San Juan La Laguna is a small town in the department of Sololá, Guatemala on the southwest edge of Lake Atitlán. Surrounded by mountains, it is a beautiful community with over 6,000 residents, the majority of which are Tz’utujil Maya. The sense of pride these Maya’s have in their ancestry is palpable, with many beautiful murals proudly bearing the name Tz’ujutil and depicting ancient Mayan myths and legends across the town.
There is also real sense of pride in their craft traditions, painting and weaving specifically. They have developed their own tourism infrastructure to show these traditions to visitors with many weaving cooperatives practicing fairtrade and allowing profits to be injected straight back into the community. Although tourism is now an increasing source of income, many still practice traditional methods of farming of the two main crops in the region, coffee and maize.
In fact, this region is considered one of the most traditional communities of Guatemala, and you see many men, women, and children wearing their traditional clothes every day.Women in San Juan wear “huipiles,” traditional blouses, imbued with meaning. There is a story behind each colour and symbol which leads to a kind of visual literacy; one must be able to read the clothing and the manner in which it is worn.
The traditional huipil of San Juan is made of 24 squares in celebration of saint John the baptist, the town’s patron saint whose feast day falls on the 24th of June. Originally the huipil was a white backstrap woven cloth, however when german dyes were later introduced to Guatemalan textiles, the white cloth was replaced with a bright red striped cloth. The different colors on the huipil represent the purity and blood of Tz’utujil women, nature, the sky, and the water. Each of these elements are cornerstones to the Maya culture and are prominently featured in their dress. In the huipiles, designs of ducks and water fowl are applied with the brocade technique, due to the strong presence of this fauna in the region. Two interesting aspects may be observed in this area: the women of Santiago of Atitlán don’t use belts to hold up their skirts, but rather put the ends of their cortes underneath, as was done originally, and they use a red strip of ribbon called xk’ap, with the colors of the rainbow, that is rolled around the head and represents the ring that forms around the moon during humid nights during the rainy season.
Men may wear shirts or camisas and trousers or pantalones of tie-dyed or ikat cloth known as jaspe, short woolen kilts or rodilleras, black woolen overgarments called gabones, shoulder bags or morales, and sombreros. In some communities men wear headcloths or tzutes, and some wear their hats on top of these cloths.
As you wander around the village, you will notice various murals depicting aspects of San Juan life and legend. San Juan is one of the three Tz’utujil communities where artists have adapted the international genre of Arte Naif to express the cultural traditions, beliefs, ceremonies and daily activities of their indigenous culture. Walking down the streets, you see the many shops with artists painting inside and vibrant colourful examples of Arte Naif covering the walls from ceiling to floor. There is a technique used here where paintings are viewed from an aerial perspective resulting in a beautiful merge of abstract colours and shapes.