Mayan Hands is an organization that promotes the social, economic and historical importance of weaving among Mayan communities in the highlands of Guatemala. Mostly, it is the women in these communities who take up the art of weaving at a very young age; in fact, weaving is synonymous with a birth-rite for many Mayan girls and is considered an essential part of community life. Mayan weaving is known for a refined and unique style called back-strap weaving. Having the students watch the Mayan Hands’ back-strap weaving videos is an amazing opportunity to use media on the web to bring a far-away cultural reality into the classroom.
After watching the videos, students should try and answer the following questions, as well as any others they might formulate or be inspired to ask. How does weaving act as a tool for organization among women? In what ways do the videos portray the Mayan art of weaving (ancient or modern; technical or basic)? How does Mayan back-strap weaving relate to tourism and to ourselves as consumers here in the north? As the students begin formulating ideas about Mayan women and the art of weaving, here is some important background information.
Ixchel (Eesh-chell) was the goddess of the moon, of water, of childbirth and of weaving. As one of the most important and sacred figures in Mayan religion and mythology, we can see how the art and practice of weaving is equal in life-importance to such essential elements as the moon, water and the birth of a new life itself.
The art of weaving, traditionally practiced in the form of back-strap weaving, is also important for the Mayan people in modern history. Since the arrival of Europeans, women have used the loom as a place to weave images and symbols into textile patterns that tell stories. Through weaving, and in the face of intense colonial programs to convert all of the indigenous inhabitants to Catholicism, the Mayan women weavers preserve and enhance the history and the worldview that had been expressed for the last three thousand years or more.
In recent times, weaving has also provided Mayan women and villagers with an important part of their local economy. Weaving occupies an important part of the apparel, garment and textile sectors of local production and consumption, and also serves as an incredibly popular item for tourists interested in artisan and craft cultural products. The uniqueness of the textile patterns also serve as an ambassador of their town of origin wherever they go.
Finally, in addition to ancient religion-mythology, cultural and social continuity, and economic function, weaving is a powerful tool of resistance. Throughout the past five centuries since the arrival of Spanish troops and missionaries, right up until today, the Mayan people of the Guatemalan highlands have faced continuous efforts to eradicate their culture, language and cosmological worldviews. During the second half of the twentieth century, a brutal civil war broke out and the indigenous communities were subjected to unimaginable horrors. Creating alternative ways of resisting the powerful government and military has been an essential way in which indigenous people, particularly women, acquire and wield political and social agency. Here is a passage about the importance of weaving from the testimony of Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche Mayan writer and social leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is important to note that Rigoberta says for her people, testimony is not simply an autobiography, it is the story of her people:
As a rule, we girls don’t play, because our mothers find it hard to let a girl go off and play on her own. Girls have to learn to look after things in the home, they must learn all the little things their mothers do. Mothers never sit around at home with nothing to do. They’re always busy. If they haven’t any specific job to do, they’ve always got their weaving… So our games are mostly weaving or things like that, but at least we can do it together. There’s a place in the fields which is so wonderful and pretty and shady that all the girls get together – seven or eight of us – and sit under the trees and hang up our weaving. We talk and weave. It’s how we enjoy ourselves with our friends.
Image: “Woman using backstrap loom” taken from Wikimedia Commons user PKM.