Things of Beauty

April 21, 2010

Semana Santa was full of beautiful things: Antigua, alfombras, processions, and beautiful, beautiful parents who fed me and loved me.  Have I mentioned how beautiful Guatemala is? I get distracted by the violence and the poverty and Paulo Freire, and I forget. But Semana Santa reminded me.

In a week of beauty, two of my most beautiful beautiful moments were connected with cloth. I took my parents to San Juan La Laguna, a small village on Lago de Atitlan home to an incredible number of coffee and traditional craft collectives, and later  to a museum-like textile store in Antigua.

Weaving is central to indigenous identity and politics in more ways than one. In some Mayan cultures, it is believed that weaving on a back strap womb tied between tree and a woman’s waist is a spiritual exercise, symbolizing the “umbilical cord” between humans and the tree of life.

But like all human creations, textiles have a history. Women haven’t worn huipuiles and cortes since time immemorial. In fact, the distinctive clothes worn by Mayans are an adaptation of Spanish designs, and standard local styles were imposed in an attempt to establish social control over the indigenous population. With attempts to “ladino-ize” Mayans in the 19th and 20th century, indigenous defenders reclaimed their textile traditions as a symbol of identity and history. This reclamation was highly gendered, however: educated indigenous men began to dress in “modern” clothes while their wives remained wrapped- literally- in tradition. Only in the past few decades have indigenous textiles acquired truly radical meaning. The Peace Accords, for example, explicitly mention a woman’s right to wear traje, and educated women who continue to wear huipuiles frequently do so for political reasons.

But forget the politics. The Guatemalan textile tradition is a vibrant expression of rich beauties that go deeper than discourses on gender and modernization. Brilliantly imagined and masterfully sewn, to hold one of the very best huipuiles is to wrap your fingers in threads that stretch back and up to the anonymous place from which all great art comes. When I leave, I think I’ll miss them more than the volcanoes. Although perhaps not more than the women who make them, who are, in the end, the most beautiful part of life in Guatemala.

Spinning brown and white cotton

Preparing the weft

Huipuiles, or blouses

Detail on a ceremonial huipuil from Nebaj (?)

Detail on distinctive white huipuil from Soloma

Unusual children's huipuil from Aguacatán

Detail on women's huipuil from Aguacatán

Embroidered headpiece from Aguacatán

Colonial carvings dressed in indigenous textiles. An alternative vision of Guatemalan identity?

Icon in Santa Eulalia wearing a huipuil from Soloma

Fine art in daily life

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