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Stretching a loom from the low roof of her home and securing it to a strap wrapped around her lower back, Suly Hernández kneels on a straw mat on the dirt floor of her patio and begins to weave. Her fingers and wooden needles dance between the fine strands of black yarn to introduce rose designs in dazzling red, pink and blue colors, as her mother looks on.
From the shade of this patio – where the green foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains provide a stunning, silent backdrop – Hernández and her mother, María Juana Lopez, lead the project Trabajando Juntas Santiago Zamora. It’s a co-operative comprised of female, indigenous Kaqchikel weavers who gather at a moment’s notice to showcase the traditional weaving methods of central Guatemala and sell authentic, handmade woven goods directly to travelers. The co-op then reinvests one-third of all revenue into the local school, purchasing supplies and uniforms for children, and sometimes even buying meals for students when their families cannot afford to do so themselves.
Most travelers visiting Antigua – Guatemala’s tourism capital, an old colonial city ringed by green volcanoes – do not even know about Santiago Zamora. It’s one of the country’s many quiet, unassuming towns, set in a round valley and reached by a half-hour taxi ride along a dusty, winding road. The entrance to Hernández and Juana Lopez’s home, just northwest of the central plaza, is marked by a wall of mangled flowers beside a corrugate-metal door. But life in town is so quiet that calling ahead is the only way to ensure that the women will be there. Some travel for hundreds of miles to peddle their goods in other regions of the country.
The women of Trabajando Juntas (which means ‘working together’) weave everything from bracelets to bags, bookmarks to tablecloths, baby slings to guitar straps, all presented in a spectacularly colorful wall-to-wall display. Among the most complex items are huipiles – the most common piece of clothing worn by indigenous women in Central America, taking the shape of tunics and blouses. A ceremonial huipil, fully woven by hand and without any pre-purchased fabric, can take a year or more to make.
The cooperative prides itself on being a more authentic alternative to the well-trodden handicraft markets of Antigua, where the competition is steep and many products are factory-made. “It’s not just about buying the goods,” says Juana Lopez, herself dressed in a dark-blue huipil laden with purple, turquoise and orange patterns. “We want people to learn how the handicrafts are made, the traditions behind them, so that they come away with a better understanding of it all.”
Indeed, the area is deeply rooted in tradition – Santiago Zamora is the kind of town where a hopeful fiancée is obligated to ask his girlfriend’s father for her hand through an official ceremony in which he presents the family with an offering of bread, fruit and chocolate. In the streets, it’s just as likely that you’ll hear Kaqchikel as Spanish, and in the home, many skills like fine weaving can be traced so far up through the generations that it’s impossible to know when it all began.
But in addition to preserving and sharing traditions, Santiago Zamora has an eye towards the future. The town, like many others in rural Guatemala, faces a dizzying array of serious social challenges. The normal daily wage for men working in the fields, harvesting sweet potatoes and carrots on the fertile slopes nearby, often hovers around $6 (£5). The country’s civil war, which persisted for nearly 40 years and officially ended in a 1996 peace agreement, saw indigenous communities ravaged by severe discrimination campaigns that included targeted violence and land-rights abuses – much of which has lasted to this day. For many, attempting to leave their home and migrate elsewhere (such as north to the United States) has proven to be the only option left.
The women of Santiago Zamora are trying to use their proximity to Guatemala’s tourism hub to alleviate some of the burden on the town’s most impoverished families – chiefly, by reinvesting much of their profit back into the community. They’re also making sure to teach their daughters to weave, just as their mothers had taught them. “It’s important to pass down to our children and grandchildren,” Hernández said, so that the traditions continue to benefit future generations. She is a mother now, too – her newborn child wails in the background as she weaves.
The co-op also aims to become a gateway organization to connect visitors with families willing to host them for an immersive look at life in a local indigenous community. Several tour operators in Antigua – like Máximo Nivel and Sin Fronteras – have picked up on this, offering packaged visits and homestays with the Lopez-Hernández family for a go-to ‘Maya Experience’, as well as pay-to-play volunteer opportunities in Santiago Zamora and the surrounding area. Someday, Juana Lopez and Hernández hope, they will be able to do it on their own.
“We prefer for tourists to find us, to come and invest in us, to eat our food, to buy our handicrafts, to help us in that way,” says Juana Lopez. Visiting on your own, and not as part of a pre-arranged tour, simply involves letting the women know ahead of time so that they can set up a full shop: weaving demonstration, lunch and all. This option also brings the advantage of putting time in your own hands, rather than spending a couple of hours in the stillness of the central plaza of Santiago Zamora waiting for the women to prepare. Perhaps most importantly, it allows travelers to create a direct relationship with the people themselves. “It motivates us to work harder for our families and our community,” added Juana Lopez. “It makes us proud of who we are.”