Don't Call Me María

AFEDES is fighting through the Guatemalan constitutional courts to have Mayan cloth recognized as intellectual property of the Maya people and receive fair market compensation.

For indigenous Maya women in Guatemala the clothes on their backs are sacred texts of their way of life. They tell a story of spirit and war, the heritage of an ancient people invaded by European warriors. They are also artistic creations that take days, weeks and even months to construct.

Sometimes, they are the equivalent of a 401(k) that must be cashed in to finance family necessities. Angelina Aspuac, a woman weaver living near the capital city, remembers her mother’s tears as she sold her hand-woven huipil (blouse) to afford food for Aspuac and her siblings.

“I remember, as a child, my mother had a beautiful huipil,” Aspuac said, “It was the only one she had for special celebrations or ceremonies, and one day she did not have money to feed us. The woman who bought clothing came by to see if she had anything to sell and with all the pain of her soul, she had to sell it to buy us food.”


Hand woven huipil

Aspuac, the daughter of farmers and today a 40-year-old law student and mother of three, is a spokesperson for the rights of Mayan cloth and weavers. She represents the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez(AFEDES), a grassroots organization that began in 1985 and now boasts a membership of 1,500 women.

AFEDES is fighting through the Guatemalan constitutional courts to have Mayan cloth recognized as intellectual property of the Maya people and receive fair market compensation.

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

Just 21 years after the Guatemalan government signed a peace accord with guerrillas and ended a long civil war where over 200,000 indigenous people were killed or disappeared and a million were displaced, weavers, like Aspuac, are pounding on the door of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court.

On May 16, 2016, hundreds protested outside the Guatemalan Congress and the Supreme Court to demand the government stitch up a loophole in the intellectual property laws. The lack of protection allows national and multinational companies to own and profit from Mayan ancient designs without fair compensation returning to the weavers.


Angelina Aspuac speaks to a crowd of protesters.

At a public hearing on June 28, 2016 in Guatemala City at the Constitutional Court, indigenous activists asked that copyright laws shield Mayan designs from plagiarism as they now protect musicians and authors. They still await an outcome.

“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. That is what we indigenous women are proposing,” Aspuac said.

La Violencia was a war of atrocities targeting indigenous civilians in order to destabilize the social fabric of the enemy guerrillas. Women and children were targets of rape and killings as the military viciously punished the men who were primarily conducting attacks.

Today, indigenous women face double jeopardy as victims of social racism and gender inequality. Guatemalan literacy rates for all citizens older than 15 are just 81 percent, but, in contrast, literacy rates for women are just 76 percent and for indigenous women only 30 percent. Being publicly recognized in Mayan cloth can prevent upward mobility. Aspuac knows first-hand the daily sacrifices extracted to be a Maya woman in traditional dress.

“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. 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,” Aspuac said.

According to Aspuac, the name “María” is a racial slur that is used in the street to refer to a faceless indigenous woman. The name “María” is offensive because it is a colonial name used by the Spanish and reminds the indigenous of when they were forced to abandon their religion, customs and ethnic names. To refer to an indigenous woman as a “María” is to erase her heritage and reduce her to a servile status.

“I think it is important to understand that racism and discrimination is very prevalent here in Guatemala. For Ladino people who are racist, we don’t have a face; they do not see us in our spirituality. That is why they call us ‘Marías,’ which is synonymous to making all of us servants. We can also be professionals. The point is that indigenous women are not seen as attorneys, architects and engineers but rather like servants, especially when we wear our attire in the capital, at the university, in schools in institutes, the treatment we get is different to the one given to the woman wearing pants, a skirt or dress, it is different.”


Guatemalan woman weaving on a backstrap loom.

Weaving is practiced in the context of the Mayan belief system, customs and culture. The designs are rooted in the cosmovision of Mayan traditions and each is more than an arrangement of color and thread. Amarildo Bal, Antiguan restaurateur and Spanish instructor, said the huipils are “not just a design, but sagrado (sacred) stories.” Weavers learn from their mothers when as young as 7 years old, and it is a way of preserving an ancestral heritage.

In San Juan Comalapa, located in the department of Chimaltenango, each hand-woven and embroidered huipil can be read as a history book. According to Natalia Otzin, a 66-year-old weaver, the large red band running through the design signifies the blood shed by her ancestors as they were conquered by the Spanish; multi-colored rhomboids are plates for the traditional sacrifices to the Mayan gods; and the animal figures walking through the design correspond to the protective birds of their city.

Aspuac said that INGUAT, the Guatemalan national tourism bureau, is happy to attract visitors to Guatemala through the promotion of indigenous arts but does little to return funds to a community that still lives without basic municipal services. Although the tourism industry composes an estimated 20 percent of the economy, 75 percent of all indigenous live below the poverty line.


Knowledge is passed from mothers to daughters.

And the indigenous are more than twice as likely to live either in poverty or extreme poverty than the Ladino population. The weavings are highly valued, with a large mark-up when implanted on $1,000 designer bags and belts, but there is little profitability returning to the artisans.

“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 their art,” Aspuac said.

But a series of social changes have endangered the practice of traditional weaving—and, thus, the income of thousands of families. When Comalapan weaver Otzin was young, all her clothes were handmade by her family members.

Today, the markets are full of skirts made by machines that have been digitally programmed. These clothes are of lesser quality and last fewer years than handmade—and they are also less expensive.

The appropriation of ancient designs in order to make sales has a storied past. AFEDES said that Mayan designs were forcibly extracted from women weavers and exported back to Spain soon after the Conquistadores invaded in 1523.

More recently, the Panamanian indigenous won recognition of their broad contribution to the Panamanian culture through the landmark Law 20 enacted in June 2000. The law is designed to protect traditional dress, music, dance and other traditional handicrafts. Panama has been strong in their protection of molas, the traditional blouses that would correspond to the huipils of Guatemala. Labels have been attached to molas to distinguish them from cheaper, less well-made knock-offs.


Guatemalan weavers protest for their rights.

The Navaho Nation brought a suit against Urban Outfitters and their subsidiary brands Anthropologie and Free People in 2012. They claimed that the brands used the word “Navaho” widely in items such as socks, outerwear and jewelry. A liquor flask designated with Navaho patterns and a “Navaho hipster panty” were also briefly offered and sparked an outrage from the nation because of its prohibition against alcohol and the community’s value of modesty.

The suit was amicably decided in November 2016 when Navaho President Russell Begaye announced that the two parties would co-produce a line of authentic Navaho jewelry. Statements released by Urban Outfitters proclaimed to take seriously the “rights of artists and designers, both in protecting our own and in respecting the rights of others.”

In 2015 the rights of Indian designs were back in the news when a Canadian Broadcasting Company producer, Salome Awa of Nanuvut, Canada, accused KTZ of copying her grandfather’s personal shaman design envisioned in a dream. She objected calling it a theft of the sacredness of the design, much as Aspuac claims the mass-producing and exportation of Mayan patterns are a threat to sanctity.

In the KTZ case the products were photographed next to a photograph of the shaman dressed in his robe. Both had identical handprints over each breast. Awa said her grandfather envisioned the hands as protectors against an enemy holding him down. In this case, KTZ withdrew the products.

Women are the bedrock of the Guatemalan society and the economy. They deliver the tortillas to the men and children tilling in the fields at noon, tend the home grocery store while doing their domestic chores, transport the vegetables and chickens to market and weave the clothes that cover their bodies.


Angelina Aspuac (photo by Erick Aspuac)

Sometimes the income they make from the weaving can help to buy food or a cow and secure their long-term economics. With the threat to both the economic investment of the huipils and the abandonment of native dress toward assimilation and better opportunities, there is bound to be an excess of Mayan cloth on the market. It is hard to predict if it will attract the value the community feels it deserves.

But Aspuac and her cohorts are clear: The designs shouldn’t be decontextualized, made by machine or cut up and planted on a designer handbag without fair compensation returning to the community.

“A machine can never replicate a weaving done by a woman,” Aspuac said. “It is important to save the designs for the way of life it conforms to.”

Detail of a huipil indigenous to San Juan Comalapa. The birds are protectors of the town. The rhomboid is called the Rupanplato, a dish for sacrifices to the deceased.

A cloth huipil, open like a book, lay on Natalia and Flavio Otzin’s wooden table, sunshine bouncing off its bright red, purple and blue designs. Otzin swept her hand across the shapes as she explained each one, reading the woven rows like lines from a page.

“And the little animals are the birds that take care of the town and they’re flying to the heavens. This is the rainbow in the sky. The red is the blood that our ancestors shed during the conquest. And here is a lion that takes care of the town; they are on the outskirts and take care of the town of Comalapa,” Otzin said.


Close-up of the birds protecting the town and flying up to heaven.

Together the hand-woven images of animals, lion sentries of her town of San Juan Comalapa, pájaros, protective birds, and Rupan platos, plates offering sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the deceased, formed a running narrative indigenous to her village. The images were arranged in a sea of red representing the sangre (blood) spilled by the Mayans in armed conflicts. Every line of symbols was punctuated by rainbow paragraphs.

Our clothes are an intimate means to express an opinion, claim an allegiance and assert cultural identity. Each huipil is a soft tableau of narrative thread, historical reference and remembered zeitgeist accessible to all who choose to read the story.

Weaving in Guatemala is a matrilineal tradition that extends back to the beginning of the Mayan civilization and women are tied to past generations by the very threads they touch every day. When they teach their daughters, they link to their future.

“I learned with my mom, my mom wove, and in the same manner I too had to learn with my mom. I was 7,” Otzin said.

The stories the huipils tell are of a resilient people surviving famine, conquests, marginalization and discrimination. They recollect the history and tie the stories to the very bodies of the women who wear them. Today the loss of weaving and the turning away of young people from traditional dress is a threat to indigenous culture and identity.

The promise of better jobs and educational opportunities now spurs the young to abandon traditional dress, wear makeup and fit in. These factors threaten the huipil, the weaving traditions and the indigenous identity.

According to Silvia Otzin, a 34-year-old Maya now studying the Kaqchikel language and living in Comalapa with her three children and husband, the biggest threat to the customs is the loss of native languages and the way of dress.


Huipil woven by Doña Natalia Otzin of Comalapa. Her design shows the red blood of the ancestors spilled in conquest. All of the figures are placed in a field of brown, the traditional color for her town.

“The biggest hopes for the indigenous is that they don’t lose their language [or] the way they dress, and in this manner there will be a connection between grandparents and the children,” Otzin said.

The threat to traditional dress comes in many forms. Today, young girls are encouraged to attend school, as in Natalia’s family, leaving little time to learn weaving. In Natalia’s case she couldn’t go to school because she had too many siblings to care for.

“I had too many siblings and I had to take care of them and learn how to weave and help mom. Mirian [my daughter] began school at age 7. I first went to school when I was 12, I went for two years, only two years,” Otzin said.


Detail of the Rupanplato, a rhomboid-shaped symbol representing
the plates of flowers offered as sacrifices to the Maya descendants.

Another factor is the loosening of machismo with fathers who want equal opportunities for their girls. Mirian Otzoy, the 42-year-old daughter of Doña Natalia and Don Flavio Otzin, said both parents were in favor of educating their two girls. Her mother wanted it because she herself did not receive an education. Her father, out of love for his daughter.

Many in their community were openly critical.

“My dad was always there for me, always helping me. I also remember that during elementary school there were people that would say, ‘Why are you going to let her study, she is a girl, it is not worth it.’ But finally, he said, ‘Leave me, I want to do it, and I know she will not let me down, so I will support her,’” Otzoy said.

Otzoy did learn to weave, taught by her mother Natalya after age 9, but she also completed her studies and received a degree in accounting.

Another threat to the sanctity and cohesion of the Mayan culture is the appropriation of artisan designs by national and multinational companies. But indigenous women are fighting back to receive recognition of their artistic value and a fair market share in the sales.

In the summer of 2016, the community development group the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), with the support of a membership numbered at 1,500 strong, petitioned the Constitutional Court of Guatemala to abridge copyright laws to include indigenous designs.

Angelina Aspuac, a 40-year-old mother of three, law student, weaver and daughter of farmers, acting as a spokesperson for the group, says the practice of using huipils in manufacturing of handbags, belts and jewelry frequently does not compensate the artisan commensurate with the amount of time invested in the work.

The huipils are not always treated with the sanctity they deserve, which AFEDES says is equal to a spiritual representation of the cosmovision of Mayan beliefs.

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

The lack of protection allows national and multinational companies to own and profit from Mayan ancient designs, cutting up a sacred text into consumer bites without fair compensation returning to the weavers.

The controversy seems to center on which party has fundamental ownership and control of the textiles. As an attractive consumer product there are many who seek ownership in order to profit from the textiles. A fuzzy boundary exists between protection and exploitation and depends on which authority is speaking.

According to Alida Boer, the founder of MARIAS (formerly MARIAS Bags), a high-fashion model and former Miss Guatemala, her company is a protector of the artistry and a purveyor of Guatemalan culture onto a world screen. She doesn’t believe that theft of designs is real and thinks selling bags with fixed artistic textiles is a way to dispense knowledge and appreciation of the culture.

“This is the way to promote our culture, because honestly, I don’t think anyone is stealing anyone’s designs. I think those belong to our country in general,” said Boer.


Alida Boer, founder of MARIAS, stands flanked by indigenous women
who help her plan the designs for her handbag, scarf and belt collections.

When Boer went to London in 2007 on a Miss World trip she wore a huipil gifted to her by a community member.

“They gave me a huipil. When I took it to London every single girl was interested in it. You can see when the tourists come to Guatemala they go crazy over the textiles. We in Guatemala have so many beautiful things to show the world,” Boer said.

But the indigenous feel differently. They see the designs as their own history, a tableau of history and mindfulness relating to a unique culture dating back before the Spanish conquerors.

“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. That is what we indigenous women are proposing,” Aspuac said.

Boer’s products range in price from $125 to $1,300 and are arranged on their website according to departments and regions of Guatemala. The website devotes a lot of copy to connecting the stories of indigenous history to the end products, including an ethno-history of the designs and their connectivity with the lexicon of the region of origin.


The Benedetto bag from MARIA’s Nahualá, Sololá collection. It retails for $895.

For instance, products inspired by the textiles of Nahualá are introduced with the information that the zig-zags represent a snake or Kumat’z in the Quiche language. Such information supports Boer’s argument that her aim is to support the history of the textiles and the artisans.

“We want to showcase them around the world. We don’t treat the textiles as a souvenir. We use the term ‘artisanal couture.’ Guatemala is the biggest country with a textile heritage. Textiles empower women through fashion and design,” Boer said.

In this way the indigenous origins are honored, the stories preserved. MARIAS has 25 employees in her factory and works with over 500 people in the collectives where she purchases her textiles. She was unable to give information as to the wages of the weavers who work with her buyers.

Others see MARIAS as an example of the appropriation that is offensive to the indigenous. Just the name “María” is an epithet for indigenous women, according to Aspuac. It can be used in the street as an ethnic slur to reduce all indigenous women to the status of a servant or domestic maid.

“María” is also offensive because it is a colonial name used by the Spanish and reminds the indigenous of when they were forced to abandon their religion, customs and ethnic names. To refer to an indigenous woman as a “María” is to erase her heritage and reduce her to a servile status.

Scarf inspired by designs of the Nahualá, Sololá collection.

“I think it is important to understand that racism and discrimination is very prevalent here in Guatemala. For Ladino people who are racist, we don’t have a face; they do not see us in our spirituality. That is why they call us ‘Marías,’ which is synonymous to making all of us servants. We can also be professionals, attorneys.

The point is that indigenous women are not seen as attorneys, architects and engineers but rather like servants, especially when we wear our attire in the capital, at the university, in schools in institutes, the treatment we get is different to the one given to the woman wearing pants, a skirt or dress, it is different.”

Boer defends her use of the name María saying that it is a beautiful name meant to include all women, both the women who make the bags and those who enjoy them. It is her middle name and the name of a co-founder of her company.

“I wanted a name that represents the woman as a whole. Not just the woman who makes the bag, but the woman who uses the bag. For me it’s a very important name even though people judge it critically. For me it’s a very important name. I’m Catholic so it’s a very important name,” Boer said.

When asked if the name could be associated with racism she responded with conviction:
“Racism is a concept. Would I have called it Alida María, would it have made a difference?”

 


A luggage bag made with brown leather. It features a huipil from San Juan, Sacatepéquez
and a corte from Totonicapán as the inner lining.

“The women no longer knew how to weave,” recalled Angelina Aspuac, a 40-year-old community activist from Santiago, Sacatépequez. In the Mayan community, where the huipil and corte have been integral elements of culture, the observed loss of weaving became a call to arms. Much might be lost without their weaving.

“We saw a great problem that each day there were fewer and fewer weavers in the department of Sacatepéquez. 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,” Aspuac said.

Angelina Aspuac, spokeswoman for AFEDES (foto by Erick Aspuac)

Historically the Maya depended on weaving for subsistence. The autonomous production of clothing, along with food production, kept them warm, self-sufficient and independent of the Spanish power elite.

The regionally color-coded designs on women’s clothing were reminders of story, roots and identity.

At 32, Aspuac entered a weaving class sponsored by the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez (AFEDES) to learn the skills that most Kaqchikal girls had acquired beginning at age 7. This was in 2010 and many changes had already arrived to the Mayan world she inhabited.

“I don’t know if it had anything to do with being so close to the capital, something [had] happened. There was a rapid loss of the identity, of the language. Very few people spoke it and it was too mixed with the Spanish language, not to mention [the loss of] the art of weaving and use of our traditional clothing,” Aspuac said.

Before the beginning of this century weaving had been as basic to culture as tortillas were to diet, but many transitions happened after the peace accord of 1996. For one, many women were alone and desperate for income. Many had lost husbands through the thirty-year civil war targeting Mayan civilians and where over 200,000 were killed or disappeared.

Patricia Krause, who helped found the NGO MayaWorks, recalled the suffering of the women from that time period in an essay called “Interweaving Lives, A MayaWorks Backgrounder:”
“Among the thousands of tragic victims of the warfare were rural women, often widowed and severely impoverished, with the daunting burdens of feeding their children, cultivating crops, rebuilding homes and re-creating community,”

Women could rely on their weaving skills but they needed a link to markets. The weavers reached out to foreigners to sell their woven products and partnership NGOs were born.

“While I was in Chimaltenango late in 1990, Felipa [Xico] showed me the first stack of placemats and forthrightly asked me, ‘Can you help?’ The women can weave but they have no market,” Krause wrote.

Krause and fellow volunteers sold the placemats in the U.S. with the hope of opening a market for the weavers’ creations. According to Krause, these were not average placemats but were imbued with messages, imprinted with the story of the war and women of resilience and resourcefulness. As sales in the U.S. increased, additional weavers in Guatemala were employed, and the range of products broadened, leading to the incorporation of MayaWorks in 1996.

Trajes Tipicos’ examples of new styles of huipils and Cortes available

Many of the partnerships between weaving cooperatives and NGOs of today, such as Sharing the Dream and Mayan Hands, began this way. Over the next 20 years the tenets of Fair Trade, a social movement designed in the late ‘60s in Europe to support commercial growth in developing countries, began changing the face of rural women and girls. Fair Trade principles went beyond free trade market principles to stress community development, capacity building and, first and foremost, education. Along with paying an agreed upon wage, the profits can go toward schools and tutors for the children of the artisans.

“Fair Trade Federation rules mean we pay a fair wage. That the price is fixed, not just by us, but a wage they agree to as well. Money goes to support community projects. We work on training the artisans to build capacity so that they can sell not just cloth but [products] in other markets so that it can be sustainable,” said Lauren Vaske, the in-country director of Sharing the Dream.

Charly J. Elel Pichiyá, MayaWorks program administrator, says MayaWorks supplies tutors and scholarships to the daughters of the artisans. This is the “secret” to MayaWorks’ success.

“The girls of MayaWorks, the daughters of the artisans, have scholarships that start in kindergarten. They are very important for the transition between high school and college. The girls are the human resource of MW for the future,” Pichiyá said.

The nonprofit principles emphasizing girls’ scholarship bring the girls to scholarship and homework, a few steps removed from weaving. The factors of increased emphasis on education for girls, less time weaving, and more weaving devoted to producing artifacts other than huipils and cortes create less weavers, less traditional clothing production and disappearing traditions and culture.

The trend toward wearing less traje and weaving less is apparent to observers of Guatemalan culture. Kathryn Rousso, a Peace Corps volunteer from 1986 to 1989 in San José Nacahuil, an aldea of San Pedro Ayumpuc, recalled that when she first came to Guatemala everyone was a weaver.

“When I was first there it was like stepping into a National Geographic pictorial site. Everyone was back behind their houses weaving. When I went back to my Peace Corps site four years ago, there was only one person who was still weaving,” said Rousso, who in 2010 authored “Maguey Journey: Discovering Textiles in Guatemala” (University of Arizona Press).


Deborah Chandler (right), weaver advocate, and Doña
Catarina Amperez Siana. (photo by Julio Cardona)

Deborah Chandler, author of three books on weaving and a weaver’s advocate, put it in dramatic terms:

“What I see happening here is that the change is happening at lightning speed and we are doing it to ourselves. We want less domestic violence, we want less malnutrition, and the root out of all of it is we want education. We are doing everything we can to get girls to be able to go to school, and when they are doing their homework, they’re not weaving and so we are killing exactly what we are trying to save, all at the same time,” Chandler said.


“We are doing everything we can to get girls to be able to go to school, and when they are doing their homework, they’re not weaving.” —Deborah Chandler (photo by Julio Cardona)

Aspuac and the 1,500 members of AFEDES also saw the change and decided to act.
“Seeing this lack [of huipils and weaving] created a worry. The fact that there were fewer weavers and we did not know how to make our huipils. It is here where AFEDES created weaving schools,” Aspuac said.

AFEDES wants preservation of the traditions that link the Maya with their past and their system of beliefs. Their website tagline calls “the textiles the books the colony was not able to burn.” A Maya woman’s hand-woven huipil speaks for itself. Written in the shorthand of picto-graphics, like an ancient story blog, it tells a sacred tale of traditions, protectors and gods. The textiles carry the stories, the language and the events of the Mayan history. Yet they can be taken out of context, cut up 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.

Stefanie Richmond, owner and founder of
Kolt Handmade Design

“It is truly a work of art that encompasses the history of a people, and it is quite painful to see our huipils being made into shoes and other articles without our consent and without any economic benefits for those that produce them,” Aspuac said.

In the summer of 2016 AFEDES initiated a legal petition to have the designs and colors protected from theft and appropriation through copyright laws. “We cannot remain as women spectators as the world moves on and profits and appropriates our creations. That is the more serious issue, if companies can patent, in their name, textiles and works that belong to the people and towns [of Guatemala]. Our position is that the indigenous people, the creators of the textiles are the ones that should control, administer, and make decisions regarding our weavings, it is not the state,” Aspuac said. Passage of the law, called initiative number 524, reforms the law of rights of authorship and industrial property and names the indigenous people as “fourth author collectively.” The law has created circles of controversy with many speaking out against its passage.

NGOs are worried that passage of the law could add unnecessary overhead.

“If it is approved it would affect MayaWorks economically. It is causing doubt and confusion. Maybe the law is coming with good intentions but because of the doubt we don’t know how it will affect us in the future,” Pichiyá said.

Chandler believes in the spirit of the law but is against the terminology used. “But what worries me most, and most makes me want to keep as far away from all this as possible, is that in their letter of justification for why Congress should consider this proposed law, AFEDES (or whoever is taking responsibility) wrapped this proposal in a mantel of racism, claiming that, ‘Because colonial rationality tends to separate the weavers from their fabrics or the artists of their arts by the force of racism, it gives a lucrative value to the textiles and a degrading treatment to the weavers, thus provoking a rupture in the deep bond of women with their creations (translated by Google translator).” So, if I oppose the law I’m a racist? Sounds that way to me. As you might imagine, I don’t like that,” Chandler said in an email.


Backpack made of brown leather and huipil.

For-profit companies that use the textiles are less worried about the law. Alida Boer, the founder and owner of MARIAS, a handbag company that commissions original textile designs for pocketbooks and purses, says that the law will backfire on the artisans.

“The women [artisans] we work with are kind of against what the others are doing because they don’t understand why they would do something that would stop the economy. As a brand, we will keep innovating. It won’t affect us. Yes, we love the women, we work with textiles but we can go from using textiles to using another type of thing,” Boer said.

Many new, young artisans are making art with the loosening of boundaries around the textiles. Many, whether Maya or not, are using the rich textile history of Guatemala in combination with new materials and modern designs, creating a product that integrates both cultures. Kolt Handmade, a La Antigua Guatemala company founded by Stefanie Richmond, is an example of this weaving together.

“I’m Guatemalan. I need to represent my culture because it’s so rich. If I can do that with this tiny bag, it was a no-brainer at that point for me to do that.” Richmond said.

As a native Guatemalan, Richmond said that the history she learned in school did not reflect accurately on the truth of the Spanish conquest of the Maya. “They teach you that [the Spanish] came over here, so it’s like the Spanish are the best, and the Spanish just came and the Mayan were uncivilized and the Spanish put clothes on them,” said Richmond.

And yet the struggle continues over who can claim ownership of what colors, threads and shapes. Aspuac says the María’s of Guatemala, the indigenous women who are called María as an epithet as a way to make them into servants, will fight for the right to have their heritage and artistry protected.

“The term María is a pejorative for indigenous women because it is like not having a face, it is synonymous with ignorant, dirty, illiterate, and a lot of other names that are an offense to us. We got organized and some lawyers supported us and we went to the magistrates of the Constitutional Court to present this problem. It will probably reach the republic’s Congress so that a law that protects our creations can be enacted, that protects our intellectual right,” Aspuac said.

“People have been ripping them off over years and years. It should be copyrighted,” said Rousso.

But for Richmond and Boer there is no conflict. As long as the artistry of the huipil is available they will use it to make products that cross cultures. For Richmond this is part of being an entrepreneur in Guatemala.

“I come from Guatemala, a beautiful country, where you hustle,” Richmond said.