Drive northwest from Cobán in the Altaverapaz region of Guatemala, up impossibly steep and winding roads, through stands of coffee and banana trees and lush semi-tropical foliage. Pass the agricultural cooperative community of Samac, and keep going up. Eventually you come to a wide spot in the road with a narrow path leading downward to the home of backstrap weaver Amalia Güe and her family.
Amalia is a soft-spoken, gracious Q’eqchi’ Maya woman with a first-grade education, five children, and traditional backstrap weaving and embroidery skills learned from her mother and grandmother. What’s not obvious is that she has travelled internationally (to the Santa Fe Folk Art Market) and that she heads a weaving cooperative of some 60 members who produce gauzy brocaded scarves, shawls, and huipils in a technique that dates back thousands of years.
The day I visited, two of Amalia’s daughters and another young woman in the cooperative were at work on their long, delicate warps. Their workspace is in the same low, open room where the family gathers together and sleeps; the light is dim, the earthen floor eroded by time. Yet they work with immaculate precision, picking up threads with a picb’il made from polished cattle bone, laying in threefold pattern wefts on the fine warps. Some patterns, such as the eight-pointed star, are ancient and surrounded with myths and legends. Others have a contemporary flair that’s appropriate for the high-end boutiques where they are sold.
Many of the members of Amalia’s cooperative are young (although the oldest member is 80), and the work they are able to market collectively helps them to sustain a traditional lifestyle. Amalia speaks calmly of the hopes and challenges of a Maya weaver today as her youngest son, Francis (born unexpectedly during the Santa Fe Folk Art Market last year), clamors for his mother, two of her daughters make fresh tortillas and beans for our lunch, her youngest daughter arrives home from school, and other family members, neighbors, and a random chicken wander through. She is generous with information and insights, which will become part of a book being written by Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón on traditional textile workers of Guatemala.
Meanwhile, there are orders to fill, inventory to reconcile, bookkeeping chores, all the administrative work required of an extensive coöp scattered through the surrounding mountains. Amalia’s mother and grandmother both died within the past year, so the responsibility of being the family matriarch has fallen to her as well. It’s a heavy load, but she is a strong woman, and the weaving goes on.
ClothRoads hails all women and mothers of the world in celebration of Mother’s Day. By supporting the women artisans, you help sustain these rich traditions. Share it on.