Guatemalan textiles, straight from the weaver’s hands
In San Juan La Laguna, co-ops are changing the lives of village women
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.
At top, the signature textiles in every color of the rainbow at a market in Panajachel, a town on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
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.