Two-Headed Bird Lands in Guatemala’s Political Arena: Mayan Women Fight to Protect Their Textile Heritage

A Guatemalan woman weaves making textiles in the traditional way, in San Juan La Laguna - one of the villages on the banks of Lake Atitlan. (Photo: Phil Clarke Hill / In Pictures via Getty Images)A Guatemalan woman weaves textiles in the traditional way, in San Juan La Laguna — one of the villages on the banks of Lake Atitlan. (Photo: Phil Clarke Hill / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Also see: Opposing Corporate Theft of Mayan Textiles, Weavers Appeal to Guatemala’s High Court

San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala—Ixkot, the Mayan glyph, is a double-headed bird facing both the future and the past. It has adorned the hand-woven blouses, or huipils, of Mayan women for centuries, and is now the icon of a group of Mayan weavers fighting their way into the Guatemalan political arena.

On Sunday, November 26, a group of artists calling themselves Ixkot Chi Xot (double-headed birds of Chixot) assembled in the town square in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, according to Amarildo Bal, a local journalist. They were there to celebrate the signing of a municipal agreement by the mayor of Comalapa acceding the collective proprietary ownership of woven designs to the town’s community of weavers.

The local agreement supports national legislation introduced in May 2016 by the 1,500 members of the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez, better known as AFEDES. The group petitioned the Guatemalan Constitutional Court to grant copyright protection of the intellectual property of Mayan woven designs throughout all of Guatemala.

The courts have yet to act on the national proposal, but smaller municipalities with a Mayan majority have begun their own legislative process, according to Angelina Aspuac, an AFEDES spokesperson.

Comalapa became the third municipality to assure local protection, Aspuac said. It joined forces with the municipalities of Santiago Sacatapequez and Santa Domingo Xenacoj.

The Comalapan agreement pledges that all designs issuing from the artisans of Comalapa would be protected from infringement by outside companies. Aspuac conceded that the terms are non-binding, yet powerfully symbolic. Their struggle is both economic and historical.

The Mayan weavers say the Ixkot, a double-sighted being that informs from the past while marching into the future, is the perfect symbol of their struggle. They hope to move toward protection of their heritage and, at the same time, greater economic parity with their Ladino (non-Indigenous) counterparts.

“Our ancestral knowledge and our weavings are knit together, we want to share it with the world, but in a fair manner, with rules that are clear,” Aspuac said. “That is what we Indigenous women are proposing.”

At stake are thousands of years of Indigenous designs and the future of the hand-woven textile industry in Guatemala. The fighters are the women artisans who weave time-consuming and valuable fabrics, but receive little back from either private sales or from a disinterested and racially biased government. They hope to protect their ancient designs from appropriation by “capitalists who steal and brand [the designs] as their own,” said Ch’umilkaj, a 22-year-old Ixkot leader.

Maya textiles can be purchased at low prices and fixed to larger high-end products like handbags and belts without any compensation returning to the artisans. To the Maya, this is theft of both their designs and their heritage.

“Today, we demand that the state give intellectual property rights [protection] over our textiles and Mayan traditional dress,” said Aspuac.

The movement comes as women weavers noticed the erosion of weaving as a common practice passed down from mother to daughter. With more women joining the workforce, there were fewer women at home to teach the ancient weaving practices to their daughters.

Women also noticed that younger women were less keen on wearing their traditional traje (clothes) and were dressing in the style of the Ladino power class. They are more likely to get a good job or an educational opportunity if they could “pass” as Ladino.

“There is a lot of racism and sometimes it is easier not to use your traje corte (traditional clothing), so you won’t be insulted or mistreated in the streets,” said Aspuac. “There comes a point where we truly feel objectified, principally the women. We don’t feel as human beings but as folklorized things, so the struggle is closely tied to creating a dignified image of Indigenous peoples.”

History of Huipils and Weaving

Following the Spanish invasion of 1523, the Maya became yet another Indigenous people to fall to the domination of European overlords. Since then, they have lived in remote central highland territories as marginalized, neglected and racially targeted people. Their core identity has been maintained through language, customs, dress and beliefs. Weaving maintains traditional family roles and guarantees an impoverished people a sovereign and sustainable access to clothing.

“We saw a great problem that each day there were fewer and fewer weavers in the department of Sacatepéquez,” said Aspuac. “We could not make our own clothing, and it became evident that we were dependent on buying everything outside, including our clothing, our food. We recognized that this could not continue.”

Huipils are hand-woven according to carefully engineered traditions. They contain symbols of history and religious significance, and carry the stories, the language and the events of Mayan history. A Maya woman’s hand-woven huipil speaks for itself. Written in the shorthand of pictographs, like an ancient story blog, it tells a sacred tale of traditions, protectors and gods. AFEDES calls textiles “the books the colony was not able to burn.”

Huipils have evolved into valued commodities that multinational businesses and small designers alike have purchased, cut up, slashed, deconstructed and otherwise appropriated for both fashion and economic gain. They can be ripped off, taken out of context and placed on bags and belts without consequence. There are no laws that protect the art of the huipil from appropriation, which AFEDES considers theft.

The weavings are highly valued, with a large markup when planted on $1,000 designer bags, but there is little profit returning to the artisans. Although the tourism industry comprises an estimated 10 percent of Guatemala’s economy, 52 percent of all Indigenous live below the poverty line. The Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo or INGUAT, the country’s national tourism bureau, is happy to attract visitors to Guatemala through the promotion of Indigenous arts, but does little to return resources to a community that still lives without basic municipal services. The Indigenous are more than twice as likely to live either in poverty or extreme poverty than the Ladino population.

“That is why we advocate for the creation of property rights and industrial property: so that some of the profits that are being made come back to the communities so that Indigenous people can continue to work [on] their art,” said Aspuac.

Just 20 years after the Peace Accords of 1996 ended a 30-year war in which 200,000 people were executed or disappeared — 83 percent of which were Mayans — the weaving women are tailoring their own destiny. They are soliciting local municipalities and the Guatemalan Congress to protect and license their traditions. At stake are not only the economic rights to the designs, but also the future of a culture thousands of years old. The Ixkot, the double-headed bird, has its sights set on economic and cultural security with a glance to the inescapable past events, many of them horrifically unjust.