The vibrant colors of the Indigenous weavings from Guatemala that appear on the traditional blouses known as huipiles, skirts and other items hold a deep symbolic meaning for communities across the Central American country, but they are also deeply intertwined with the promotion of tourism in Guatemala. The intricate designs greet tourists in promotional material at the airport, and companies and non-government organizations have sought to capitalize on the designs.

For the last six years, Indigenous women have sought to challenge the exploitation of their sacred designs through the promotion of legislation that would protect their collective intellectual property rights. On Sept. 5, the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, or AFEDES, and the weavers of the Ruchajixik Ri Qana’ojbäl movement, which means Guardians of Our Knowledge in the Kaqchikel language, presented their latest proposal for a law that would protect their weavings.

The proposal is backed by members of the leftist block in congress, and its presentation to lawmakers marked the fifth weavers congress, which brought together hundreds of weavers from their movement from across the country to discuss and exchange experiences and weavings in Guatemala City. Yet the weavers have also sought to find multi-party support for the legislation, in the hopes that the law will advance in the current congress.

“We are defending the weavings, because it is also part of defending our land, our territory,” said Ixchel Guorón Rodríguez, a weaver and member of the movement from Tecpán, Chimaltenango. “It is part of a legacy that our grandmothers have left us, and we see different problems regarding the improper use that is already done by others.”

But the task is daunting, especially as the current congress has done little to promote legislation that benefits the population and has faced accusations of rampant corruption. The legislation has yet to be debated in congress.

The movement emerged in 2016 after concerns over the appropriation of Indigenous weavings in products sold by companies owned by non-Indigenous Guatemalans, specifically the company Maria’s Bags. The movement grew after weavers in the town of Santo Domingo Xenacoj felt they were being exploited in the production of weavings for the company. To make matters worse, in the last decade the sale of low-cost weavings made with computers has grown in communities, affecting the livelihoods of weavers.

“The industrialization of textiles affects the income of weavers,” Guorón Rodríguez said. “We are very concerned about the issue that they can patent a design and then weavers can’t weave [it] in the future.”

In 2016, the movement mobilized to demand and propose a reform in the Guatemalan congress that would protect collective intellectual property rights of their weavings. The legislation included six key points, but most importantly it would recognize Indigenous communities as the collective authors of their designs. But the proposed reform failed to advance.

“There was no greater interest in [it], like all laws that favor Indigenous peoples,” Guorón Rodríguez said.

The failed reform and the current proposed law are just one part of a larger campaign by the women of AFEDES and the broader weavers movement. They are also seeking to promote the use of — and ancestral value of — hand woven garments in Indigenous communities.

Promoting the value of traditional clothing

As the movement challenged the appropriation of their weavings, they also set out to challenge the use of Indigenous women in the national and international marketing of tourism to Guatemala.

In spite of promotional tourism, there is a stigma associated with the use of Indigenous clothing — the hand-woven skirts, pants, shirts and huipiles utilized by Indigenous men and women across Guatemala. The largely white non-Indigenous communities, especially in economic elite circles, associate the use of traditional clothing as a sign of poverty and ignorance.

According to the Guatemalan government’s 2018 census, just under 45 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous. The actual number, however, is likely far higher, with some estimating that 60 percent of the population is Indigenous. These populations also experience higher rates of poverty and abandonment from the state. Indigenous women in Guatemala make up a majority of the 59 percent of the population that suffer from poverty.

The stigma Indigenous peoples face in Guatemala is rooted in systemic racism. As a result, many youth have chosen to wear more western clothing and have abandoned their languages.

“We realized that the weavings were no longer being used by younger women due to racism and the systematic exclusion of women, especially those of us who wear the [Indigenous] clothing,” said Milvian Aspuac, one of the leaders of AFEDES and an early member of the movement. “So that worried us because that meant losing our identity.”

In response, the women of the weavers movement have sought to promote the use of Indigenous clothing, the value it has to communities and the art of weaving.

Following the proposal of the reform in 2016, the women of the movement set in motion the formation of community-level weavers councils that would oversee and authorize the use of designs by those outside of the communities. Since then, weavers councils have been established in at least 15 communities.

A key part of these councils has been the promotion of weaving classes that pass down the art and knowledge of their ancestors. In Tecpán, at least 50 young people, including men, have joined the courses to learn the art of weaving since the council and classes were launched in 2017.

Shared experience and documenting meanings

The meaning of the various intricate designs found on Indigenous weavings has slowly been lost as younger generations choose to wear more western clothing. Faced with the loss of the history and stories held within the weavings, the women of AFEDES began to collect knowledge of the meanings of the weavings.

“It is the recuperation of our historic memory,” Aspuac said. “Why did our grandmothers leave these symbols on the sleeves? What has it represented for our grandmothers? It is important that we maintain [the meaning from the weavings] over time.”

Among the first communities to join in the effort was the Mayan Kaqchikel community of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Chimaltenango, which sits 22 miles from Guatemala City. For them, it all started when a company tried to utilize and allegedly claim the intellectual property rights to their designs.

“Our designs were getting lost,” said Gloria García García, a 59-year-old member of the Mayan Kaqchikel weavers council in Xenacoj. “So with AFEDES and our council we began to analyze the meanings of the weavings.”

They began working to document the oral history of the designs. Through meetings with elderly weavers, García and the other members of the weavers council collected photos, drawings and documented meanings of the designs that appear in the Huipiles.

Among the designs of rabbits, a four-legged chicken, flying squirrels, flowers and other plants, they found images that aren’t being used anymore, including a dead chick in an egg, that symbolized life and death. The women also found a deep connection between the designs and the sacred Mayan calendar, known as the Choj Q’ij. In the community of Santiago Sacatepequez, the women discovered that a snake symbol on the traditional skirt contained exactly 13 points, which lines up with the calendar system. Another of their discoveries was that symbols have been copied, adopted and reproduced from other Indigenous communities.

AFEDES has now worked in at least seven Indigenous communities, including Tecpán, to collect the meanings of the various designs. The weavings hold generations of knowledge that the Spanish invaders attempted to erase by burning the Mayan books when they invaded the region in 1524. But 500 years later, the knowledge continues to be passed on in the weavings.

“The books are those of the weavings,” Aspuac said. “They are the books that the colony could not burn.”

Teaser photo credit: Four huipils for a figure of the Virgin of the Rosary; Guatemala, Guatemala, San Juan Sacatepequez; Kakchiquel Maya people; 1930s; cotton and silk (Dallas Museum of Art). By Photo: User:FA2010 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12787908