coun­try’s western high­lands, is sur­rounded by vol­ca­noes and has been called one of the world’s most pic­turesque.

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