Guatemalan War Widows Keep Weaving and Their Community Alive

Source: Cultural Survival

In the 1980s the women of Guatemala’s department of Sololá, in the Canton Pujujil region on the edge of Lake Atitlán, watched as their community slowly disintegrated under the pressures of the country’s decades-long civil war. Most of these women were widows, and many had already been forced to move to the city or to send their children to the city to find jobs in order to support their families. Fearful that they would soon lose their Mayan language, culture, and community cohesiveness, a group of widows decided to use one Mayan tradition, back-strap weaving, to provide a sustainable income without leaving home.

The women founded a weaving cooperative in 1985, and in 1987, with the help of Canadian businessman Ron Spector, they created Asociación Maya. Though many of the members still live in poverty, they say the association has improved their lives, and they are grateful for the opportunity to make a living without leaving their community.

In many ways, the fair trade crafts industry is different from the fair trade coffee industry. While the basic principles of paying a fair price, treating workers well, and protecting the environment apply, the absence of a structured pricing system has left the definition of "fair" up to interpretation for crafts producers in the South and traders in the North. Asociación Maya’s members’ experiences illustrate tensions that can arise, even under the fair trade system, when indigenous peoples decide to use their cultures to sustain their economies.

Rosario Yaxon Cumes, a weaver, says her work for the association allows her to care for her children: "I am a widow of the violence in 1981 and 1982. For this reason, I am very dependent on the cooperative," she said. "The problem is that there is not much demand for the work."

The cooperative dyes, weaves, and sells garments such as vests and scarves, as well as change purses, shoulder bags, and other accessories. All of this work is made from chenille and cotton fibers and dyes the cooperative purchases from stores in Miami, Florida. The bright pinks, lime greens, and oranges that are fashionable today in Mayan communities (and which the association members use to weave textiles for their own clothing) do not sell well in North American and European markets, where deeper and richer blends are preferred, so in 1998 the association changed from more traditional approaches.

Even with special attention to North American and Europe, the association struggles to find a large market. Unlike the fair trade coffee market, in which cooperatives are meant to help assure a steady income, Asociación Maya offers weavers a higher price for their work but not a guarantee that their work will sell.

Weavers are paid for each piece when they deliver a finished textile to the association office. One textile, such as a scarf or piece of a bag or jacket, can be completed in as little as three days. But the weavers face other daily demands, such as caring for children, maintaining the household, and preparing meals; for widows, who do not have husbands also earning an income, the money they make is rarely enough. It is, however, better than any alternative. Without the association, the women would be weaving textiles for local use at a third of the income, or would have to move to the city for other poorly paid work. "It’s not enough, but it’s something," said weaver Juana Ajcalón Ajcalón.

A particular challenge for Asociación Maya is that the organization has no steady market in which to sell its work. Pieces are sold in two local tourist towns, and none of the woven items are sold in Canton Pujujil. The association also sells weavings internationally, mostly through its connections with Spector. But that market is small and intermittent.

There’s another problem: Weavers want to preserve the 3,000-year-old tradition of backstrap weaving, but that technique is inefficient when producing for a mass market. Backstraps have been replaced by footlooms in most parts of the world. Because the footloom has a larger frame, its users can produce a wider variety of textiles more quickly. This reduces production costs and allows stores to charge lower prices, while maintaining or improving the per-piece income of the weaver.

But weavers have been hesitant to adopt the new technology in Guatemala, where there is a division of labor along gender lines: In almost all communities, men use the footlooms and women use the backstraps. For women to break this tradition in order to increase their income would require a major cultural shift.

Despite the hardships the association faces and the market instability the weavers experience, Asociación Maya has allowed the communities of Canton Pujujil to stay together during the final years of the civil war and the first crucial years of peace. To meet world market demand, the association members have chosen to change some aspects of their traditional weaving practices in order to save others. More importantly, their production for the world market has allowed them to avoid even more poorly paid work and to maintain their families, languages, and livelihoods in a way that could never be replicated in a city.

Originally published in Cultural Survival