Cultural Meaning of Mayan Textiles of Guatemala Revealed
The textiles of Guatemala are for sale and on display at Nim Po’t, home of the world’s largest retail Mayan textile collection. Manager Marco Cobar runs the consignment store in Antigua, Guatemala, which sells hand-made, second-hand clothing articles made by Mayan weavers from across Guatemala. The immense store also provides a retail museum showcase for hundreds of indigenous artisans—the walls of the warehouse feature exhibits of traditional clothing organized by region, which documents the evolution of Mayan Guatemala textiles.
Antigua is a city in the Central Highlands of Guatemala famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture as well as a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nim P’ot Maya textile store is located on the small city’s Fifth Avenue, near the Santa Catalina Arch, one of the distinguishable landmarks in Antigua. Built-in the 17th century, the arch originally connected the Santa Catalina convent to a school, allowing the cloistered nuns to pass from one building to the other without going out on the street. Beyond the arch, the imposing Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water” towers more than 12,356 feet high.
Marco gave me a tour of Nim Po’t’s Guatemalan textile displays and a tutorial on the history of traje, or traditional clothing, which has represented a form of artistic expression and cultural identity for the Mayan people for centuries. In Guatemala, the Spanish colonial pattern of keeping the indigenous population separate continued well into the 20th century. This deplorable segregation had one positive result–many traditions were retained by the Maya, including the daily use of costumes that reflect the wearer’s local identity. Marco also offered insight into Guatemala’s history and the oppression the Maya faced during the country’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.
Supporting the Artisans of Guatemala
Meg: Tell me about Nim Po’t and Mayan Guatemalan textiles.
Marco: Nim Po’t means “big blouse” in the Mayan language and refers to a ceremonial piece of clothing that women wear on special occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies.
All our Mayan Guatemalan textiles are second-hand. We really support so many people in Guatemala who come from all over the country and bring their handicraft work to us. The whole idea is to help women to sell their art, because everything you see here is hand-made. It’s the way they express themselves. All the textiles of Guatemala have meaning.
We’ve been around for 20 years. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s one of the things that I enjoy doing, and I know so many people and so many people out in the villages know me. It’s been a good relationship.
Meg: How many different villages are represented here?
Marco: It’s difficult to say how many but a lot of them, more than 75. We have everything separated by regions. The U.S. is made up of states, we call them departments. In one department, there could be 20 or 30 villages. They each have different weaving styles and also maybe in one department there might be three or four languages spoken.
Textiles of Guatemala | Huipiles and Cortes
Meg: What are the blouses called?
Marco: We call them huipiles. The huipil (wee-peel´) is a tunic or blouse-like garment that is frequently depicted on ancient Maya sculptures, figurines, and paintings. The greatest skill of the weaver is lavished on the huipil and it is by far the most ethnographically important and easily recognizable element of village specific apparel.
A woman may spend months weaving a single huipil using complex techniques and designs. Through the choices of design, material and finishing technique, information can be read about the weaver’s birth-place, religious background, social position, weaving skill, and personality. Indigenous women can read the complex encoded messages in each other’s huipiles at a glance.
The skirts are called cortes. Women, usually they use up to six yards of material to wrap around.The morga is a type of corte woven of a heavy denim-like indigo blue or black material, frequently incorporating thin white or light blue stripes, which often identify the village of origin. Hemlines also vary according to local custom, from ankle length (e.g. the village of Almolonga) to knee length (e.g. the town of Chichicastenango).
The huipile is made in the back strap loom, and the cortes is made in the foot loom. There’s only one village in Guatemala where they still make the skirt on the back strap loom, because all of them are made in the foot loom.
Getting to Know the Textiles of Guatemala
A Mayan Guatemalan textile piece we call a tzute is square or rectangular utility cloth that can be used for many purposes, for example, as a basket cover or baby carrier. Men and women put them on their head and their shoulders and usually when they go to the market they put their vegetables in there. They fold it and put it right on top of their head, using it as a basket.
Usually, large carrying cloths are called cargadores. They can be used to carry bundles of goods on the head or babies on the back. A tzute diario, or daily use carrying cloth for small purchases and personal possessions is not unlike a purse, an indispensable utilitarian article for the majority of women. Tzutes, when not being used for carrying, can be worn over the shoulder or folded on the head depending on village tradition. Toallas (towels), servilletas (napkins), chivos or tortilleras (tortilla covers) are all examples of tzutes.
Although cloths of varying purposes are called tzutes, variations in design often indicate the function of a given cloth. The elegant white tzute with large brocaded birds typical of Concepción Chiquirichapa is used as a basket cover or wrapping cloth, while a larger dark blue tzute serves as a shawl or sunshade when worn folded on the head. In San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a two panel, richly brocaded tzute is sometimes made by the bride to give to the groom’s mother.
Read: Want to learn more about Guatemalan culture? Check out this piece on the Chichicastenango Market!
Patterns of Mayan Textiles Reveal Identity, History & Traditions
Meg: I understand each village has their own distinctive pattern?
Marco: Exactly. It’s been like that for years. With any element of traditional traje, every aspect of design gives subtle clues as to the piece’s use, provenance and economic resources of the owner. Now the younger ones want to do something different so sometimes you see a blouse that has a little bit more detail on it. Young people always want to do something different but they’re still attached to their village’s style.
Most of the textiles you see around here, they come from the highlands. We have everything separated by departments. Quiche is one of the departments up in the highlands.
Long Lasting Effects of the Civil War in Quiche
Meg: I understand the department of Quiche was severely affected by the civil war.
Marco: It suffered more than anywhere else. Especially Chajul, which was devastated by the war. Women and children, men were killed. The army put everybody inside the church and when they were coming out they were getting killed.
What happened, and is still happening, people in the villages in Quiche don’t make that much money. Some people make $3 a day. That’s not enough to support their family. It was even worse back then. Many people that didn’t know how to write and read. Now it’s getting better. But still, it’s hard for them.
Meg: What were they fighting for in particular?
Marco: Land. Years ago there was just two or three people who owned all the land. Too many small groups had too much, and so many people just needed a place where they can plant their corn and vegetables.
Back then it was really hard because you never knew who you could talk to, because you got in between the guerrillas and the army. At that time I was going to junior high school, and for me to go to school I had to walk like 10 miles to go back and forth. All the way there I used to see bodies in the road of people who got killed. We didn’t know by who because the guerrillas and the army were both doing that kind of thing.
This piece is from the village of Santa Maria de Jesus, a village that is high on the side of the Agua volcano:
Many years ago, it was a really special to use silk to make huipiles. These two pieces are made for a saint, so that’s why all the material except the base is made out of silk. That’s why they are so expensive. These are from the 1930’s or ‘40s.
A Piece Made For a Saint
Meg: When you say they were made for a saint, do you mean to celebrate the feast day?
Marco: Yes, for the fiesta. The person in charge of the fiesta is called a cofradia. Every year the person who’s going to be in charge of the next fiesta changes. The cofradia wants to leave something special for the saint. In this case, Santa Maria is a virgin or the Madonna, mother of God. This huipile was made to put on the church’s statue of the virgin. At the end of the fiesta, they take it off because other people will do the same thing at the next fiesta.
There are two different types for textiles of Guatemala–for daily use and ceremonial purposes. This piece is from San Pedro Sacatequepez, and you can see what we call chompipe, which is the tree of life, and the figure of a turkey.
This piece was used on special occasions, usually when a girl gets married, and they put the white veil on top of it. Or the lady who is the fiesta cofradia, that’s what they use. You can go and see the procession and everyone that is in the group that’s in charge is wearing their specific pattern.
Read: Dive deeper into the culture of Guatemala and learn about Kaqchikel food and woven handcrafts.
The Costumes of San Antonio Calientes and Lake Atitlan
Meg: Is there a village whose style you particularly like?
Marco: San Antonio Calientes is a village that I always say does the finest work. They do really nice, nice work and they are the only ones that I know do the double-sided technique. That’s why their huipiles are the most expensive–a brand new piece is like 5000 queztals, about $800.
Let me show you two pieces I have that are really beautiful. It takes about three months for one of these. That’s why the prices for these pieces are high. They call them fine marcadoras. You can see the different styles in each.
One has the geometric patterns and one is all floral. The old style is with the geometric patterns. The geometric patterns are quicker to make than the flowers and so the textiles with the patterns are cheaper. The price for the all floral piece would be 3,500, and the one with the geometric design is 2,000 quetzals.
Meg: Is there another area that has particularly vibrant textiles?
Marco: When I talk about the textiles of Guatemala, there’s no way that we cannot talk about Lake Atitlan. These are costumes from villages around the lake. The name of the department is Solola and it is also the name of the capital of the whole department. Around the lake there are about 12 villages, and just in that area, about three or four different languages are spoken.
In Santiago on Lake Atitlan, very small, small figures were typical and very popular. The figures are all different–birds, flowers, trees and people. Now, birds are a new thing for them. Young girls are trying to do something different, and they come up with the birds, which is really nice. It makes it more expensive because it takes more time than doing the small ones.
One of the things I sometimes don’t understand about what happened right now is this is all made by hand, but sometimes there are some—usually they do everything by hand, and then on their neck they put machine-made. It’s like man, it’s so much work, and then they put machine on the top of it.
Lake Atitlan Continues Guatemalan Culture
Meg: I heard that the village of Santiago was particularly affected by the war because the people that lived there were traders, meaning they sold their wares and traveled around. So because they were traveling they were often suspected of being spies.
Marco: At those times, it was so difficult. There were so many people called orajos. Orajos was the spy, people helping the guerillas or the army. It was a really tough situation. I remember sometimes we were at my house eating breakfast or lunch, and the guerrillas were coming out of the bushes. They said, “We need to talk to you. Let’s go to the soccer field. We’re going to tell you what we’re fighting for.” It was against our wish. Because we don’t want to be involved in anything. The whole family had to leave whatever we were doing, and they start talking about what they were fighting for, they needed help, they needed money, and all that. Then we used to go home. Ten, fifteen minutes later the army came and said “Why did you help them?” It was terrible.
Meg: The Lake Atitlan area was the only place I saw men wearing costumes.
Marco: It’s a shame to say it but men, we’ve been losing our costumes for many reasons. In Lake Atitlan, you can still see men wearing their costumes. You go down to Solola, Santiago, Santa Katarina, you can see men wearing their costumes. To make one pair of the pants is so expensive. Now they can buy store-bought pants for 100 quetzals when one of those original pants made for men usually goes for like 2000 quetzals. That’s why men have been changing to the Western kind of wear.
If you go to San Juan Atitlan, I would say 75-80% of the men wear their costume. The pants are woven on the foot loom. They use a hand-made belt like a sash.
Natural Dyes in Nim Po’t Textiles of Guatemala
Meg: What can you tell me about the men’s skirts?
Marco: It’s decorative. It’s not just at the lake. You can see some other places where the men still use that piece. The skirts are wool. Because of the time involved in preparing and cleaning the wool, it would take at least one day to make this because this is made with the foot loom. Usually the pieces made with the foot loom are faster. That’s why so many pieces are cheaper.
Many of the Mayan Guatemalan textiles sold at Nim Po’t are made with natural dyes. Ladies in a village not far away from here make natural dyes. It’s amazing to see what nature gives you, the tints that they get from leaves, from the trees that are all around. This is a lady who is working with a natural brown cotton.
You see how the white cotton fibers are big. Natural brown cotton is short. Also you can feel the seeds in there. So for her to do this type of work, she has to take the seeds out, try to put them together with those sticks, and then she starts making the thread. It takes about 15 days for her to make a pound of thread. It takes so long, that’s why a lot of places use this for ceremonial pieces, like Tecpan that I showed you. That’s one of the places that they still use this brown cotton.
Textiles of Guatemala | Tecpán Daily Costumes
Meg: What can you tell me about this piece?
Marco: This piece right here, you can see the combination. She made this piece on the back strap loom. There is a place called Tecpan, this is their costume. This is a daily use, but when it comes to a ceremonial piece, they use a natural brown cotton.
Tecpan is a really nice place and is located in the central Highlands, 80 kilometers west of Guatemala City on the Pan-American Highway, near the Iximche ruins. Iximiche was the first capital of Guatemala in the 1500s. Tecpan is an important market town in a rich agricultural region that produces avocados and beans.
Modern daily use Tecpán huipiles differ wildly in design and color, often incorporating naturalistic bird and flower motifs in the color palette of blue, green, purple and black on a solid white base cloth. Traditional huipiles feature geometrically stylized figures of birds and rosettes, often combined with newer figurative representations. The Tecpán signature motif of stylized rosettes is sometimes the only factor that differentiates the huipil from some of the modern Comalapa huipiles, which now share many of the same motifs. An old-style huipil has been revived and is distinguishable by simpler figures and red, blue and black warp stripes on a white base cloth.
Colors in Textiles of Guatemala | Open to Interpretation
Meg: Do the colors mean anything in the textiles of Guatemala?
Marco: People explain this in different ways. Some people say this is because of the mountains around, and this is the way the wind blows. It’s always said that when someone makes a bird with open wings, they like to travel. The diamonds mean wealth for them. But I’ve seen people who describe this sometimes in different ways. I don’t know which one is really right.
Meg: It’s open to interpretation.
Marco: This is a piece that women use as a hair ornament at a place called Santa Catarina Palopo near Lake Atitlan. It’s called a cinta.
Do you remember I told you there was daily use and ceremonial pieces in some of the villages? This is a ceremonial piece from Patzun village, which belongs to the Chimaltenango department.
Located in the western highlands, on a newly paved road 12 kilometers from the Pan-American Highway,Patzún is one of the few highland towns that prefer hand embroidery to woven brocade. Patzún huipiles are backstrap loomed in two panels of predominantly red plain weave ground cloth and supplemented with dense evenly spaced groups of thin warp stripes bordered with blue and green pinstriped edges.
The huipil includes hand embroidered floral motifs and is popular with women from throughout the highlands as a more prestigious version of the ubiquitous machine-embroidered flowered blusa. The design motifs of these garments have undergone a transformation from embroidered geometric, sun/moon, and feather figures to the new floral style, an evolution that roughly parallels the rise in popularity of the machine embroidered blouse. The large ceremonial/ wedding huipil is worn over the wrap-around skirt, in pre-Hispanic style. Ceremonial huipiles can be identified by the feather motif, often extravagantly embroidered in silk around the neckline.
The costumes from village of Patzun sometimes have the Mayan calendar around the neck. It’s the only village that I’ve seen do this.
What is happening is women are starting to wear styles from a lot of different villages, not just the style of their own village. Many women like the Coban style, so they use a regular skirt from their village with a Coban blouse. Coban is very special, the weight, the dress is totally different. The Coban blouse is very popular all over. You see women wearing it because its lighter. Sometimes some of the styles get too hot.
Coban is kind of like the middle of the country. It’s a beautiful place. If you like nature, it’s one of the places to go. It’s amazing.
Discrimination and Globalization Affected Pride in Textile Traditions
Nowadays you see a lot of machine-made material. They just have a hem stitched and around the neck. This is machine-made and just handwork on the neck.
I want to tell you this, and this is true. It’s sad but true. Many Guatemalans, we don’t appreciate the textiles of Guatemala. Because there was so much discrimination against the Mayans. There’s not as much now as it used to be, but there was so much discrimination against the indigenous people. There was big discrimination, so people didn’t pay attention to the textiles. Now more people appreciate it. Because it’s art.
Meg: It is art. Do you think as more tourists come to Guatemala and want to buy the handicrafts that it will make sure that the traditions endure and not everybody ends up wearing factory-made clothes?
Marco: The problem that we have is that many villages are losing their costume, their tradition, because of all the ads on television, and that’s killing everything, which is a shame. Young girls, they don’t want to use their costume anymore, usually just on special occasions. They prefer to use Calvin Klein jeans. Because it’s so expensive to make the traditional costumes and young girls, they don’t want to weave anymore.
I have friends who I’ve been working with, helping them find textiles, and they ask me for a specific village in Guatemala, this village right here. Zacualpa. I went to the village one day just to see if I can buy some pieces of this costume. I just saw one old lady wearing the costume in that village. That was kind of sad. I didn’t see anybody wearing it. You didn’t see girls from high school wearing this. It was sad.
Meg: Would you say the Mayan Guatemalan textile tradition is really dying out in that town?
Marco: It is dying out in that town and many towns. There was a village not far away from Antigua named Santa Maria Cauque. I like to go there, because I like to see women wearing their special piece. And there was just a lady about 80 years old who was wearing it. Nobody else was wearing it.