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San Juan Cotzal – Weaving in the Wake of War

San Juan Cotzal – Weaving in the Wake of War

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 civilization. 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 war.

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 organizations 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.

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