Weaving a Better Future

Saturday, July 23, 2016
A member of the TRAMA Textiles cooperative in Santa María de Jesús, Guatemala wears her traditional attire.

Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever had the chance to visit. It is commonly referred to as “the land of eternal spring.” Its weather is never too hot and never too cold; it is just right! Guatemala boasts luscious green landscapes, imposing volcanoes are present wherever you are in the country, and its lakes are some of the most beautiful in the world. Fresh flowers, colourful textiles, a rich culture and Maya peoples are also what I associate with this amazing country.

A lake surrounded by three volcanos.
Lake Atitlán is surrounded by many Maya villages where traditional Maya culture is still alive and present. There are three volcanoes around the lake: San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán.

However, between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala experienced one of the most violent civil wars in the hemisphere. The war culminated in the establishment of an official policy of genocide against the Maya. Claiming that the Indigenous population was an inferior group, the government encouraged racism against the Maya and actively tried to destroy their culture. It stated that they were allies of left-wing guerilla movements seeking to overthrow the government. This contributed to the gross human rights violations perpetrated against the Maya peoples. The cruelty and bloodshed experienced during the genocide were so aggressive that they led to the extermination “en masse” of entire Maya communities, including children, women and the elderly. 

Maya elderly woman poses with her traditional attire and headdress.
A member of TRAMA Textiles after a weaving workshop at the cooperative in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Most of the women and girls who survived found themselves widowed or orphaned. While struggling to deal with the trauma experienced during the genocide, they needed to find a way to support themselves and their families. Many came together and got organized in weaving associations and cooperatives. TRAMA textiles, founded in 1988 during the civil war, was one such organization. Formerly known as CENAT (Centro Nacional de Artesanía Textil), and later as ASOTRAMA (Asociación Trama), TRAMA Textiles is an association where women can employ their weaving traditions to make a living. However, it has also become a place for empowerment and personal healing. 

Another example is Textiles Colibrí, a textile shop in the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, in Guatemala. It was founded by Vey Smithers, an American expat who in 1984 decided to provide a venue where widows from the war could sell their weavings. Textiles Colibrí started with a small group of weavers from the Sololá region. Today, the shop provides a source of revenue for more than 500 women in 25 villages throughout Guatemala. 

In March and April of 2016, along with two other members of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) team, I was able to travel to Guatemala to meet the artisans from TRAMA Textiles and Textiles Colibrí. We were welcomed into their communities and their homes and we experienced first-hand how these women-run organizations empower their members. For the first time in their lives, and thanks to their cooperative work, these women have access to employment and they are paid fairly. Their earnings allow them to improve their quality of life and that of their families. They are now able to provide shelter, food and an education for themselves and for their children. By continuing to use their traditional back-strap loom weaving, they have reclaimed cultural traditions and knowledge that were almost wiped out during the genocide. At the cooperative, they also found a safe place to start talking and healing. Even though the peace accords were signed in 1996, 20 years later, the root causes of the war still persist in Guatemala. During our trip and community visits, we were able to see the challenges these women still face trying to fight extreme poverty, discrimination and violence, as well as social and political exclusion. 

A group of Indigenous women and some children in a rural home in Guatemala.
A group of women gathered at a home in the community of Chipila, Guatemala to talk to us about their experiences. These women sell their weavings through the Textiles Colibrí store in Antigua, Guatemala.

The stories of the women we met are part of the temporary exhibit Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities that opened on July 23, 2016 in the Expressions gallery on Level 6 of the CMHR.