The books they couldn’t burn

This post is also available in: Spanish

by Jose Ricardo Salinas Reyes

Ignorance is a blessing. I really mean that. Ignorance allows us to visit places like the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing and leave marvelling at the beauty of the huipilescortes, and other textiles in its collection. It allows us to celebrate the fact that this museum is located on the campus of one of Guatemala City’s most prestigious and expensive universities. Ignorance would have you believe that the Ixchel Museum is a monument to Guatemala’s multiculturalism, as demonstrated by its exhibits celebrating the beauty and diversity of Indigenous textiles.

I say all of this because if I hadn’t participated in a conversation with Angelina Aspuac, representative of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepequez (AFEDES) and of the National Movement of Women Weavers, I would have left the Ixchel Museum praising its collections. But as it turns out, the Ixchel Museum is like a sausage. If you really want to enjoy it, it’s best if you don’t know how it’s made.

“The duty of a museum is preservation. But instead, they steal our designs so they can charge for tickets and make money off our art,” Angelina told us in a presentation during the Guatemala/El Salvador Seed group’s country orientation.

An example of textiles on display at the Ixchel Museum. (Photo courtesy of Annalee Giesbrecht)

Our talk with Angelina and the following visit to the Ixchel Museum that afternoon gave me a lot to think about. I realized that when it comes to decolonizing our understanding and appreciation of art, we still have a lot of work to do. Maya textiles have been extracted from their communities, exoticized, and appropriated in a manner not so different from the colonialism of the 16th century. The owners of this still-living art aren’t credited, their work is exhibited behind glass and, as if that weren’t enough, visitors have to pay money to see it.

To be clear, Maya textiles are worthy of a museum. The artistic process behind each one starts with the collection of materials needed for their creation and lasts until the final stitch in the pattern is completed. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the history and publicize the beauty of these works of art. The problem is when we forget that each design requires enormous effort, centuries of history, and the identity of an individual Maya woman. Every huipil, every corte, symbolizes a family’s income, long workdays, backaches, creativity, pride, and the honour of Maya communities.

Women weavers are fighting a daily struggle to reclaim their art and to keep their ancestral heritage alive. Their cortes and huipiles are canvases that hold the history of a people in every strand, canvases that tell the story of a people who refuse to submit to Western oppression.

More than 500 years after the European invasion, there are still foreign actors taking advantage of Maya women to steal their art. Angelina described how foreign designers have used women weavers’ hospitality and their poverty to steal their designs. These designers buy pieces created by Maya women and then register their patterns as intellectual property, allowing them to appropriate the ancestral legacy of Maya weavers. Even these abuses haven’t been enough for the government of a multicultural country—a country in which almost half the population identifies as Indigenous and which promotes itself as “the heart of the Maya world”—to take real, concrete action to prevent Maya communities from being robbed of their heritage. 

On the one hand there’s this robbery permitted by intellectual property law, which Angelina describes as “an atrocity.” Add to that the poverty and hardship that reigns in Indigenous communities and you end up with a situation in which Indigenous artisans have no choice but to sell their work.

Angelina told us that often these pieces end up in the hands of textile businesses that make commercialized, mass market copies. This is terribly damaging to the weavers’ communities—it undermines the significance behind traditional textiles, and creates economic consequences as traditionally-produced huipiles lose their value.

Textiles being woven in the Maya Mam community of Zapote, Guatemala, with MCC partner Pastoral de la Tierra. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt).

“Businesses take advantage of Indigenous communities’ hospitality to make themselves rich,” said Angelina. “They come into our communities and they use our images without our permission to advertise their own products. These abuses are very discouraging for women weavers.”

The Ixchel Museum is no stranger to these abuses. Angelina recounted that many of the pieces exhibited in the museum were bought from Indigenous women who sold them out of desperation. Others were made by machine and bought from businesses with no connection to the weavers’ communities.

A few hours after speaking with Angelina, we visited the Ixchel Museum. I can’t deny the educational value of the museum. It was interesting to explore the well-documented collection, which displays each textile together with its community of origin. At the same time, Angelina’s presentation encouraged me to see the museum from the artists’ perspective.

I observed the way the huipiles and cortes were modelled by the faceless mannequins. Some of them were posed in a way that demonstrated the daily life of the people who had once worn these clothes. But the faces and stories of the women were nowhere to be seen. Their bodies had been replaced by anonymous mannequins and their stories had evaporated into the mist of exoticization, turning them into simple stories—as if I was reading a book of Guatemalan history. I came to the conclusion that the goal of the museum was to admire the art without crediting the artists.

R-L Concepcion Ramirez Ramirez, Maria Ramirez Ramirez, and Dolores Ramirez beading jewelry at their home in Panabaj, Guatemala. The three sisters are active participants with MCC partner ANADESA. (MCC photo/Matthew Lester)

“Maya textiles are the books that the colonizers couldn’t burn.” This is the phrase from Angelina’s talk that echoes in my mind now whenever I see a huipil. These books continue to be written in the homes and workshops of Maya women. The writers of these books live among us, and their stories are important. Their art is important. Ignorance is only a blessing for people who want to profit from art without thinking about the person behind it. But for those of us who have had the honour of speaking with Angelina or any other member of organizations like AFEDES or the National Women Weavers’ Movement, the real blessing is meeting the artists, seeing their faces and hearing their stories. The blessing is paying a fair price for their work. The blessing is accompanying them as they fight for proper recognition of their art.

I’ll close with something Angelina said, which summed up the reasons why the cause of women weavers is dignified and worthy of our support. “The fight for textiles is part of Maya women’s fight to protect our territories. The weavers’ movement isn’t just to defend our textiles, but to defend our right to a good life.”

Jose Ricardo Salinas Reyes is working as the Social Communications Facilitator with the Diocese of San Marcos as part of MCC’s Seed program in Guatemala/El Salvador. He is originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and is a member of the Church of Christ.

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This article was originally published on the MCC LACA blog under the title MAYA TEXTILES: THE BOOKS THEY COULDN’T BURN. You can visit the MCC LACA website here.

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