by Kyra Coates
In the United States we are blessed with an abundance of fashion and accessory choices from all over the world. Pants from India, dresses from France, cotton from Egypt, the product choices go on and on. As part of our Artisan Market Access Program here at Friendship Bridge, we give our clients tools to bring their products not only further out to their communities in Guatemala but to the international marketplace as well. We offer our artisan clients this training as a way to give them further opportunities to uplift themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty and open the door for a better life. And while we are offering them this education, we too are continuously learning and changing as an organization.
The Mayans have a long and powerful spiritual history of weaving which stretches back over 2,000 years. Weaving is considered a sacred art form that is tied directly to their spiritual cosmology. Recently it has come to our awareness that the preferred term is “Artist” for clients who create traditional Maya weavings, and not “Artisan.” As I have shared this with many co-workers here at Friendship Bridge most everyone has asked me “what is the difference?” So I set out to discover this exactly. Diving into the “why” behind this has been a beautiful and educational journey. I offer you here a glimpse into the sacred world of Mayan weaving, our roles as consumers within it, and how we can further use this knowledge to uplift and support the Mayan women of Guatemala.
Katherine Zavala, from the organization Thousand Currents, who work to support grassroots groups including weavers’ rights in Guatemala, shared her perspective with me. “I was taught by indigenous women, there is a difference between the term ‘artist’ and ‘artisan.’” she said. “Naming them artists uplifts indigenous women as creators and owners of their weaving designs, history and traditions, recognizing their indigenous cultural production. ‘Artisan’ tends to have a more folklorization connotation, which does not recognize indigenous women’s art, identity or creativity.”
The Mayans have a long, rich, and powerful spiritual history of weaving which stretches back over 2,000 years. Weaving is considered a sacred art form that is tied directly to their spiritual cosmology. In their tradition, the Universe was created by the Creator God Itzamna, and his consort Ix Chel, the Great Mother Creator. Ix Chel is the Goddess of Healing, Fertility, and Weaving, and is often depicted in three forms which represent the three stages of a woman’s life- Maiden, Mother, and Grandmother.
In her Mother form she is the Mother Goddess of fertility, the moon and motherhood. As Mother Creator of all Maya people and consort of the Creator God, Itzamna, she decides the face and sex of every person in utero.
Her grandmother form is the Grandmother Earth Goddess of the moon, rain, medicine and death. When her children, the Mayans, die, she takes their bodies into her own physical body, which is the earth.
Women pray to Ix Chel for fertility, and upon birth girls are gifted with weaving tools that they keep for life and are buried with them when they die, honoring Ix Chel and the powerful tradition of the divine feminine that has been passed to them generation through generation. The Mayan women often claim their weaving patterns were dictated to them in a dream as a gift from Ix Chel.
The weavings themselves, which are in the form of traditional Mayan clothing, such as the Huipiles shirts and Corte skirts are rich in meaning and tradition. Each woman weaves in her personal story, philosophy, and cosmology through symbolism into the huipiles, as well as larger cultural symbols based on region and group. The symbols range from the diamond which represents the universe, the orientation of the sun in its daily movement, the four cardinal directions, to representations of mountains, rivers, animals, plants, and people through geometric shapes and patterning. Similar to Scottish Tartans, each region in Guatemala has different patterns representing their communities.
As a group from the National Movement of Maya Weavers recently wrote in a statement to the Guatemalan government:
“They (the weavings) are a symbol of our history, of the resistance that we have maintained over 500 years, which has naturally evolved, changed, been transformed. Nevertheless, they contain—and are—the essence of the people. They are the wisdom of men and women, which is translated into what we see. They are more than colors, more than symbols. They are evidence of Mayan survival and they speak of our relationship with the universe and our profound love for life.”
Over the past few years, as tourism has grown in Guatemala, the Mayans have seen many of their sacred textile art patterns stolen by large corporations and used in fashion items for the US and Europe. This is essentially exploiting their knowledge and work for little to no compensation. They have seen a rise in prices for threading, with benefits given to large corporations and export restrictions put in place that hurt the small-scale weavers. These companies are making industrial machine-made huipiles, disregarding this sacred tradition and knowledge that has been passed through generations, all in an effort to increase profit. In October 2017 this weavers group went before the Guatemalan congress and won a bill giving them intellectual property rights to their weavings, though it has yet to be implemented. This is a huge step for Mayan rights within a country where they are very largely discriminated against for their traditions. But the fight is far from over, and changes don’t take place overnight.
We here at Friendship Bridge recognize the complexity of this issue, and the importance of supporting our clients, who are mostly indigenous Maya, and the richness of their culture and tradition. By honoring the sacred history of their art form we are honoring each women, and the inherent power she has. There is a responsibility to recognize the often unintentional neglect of these sacred traditions and philosophies. So, as a way to say Happy Mother’s Day and to show our respect for our clients who embody the divine feminine of the Mother Goddess Ix Chel, we are now calling all our weaver clients “artists,” and will no longer use the term “artisan” in regards to the textile art of weaving. Our clients from our Artisan Market Access Program who are not practicing the art of weaving will still be referred to as “Artisans”. These changes will be made across our programs, website, and communications.
As supporters of Friendship Bridge and our almost 30,000 clients, you may ask “how can I support these sacred traditions?” One powerful way is to purchase directly from these artist clients, which you can do through the Tipica Marketplace on our website. Each item on the website has the story of each artist and artisan, and each item comes straight from the woman who made it. Every purchase goes back into their hands so you will be supporting them directly. This is the power of ethical fashion! Currently we have an amazing Mother’s Day sale happening, so it’s the perfect time to show these Mother’s your support! Check out the store today before these sale items are gone!
I’m also thrilled to announce that launching Memorial Day Weekend will be our very first Tipica Marketplace Summer Collection, featuring brand new items from some of our most talented artists and artisans. We let you know the moment the line is available!
As consumers there is a responsibility to see our purchases as ethical choices. Our money provides power and momentum to grow industries, so together we can support and uplift instead of contributing to further discrimination and unethical practices. Thank you for supporting our artists, clients, and the tradition of the Mother Goddess Ix Chel.
Kyra Coates is the US Marketing Coordinator at Friendship Bridge. She is a passionate advocate for Women’s Empowerment and has worked for years to promote equality. Outside her Friendship Bridge working hours she is an artist and gallery owner, a mother of two fierce and fabulous daughters, and a typical Colorado outdoorsy athletic girl.