Part 1: Hiptipico and the Protection of Maya Textiles

This is a follow up blog to the previous informative article on Intellectual Property for Maya Weavers in Guatemala.

Part 1: Domestic Exploitation

To summarize, Guatemala is world-famous for its intricate embroideries and traditional textiles. The weavings are a cultural art and have been passed down from generation to generation as part of a long history of tradition. Maya weavings include cultural significance and are 100% unique to each female weaver. These pieces are of such cultural and historical significance that they can be found in museums throughout the world. 

A huipil is an embroidered Maya blouse that is crafted on a traditional back-strap loom. It is woven by a single female and holds details and symbols that date back centuries, taking up to 4 months to create a single piece. 

Recently, the National Movement of Maya Weavers is fighting to safeguard their textile creations and creative outlet of their Maya philosophy. In 2017, the weavers introduced a new bill in Congress to have their collective intellectual property rights recognized under Guatemalan law.

These communities are declaring textile property according to their own collective institutions, ancestral norms and indigenous justice. According to Juan Castro, one of the lawyers supporting the Maya Weavers Movement, this struggle is more than a legal battle. It is an act of resistance in support of indigenous autonomy.

The Guatemalan state has a long history of discrimination and abuse towards indigenous communities. INGUAT, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism uses the Maya culture to promote tourism, but it does not support indigenous weavers to reach any new commercial markets. Indigenous portraits are the face of international marketing campaigns and textiles are screen-printed for commercial use. However, remote Maya communities do not reap any benefits from Guatemala's tourism and remain stuck in the cycle of poverty.

Guatemalas tourism is centralized to a few main areas. Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Tikal and Semuc Champey  These "hot spots" are promoted and are easily accessibly by tourists. Meaning, there is road access, hotels and shuttle companies servicing these areas daily. 

Guatemala's western highlands, stretches from the outskirts of Antigua and includes Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango. This area is predominately indigenous and encompasses hundreds of Maya villages and numerous dialects. Here in Guatemala, there is no job creation. Especially for people from these areas. These are smart and capable people who want to work. They don’t need handouts. They don’t need anything but an opportunity. They need jobs. And the government does nothing to support that. Communities may be plagued with poverty but women in these areas are expert weavers. They begin weaving at the age of 9 and perfect their craft over many years. With the knowledge of tourism, many women began joining together to form informal groups to weave more commercial items such as scarves, travel pouches and table runners.

They have high hopes of traveling out of their community to reach tourist markets. However, these remote communities are isolated that traveling from these villages to reach touristy areas is far, expensive and demanding. 

For one, people from these small villages don’t even have running water in their home. Therefor they have to pay a private company to have access to tap water. [Which isn’t even potable.] Just so they can shower, clean their house, maintain some sense of hygiene. But, there is NO public transportation out of their village to the main road. Meaning even if they showered and got in their clean clothes. They have to walk a dirt path for upwards of 30 mins up to the public buses. So even if they decided to go to the tourist markets to sell their goods. They would probably arrive late, hot, sweaty, dirty and hungry.

These are the obstacles that people in rural areas of Guatemala face. And these are public services that the government should be providing to ALL: water, public transportation, dignified job opportunities, safety ... and it is not.

(INGUAT director promoting new airline partnership using Maya decor)

Upon reaching an area like Panajachel, Lake Atitlan or Antigua, the artisans are forced to street peddle as renting a stand or store is not even close to being an option. With heavy competition and long journey home, weavers are forced to sell their works of art for basically nothing just to cover their cost of transportation for the day. Many times their goods are sold to another Guatemalan, even indigenous person - one that is able to afford a permanent shop.

The government even attempts to regulate street vendors, requiring them to register with the town hall and pay a monthly fee to sell in the streets. Street vendors are required to wear an official identification card that proves they've paid their dues. This was put into place to keep the multitudes of sellers from pestering tourists. Again, instead of helping weavers reach tourists or new markets, the government has put in roadblocks to prevent them from making any connections. 

The heavy competition comes in the form of other weavers selling similar designs, but also in the form of imported junk from China. Tourists can't always tell the difference between a hand-beaded necklace and one made in China. Or a computer printed blouse that looks Maya but is actually factory made. Guatemala's import regime is fairly liberal, allowing cheap items to cross the border from Mexico and make their way over from China. This hurts the artisan market as similar looking designs are offered at half the price.

To take it a step further, factories in Guatemala have begun mass-producing huipiles using computer technology. Meaning, Guatemalan companies are straight copying indigenous designs and recreating them with machines. These blouses look identical to the naked eye, but have never been touched by a weaver. This is just another modern day cultural genocide of the Maya communities by their own people. 

coming soon . . . Part 2: International Exploitation

cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation


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