Weaving a Relationship with Artisans in Guatemala

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Amparo de León and Oralia Chopén during a weaving demonstration at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights during the opening weekend of Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities. Photo: Armando Perla

Editor’s Note: Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities opened at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in July 2016 and runs until January 2017. This vibrant, inviting exhibition demonstrates how women artisans all over the world are forming cooperatives to reach new markets, claim their rights, raise living standards and transform lives. Empowering Women has been organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is circulated through GuestCurator Traveling Exhibitions. The exhibition has been enhanced by curatorial, new media, design and exhibition staff of the CMHR.

A large room with three different wall panels. On the wall panels text can be seen, as well as pictures of women. Objects such as baskets, bags and necklaces are also displayed in front of the panels.
Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities on display in the Expressions gallery at Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Photo: Jessica Sigurdson/CMHR


Soon after I learned that our museum would host the Empowering Women exhibition, I was asked to be part of the team creating a virtual reality experience for the exhibition.  When I started to research cooperatives that might have powerful human rights stories to share, I immediately thought of a weavers’ cooperative called Colibrí in Guatemala. I lived in Guatemala 10 years ago to work for anon-governmental organization preventing the sexual exploitation of children. During this time, I became familiar with the country’s history, political realities and culture. I also fell in love with Guatemala’s textiles, environment and people, returning almost yearly for visits. All of the knowledge I acquired during my time in Guatemala really helped me when I started to develop the approach for the virtual reality experience.  

I reached out to the people at Colibrí, explaining our project and what we were trying to do. I encountered well-founded reluctance to participate. The women explained how, in the past, several people had approached them to film documentaries or to conduct research about their coop. However, in most cases, they never heard back from these people once their projects were completed. The women had no idea what the final product looked like or how their stories had been told. In some instances, the women found out that their images were appearing on postcards or posters sold abroad without their knowledge or consent. I found that trying to build and cultivate a relationship of trust was quite challenging at first. 

A large room is filled with furniture, much of which is covered in colourful textiles. There is a large, wide bookshelf at the back of the room with many folded textiles on its shelves and there are other textiles displayed on benches and tables.
Inside the Colibrí store in Antigua, Guatemala. The store provides revenue for more than 500 women in 25 villages throughout Guatemala. Photo: Aaron Cohen/CMHR.


Eventually, I was referred to a second cooperative, called TRAMA Textiles, which functions in the Guatemalan highlands. When I first contacted this group, I encountered the same hesitation that I had experienced at Colibrí, due to past experiences with groups of foreigners wanting to “do research” or “make documentaries” about the cooperative. After almost three months of almost daily telephone conversations, both cooperatives agreed to welcome three of us in Guatemala, on the condition that we follow up after our project was completed and keep everyone fully informed. In order to do this, we agreed to create a Spanish version of the virtual reality experience so the women could see how we were telling their stories. The women from TRAMA Textiles also wanted to ensure their communities would benefit from our project. We agreed that the Boutique at the Museum would continue to offer artisanal products produced by the cooperative, even after the exhibit closed. 

Two women and one man are gathered around a cardboard box that is full of colourful textiles with patterns and designs on them. One woman is holding a bag, another woman is holding and looking at a scarf, and the man is holding a small change purse.
Boutique staff unpacking the products received from TRAMA Textiles in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Jessica Sigurdson/CMHR.


At the end of April 2016, a Museum team made up of three people left for Guatemala. We were welcomed by the women of Colibrí and TRAMA. We visited several remote communities and met with many of the weavers. We heard their stories of struggle, resilience and empowerment, and recorded them so we could share them with our visitors as part of the Empowering Women exhibition. The women who hosted us in their homes made us feel like long-time friends, like neighbours and, as one of my colleagues said, even like family. We shared laughter, tears, hugs, songs and stories. We were truly sad to say good-bye when the time came for us to return to Canada. 


Five women sit on the floor of a large room, weaving textiles. A man is also sitting on the floor and speaking to one of the women as she works.
Group weaving at TRAMA Textiles in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The women shared many of their life stories with us that day. Photo: Aaron Cohen/CMHR.


However, we were excited to welcome Amparo de León and Oralia Chopén, the president and vice-president of TRAMA Textiles, in Winnipeg for the opening of the exhibition. They  were excited and told us they felt as if they were back home when looking at the images of a grandmother in the virtual reality experience. And they wanted the women back in Guatemala to also experience the film. During their time in Winnipeg, they brought members and donors to tears with inspiring stories of courage and resilience. Amparo and Oralia are now back in Guatemala, where they continue to weave a better future for themselves and their families.