More Precious Than Gold

A travel article with a textile theme
by Jamie Marshall

It always comes as a shock to meet a traveller who, in the midst of a brief foray around Guatemala, fails to wish they were staying longer. From the dizzy heights of some of the grandest volcanic peaks on the continent, to the humidity of the archaeologically rich jungles of the Petén, there is enough to keep even the most world-weary traveller on cloud nine for weeks. Vibrant highland markets and fiestas, colonial architecture, ancient Maya pyramids, and dazzling textile traditions are all packed into a nation thats surprisingly small.
Even experienced photographers are left gasping between frames. In ones viewfinder are Maya women in brilliant costumes with babies slung around their backs en route to church; grandmothers dragging reluctant pigs to market; solitary figures in canoes slicing their way through mists at dawn; weather-beaten faces peering through the shutters of adobe walled homes; and children as carefree as they are shoeless.
It makes sense to skip the congested sprawl of the capital and head straight to Antigua, less than an hour from Guatemala City, to acclimatise to the altitude before heading on into the highlands. The volcanoes of Acatenango, Agua and Fuego loom over Antigua like sentinels, imposing reminders of both past events and future fate. Antigua was for over two hundred years the Spanish seat of government for a vast swathe of Middle America until, in 1773, a devastating earthquake left her in tatters. The ruins bear testament to the determination of the colonisers and the futility of their grand efforts. The sheer concentration of cobblestone plazas, stone fountains, colour-washed arches, churches, convents and palaces make it one of the most beautiful cities in the Americas and a place spared over-commercialisation thanks to its World Heritage status.
Winding steeply down from the altiplano through the colourful market town of Sololá offers a glimpse of the clear, deep-blue waters of Lake Atitlán, unquestionably one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. This gigantic water-filled caldera is surrounded by volcanic peaks and more than a dozen traditional Maya settlements. The Kaqchikel Maya town of Panajachel, its bustling main street lined with stall upon stall of multicoloured souvenirs and locally woven fabrics, is the perfect place from which to launch trips.
Guatemalan Maya costume tends to be community specific, with weavers drawing upon an established repertoire of local designs and colour combinations. Like many of the hundred or so highland communities in Guatemala that maintain a distinct style of tribal dress, each of these lakeside communities exhibits an idiosyncratic costume that ties a person to their respective home. A womans hometown can be determined so accurately from the individual nature of her blouse, stripe sequence of her skirt, or simply the way her hair ribbon is tied, that the Guatemalan army were instructed in costume styles during the civil war, in an attempt to combat insurgency. In recent decades these distinctions have become less pronounced as fashion conscious young women have adopted the designs and colours of other communities, or have innovated to such an extent that their dress no longer conforms to previously established village styles. Some communities on Lake Atitlán have shifted entirely from the multicoloured schemes popular in the 1970s and 80s, to a completely different palette, currently based on blues, purples and greens.
An hour across the Lake by ferry from Panajachel, the Tzutujil Maya community of Santiago Atitlán is hemmed in by the peaks of San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán volcanoes, and is one of the few communities in Guatemala where both women and men continue to wear town-specific dress. The native style is striking and somewhat unusual. Most garments are hand-woven by women on a hip-strap loom of a type that has been in use in Mesoamerica for millennia. Hip-strap loom woven items include the womans blouse generally called a huipil - rectangular shawls and multipurpose utility cloths called zutes. In addition to garments woven on the hip-strap loom, the wrap-around skirt & womans headdress are woven on floor-standing treadle looms. The four harness European foot loom was introduced to Guatemala by the Spaniards in the 17th century to increase textile production in the colony, and a number of weaving communities have specialised in its use for generations. These skirt weavers export various styles of fabric to Maya communities nationwide via a network of village markets and itinerant traders. In Santiago Atitlán, however, this type of treadle loom wasnt adopted locally until the middle of the last century: by its close there were merely fifteen or so looms in the village.
The general form and construction of Maya womens costume has remained fairly consistent over centuries but stylistic change has accelerated in recent decades. Fashion is a driving force amongst the young who are keen to state their individuality in an era where conservative traditionalism no longer holds sway.
Around 1900, Santiago Atitlán costume was relatively simple and had little in the way of decoration, but over the past century costume has become more elaborate. The explosion in the use of synthetic fibres and chemical colorants fuelled this revolution. In the 19th century Guatemala was the world's primary source of cochineal, and historical Maya textiles particularly silk and wool show its widespread use. Another fabled dye, murex or shellfish purple, was highly prized, especially for ceremonial garments, but has been out of use for at least half a century as cheaper equivalents took precedence. With the gathering momentum of the chemical dye industry synthetic alternatives became the norm and dyestuff plantations gave way to the richer pickings of coffee.
Although little seen today, the womans headdress consists of a ten to twenty metre tapestry ribbon of predominantly red or orange fabric wound around the head like an oversized halo. It is the most distinctive element of Santiago dress featured on the 25 cent coin and recognised throughout Guatemala. Today it is seldom worn for everyday use and is instead reserved for special occasions. Sometimes children purposefully don the headdress in the hope that a tourist will photograph them in exchange for a small reward. An interesting historical parallel is found in headwear depicted on seventh century AD ceramic figurines from the ancient Maya site of Copan. The small foot-loom used to weave the hair ribbon has weathered the decline in headdress popularity as the same tapestry techniques are today used to create colourful purses, wallets and stoles for the tourist trade and export. Santiago is one of the few communities in Guatemala where men continue to wear a traditional costume on a daily basis, although in many cases it is increasingly confined to older men. Elsewhere traditional costume has either been abandoned or is reserved for ceremonial use. The sash is often the last item of traditional costume to slip out of use.
Whereas the ancient Maya nobility had a repertoire of clothing that included short skirts, capes and tunics, archaeological research indicates that the most common male garment was a loincloth consisting of a long narrow sash arranged around the body so that its ends hung loose in front. Maya men readily adopted styles of clothing from their colonial rulers, and today the westernisation of clothing is continuing, especially amongst the youth, who prefer western shirts over those worn by their fathers and grandfathers. T-shirts and baseball caps, readily available at market and from stores plying recycled North American clothing, are popular and invariably display the logo of an American sports team.
Even though neighbouring San Pedro La Laguna is more popular as a base, Santiago is far less touristy once the last boat has returned to Panajachel, and offers a good alternative place to get a flavour for traditional lakeside life. The main draw for most of the day-trippers to Santiago is to visit the esoteric cult idol of Maximón. Mysterious and highly revered, Maximn is housed by the cofradía of Santa Cruz, one of the local religious fraternities, and survives on a steady flow of monetary donations, candles, alcohol and cigars from visiting supplicants who require blessings and favours in return. Local kids willingly act as guides for the usual incentives. In the 1950s the Bishop of Sololá took exception to the role that Maximón has in Santiago's vibrant Easter celebrations and attempted to rid the town of such blatant pagan idolatry. The people successfully prevented this by marching on the capital and securing the support of the President.
Before the Conquest Santiago was the capital of the Tzutujil nation. Across the bay on the lower slopes of San Pedro lie an ancient ceremonial centre and fortress. Although few traces of pre-Columbian structures remain, the cornfields around Cerro Chuitinamit are littered with ceramic shards and fragments of Maya pottery. Legend has it that in anticipation of the Spanish canoe-borne assault, the town treasures were hidden here. On a moonlit night a gap can be seen between boulders on the site. From the narrow opening there rushes forth a sweet, cool fresh flow of air from deep inside the volcano: Nostrils twitch in heady anticipation. Is this the entrance to the Maya underworld, or the hiding place of Maya Gold? Only a small child could possibly squeeze through the gap but the prospect remains that treasures may lie beneath. The riches of Lake Atitlán lie not solely in its waters and spectacular setting. The true magic lies in the people and their communities, their rich textiles and wondrous legends.

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Text & Photographs © Jamie Marshall
(First Published in Selvedge Magazine July/August 2005)


© Jamie Marshall 2006