Guatemalan Woman Threads Mayan Heritage into Prized Garments

A 69-year-old indigenous master of traditional weaving and embroidery is passing her skills along to her daughters and grandchildren. Some guardians of Guatemala’s cultural heritage call on schools to help preserve such skills.

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Guatemalan Woman Threads Mayan Heritage into Prized Garments

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SANTIAGO ATITLÁN, GUATEMALA — Ana Sosof Ramírez winds up stray ends of multicolored threads poking through her embroidery basket. At her side are two huipiles – loose-fitting tunic-like garments worn by indigenous women in Central America and Mexico.

Putting on glasses to inspect her stitches, the 69-year-old artisan starts conversing in Tz’utujil, a Mayan language spoken in the regions surrounding Santiago Atitlán, the city in western Guatemala where Sosof lives.

Sosof remembers when, at age 7, she watched her grandmother, mother and neighbors weave cloth and embroider birds onto huipiles.

“I practically did not receive any instruction from my mother,” she says. “I just observed and did it.”

Sliding pink thread through the eye of a needle, Sosof says she enjoys embroidering in the old style, decorating a white huipil with bands of red or violet.

Sosof’s 7-year-old granddaughter, eating breakfast alongside her, watches carefully as Grandma pierces the cloth.

The girl hasn’t learned to embroider yet, but it’s time she and her young cousins do, Sosof says.

“It’s important that they know to embroider,” Sosof says. “If they are educating themselves, it does not mean that they do not learn to embroider.”

Women like Sosof have transmitted their weaving and embroidery skills from generation to generation.

“It is our tradition, our outfit,” she says.

Sosof represents the older generation of Guatemalan Mayan women. Virtually all of her peers hand-embroider huipiles, but women over 67 make up less than 2 percent of the population of Santiago Atitlán.

The woven and embroidered huipilreflects the heritage of the ancient Mayans, who occupied southern Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala, Belize and western El Salvador beginning about 1800 B.C.

Mayan peoples began wearing precursors of thehuipil before the colonial era began in the 16th century, according to Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. As the tradition continued into the colonial era, the huipil incorporated changing styles and thread types.

There are 117 types of huipiles for everyday use, corresponding to 117 municipalities in Guatemala, according to the national museum. But not all the designs used on huipiles are original.

Santiago Atitlán, located on Lake Atitlán in the western highlands of Guatemala, is home to an array of birds. The embroidery inspired by the birds is among the town’s attractions.

Using backstrap looms and hand embroidery, women of various Mayan groups have long made their own huipiles, says Francisca Chiviliú, secretary of the Municipal Department of Planning.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, economic necessity has made huipil production a commercial enterprise. Sales of the garments provide income for Mayan women and their families, Chiviliú says.

Still, most of today’s girls are too busy with their studies to learn the old art.

“I venture to say that nowadays, just one in 10 girls learns to embroider in the communities,” says Fredy Gerardo Quiacaín Cotuc, project leader of the Tz´utuji Linguistic Community of the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala.

The academy, an autonomous public institution that promotes the dissemination of Mayan languages and culture, hosts a variety of cultural projects, including weaving and embroidery.

While unable to cite any survey results, Quiacaín says he has seen local traditions and customs change over his eight years in his role.

Women feel honored to attend a celebration decked out in a beautiful huipil adorned with birds. Such a garment costs 500 quetzales ($65) to 1,500quetzales ($196). The quantity and variety of birds on a huipil confer status upon the wearer.

Women who need a less costly alternative may wear huipiles embroidered with flowers; these sell for 250 quetzales ($32) to 700 quetzales ($92).

Sosof is one of the few Guatemalan women who craft huipiles to preserve the culture rather than to make money.

Sosof estimates she has made 250 huipiles over the 58 years she has practiced the craft. She has made the garments only for family members.

She has taught weaving and embroidery to her entire family, including her three daughters, her two sons and a sister who now earns her living making huipiles. She also taught her sister’s three sons.

Six of Sosof’s eight granddaughters know how to embroider; the others are too young.

A woman feels proud to wear a huipil that she has embroidered herself, Sosof says. It’s important to persuade women to embroider, even if they don’t do the work for a living.

“It is our custom,” she says. “Women save money by embroidering their own huipiles, and it is nice that they use huipiles they made themselves.”

Some people use sewing machines to embroider garments for sale, but Sosof doesn’t approve of modernizing or selling the huipil. She thinks machine-made huipiles lack originality.

Andrea Coché Mendoza, 26, the oldest of Sosof’s 14 grandchildren, describes her grandmother as a perfectionist who embroiders her huipiles using a special technique that hides the knots on the reverse side of the garment.

Coché respects her grandmother for preserving their heritage.

“My grandmother has been key in the conservation of the tradition of embroidery in the family,” Coché says. “If my grandmother didn’t embroider, surely none of us would have learned.”

More and more women in Guatemala are going to school and working outside the home, so they no longer have time to embroider their own huipiles, Coché says.

The employment of women has risen steadily in recent years.

Nationally, the proportion of Guatemalan women working outside the home rose from 36 percent in 2002 to more than 40 percent in 2013.

In rural areas like Santiago Atitlán, where two-thirds of the population is under 24, that figure rose from 32 percent to 36 over the same period.

Many women today no longer want to embroider, preferring to buy their huipiles at the market because it’s easier, Coché says. It can take three to four months to make a huipil by hand.

“The technique and art is being lost,” she says.

Few women continue to make huipiles in Guatemalan villages, Quiacaín says. While he doesn’t know Sosof, he sees her instruction of her family as an example of how communities maintain traditions.

Fewer than 2,000 of Santiago Atitlán’s 45,000 residents are women over 60.

Quiacaín finds it unfortunate that girls are no longer being taught to embroider at home. Increasingly, they are attending school and don’t have the time. Further, their parents are more concerned about them doing their homework than practicing an ethnic art form.

At the same time, schools have stopped promoting Mayan embroidery in handicraft classes, he says. He would like to see that change.

“If people knew in depth the history and cosmogony the huipilhas, they would come to value its history, its community, its life and its identity more,” Quiacaín says.

Schools should help preserve traditional practices such as embroidery and simple farming techniques, he says.

But local schools lack the power to implement such a change, Quiacaín says, noting that school principals must implement a national curriculum.

No more than 5 percent of schools teach embroidery, says Misael Esquina Quinom, director of the Department of Education in Sololá department, which takes in Santiago Atitlán.

Few educators today have the knowledge and skill needed to teach embroidery, he says, adding that families are primarily responsible for passing on the art.

“This is a knowledge that is not acquired in school,” Esquina says in a phone interview. “It is acquired from generation to generation.”

Embroidery is an art, not part of the basic knowledge that children must acquire in primary school, he says. A specialization in dressmaking could be taught in secondary schools, Esquina says, but families are the primary teachers of ethnic arts like Mayan embroidery.

Women like Sosof carry on a vital tradition of her culture, Quiacaín says. Authorities must bolster such cultural preservation.

Sosof hopes her granddaughters will teach their own daughters to embroider, keeping the family tradition alive.

Sosof’s store of knowledge goes beyond embroidery Coché says.

“It gives me a lot of nostalgia that even though she has transmitted a lot of knowledge to us, there are things we haven’t managed to learn from her – for example, making the thread,” she says. “If she dies, all of this knowledge will go with her.”

Family members have not taken the time to learn to make thread, Coché says, noting that some of her cousins are still in school and must concentrate on their studies.

When Coché has daughters of her own, she plans to teach them embroidery to preserve the family, community and ethnic tradition.

Sosof’s legacy will be in the art form that her family preserves, Coché says.

“We will remember her with the embroidery,” she says.



GPJ translator Lezak Shallat translated this article from Spanish. Norma Baján translated interviews from Tz’utujil.