For centuries, the Maya population in Guatemala has been subordinated by rulers and
forced to adapt to extreme challenges. In recent years, damage to those of Maya descent
has stemmed from the Guatemalan Civil War, which occurred between 1960 and 1996. In
an attempt of counterinsurgency, the US-backed Guatemalan military carried out over 600
massacres killing over 200,000 people, 86% of whom were Maya. The sheer scale and
nature of the atrocities committed has since resulted in an international
acknowledgement of genocide.
Although the scars of genocide remain deeply entrenched in the fabric of Mayan society,
Maya people have managed to preserve their self-identity. One important demonstration
of this is the continuation of Mayan artisanal weaving, a traditional practice engaged in by
Maya women that dates back to the beginning of the Mayan civilisation. We travelled to
the municipality of San Juan Cotzal to explore the significance of artisanal weaving in the
economic reintegration, cultural reinforcement and social reparation of Mayas after the
Embedded within the dense green hills of Guatemala’s Quiché region rests the town of
San Juan Cotzal. Against the backdrop of this beautiful landscape, the town is busy with
the colourful woven garments of the Maya Ixil people. At first glance, San Juan Cotzal
appears to be a peaceful place enjoying the tranquility of rural life. However, the reality is
that this charming town is burdened with a bleak and harrowing history.
Quiché was the most severely affected region during the conflict where nearly half of all
the country’s human rights violations occurred. In 1982, Cotzal was surrounded by
Guatemalan military forces who killed around 200 civilians. Sadly, many Mayas still
struggle today as a result of years of terror and atrocities such as this.
Possibly the greatest challenge faced by Mayas in San Juan Cotzal and indeed across the
country since the end of the war is economic reintegration. After the war, international
bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF aimed to relieve Guatemala of its economic
crisis with the help of loans and policies of stabilization. Initially, the policies devised
seemed hopeful for improving the situation of Mayas by focusing on social welfare
strategies. This would help to rebuild and maintain homes and agricultural land that
Mayas depend on for income. However, business interests in Guatemala forced the
government to ignore these issues and to nurture the desires of corporations. Although
this went against the agreement, international bodies allowed the government to pursue
these interests benefitting the business elite and ignoring the social and economic needs
of the poor.
The neglect of social welfare has led to the limited ability for the Mayas, one of
Guatemala’s poorest social groups, to obtain a sustainable income. This lack of
opportunity for economic reintegration has meant that 90% of the Maya population
continue to live in poverty in areas such as Cotzal.
Among the most economically vulnerable of the Maya population are women, most of
whom lost husbands, brothers, sons and fathers during the war. Traditionally there were
only very few jobs for women, while men would provide the main source of income for a
household. Without the help of a male figure, many Maya women are left with limited
resources for generating income.
Trama Textiles attempts to diffuse this economic hardship through the sustainable
continuation of artisanal weaving in Mayan communities. As Trama Textiles is a non-profit
organization, it’s Maya weavers working in Cotzal receive a fair wage for their work. The
weaver’s products are sold internationally, which allows these women to take advantage
of a global fashion market while upholding traditional practice. Furthermore, sustainable
artisanal weaving empowers the Maya women of Cotzal by removing male dependency
and providing them with the means to reconstruct their own future.
As well as the Mayan economy, Mayan culture as a whole was damaged in the aftermath
of the war through maintained social segregation. This is visible in some schools in Cotzal
that only teach in Spanish whereas many Maya people in the region only speak Ixil. Some
schools are even enforcing non-Mayan dress codes. If Mayas attend these schools, it could
lead to the eradication of Mayan culture. But if they do not, the Maya population will
continue to be segregated and the country divided.
With the fabric of Mayan culture and identity torn at the seams after the war, it is viewed
by the Maya people of San Juan Cotzal as imperative to come together and repair this
damage. The continued engagement in artisanal weaving has provided a platform for this.
Many Maya women in Cotzal feel a sense of solidarity through this practice, which allows
them to collectively strengthen their cultural identity.
Emotional reparation for Mayas of Cotzal has also been challenging. For example, the
disappearance of many Maya people during the war whose bodies still have not been
uncovered has meant the inability to have proper funerals for lost loved ones. The main
way the state attempted to bring closure for the Maya population was by penalizing the
Guatemalan military’s leading figures and commanders. However, the Maya weavers of
Cotzal state that judicial justice has not been significant for repairing the emotional pain
caused by the war.
Instead, coming together through artisanal weaving is perceived by weavers in Cotzal as
the most significant aspect of life today for healing. The practice of weaving provides a
space where Mayan women are able to connect together by sharing both their resources and stories of the war. As well as repairing the threads of Mayan identity and
togetherness, this has also helped to increase political consciousness for Maya women.
Whereas in the past Mayan weaving simply existed to produce clothing for women and
their families, today it’s practice symbolizes so much more. For many Maya women in San
Juan Cotzal, artisanal weaving embodies hope for the transformation of economic,
cultural and emotional challenges that they face today. Unfortunately, these issues are
still far from resolved. But the situation for Mayas in Cotzal can be improved through the
support of organisations such as Trama Textiles to help empower the marginalized Maya
population and to eradicate the division and segregation that was rooted to the core of
the Guatemalan Civil War.