Guatemala 2013 trip diary: MayaWorks


By Lauren McCarthy
Minneapolis, MN

We started our tour of five visits to featured organizations at MayaWorks, spending the better part of Thursday and Friday there. MayaWorks uses traditional Mayan weaving techniques to create products for an American market, such as luggage tags and yoga bags. Jeannie Balanda is the director of MayaWorks and accompanied us both days to introduce the women, give background, and translate. We had the wonderful opportunity to meet with several groups of women weavers and seamstresses, as well as some of their students.

On Thursday, we left Guatemala City for Comalapa, which is in the Chimaltenango district and much more rural. We began with a presentation from Silvia Chuy, a weaver and seamstress with the San Tzuyo group. She showed us a lengthy mural in Comalapa that details Mayan cosmology as well as the history of Comalapa, including the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996 and the work to reconcile the country since.

We then went to the home of a leader of one of the weaving groups, Lila, where we met Natalia, who founded the San Tzuyo group and Rosa Salazar, who sews the baby bibs. The women told us that it takes two months on average to weave a huipil, which is the traditional garment that Maya women wear as a shirt. (Erica Crawford, left, models a huipil). We saw many examples of these on Wednesday at the Museo Ixchel, so it was wonderful to learn more about it firsthand. Another MayaWorks group was at Lila´s house, the Chixot group, which featured a pair of sisters (Teresa and Angela) as well as Maria, Miriam, Rosa, and Firelina.

The women kindly allowed us to practice the traditional backstrap weaving technique and then enthusiastically sold many items to us! Our DFW travel group is happy to help support their economic interests and bring some truly original art back home.

Following our visit to Lila’s home, we ate lunch at the home of another MayaWorks woman, Brenda. Brenda´s mom made us a traditional Guatemalan soup with squash, potatoes, corn, and chicken. We then went to the after school tutoring program sponsored by MayaWorks at the Rosa Moya educational center. Daughters of MayaWorks artisans can receive tutoring and scholarships from the organization to help with school costs. We met nine lovely young ladies, who ranged from second grade through high school. They did a presentation for us and then sang and danced with us, including the hoky poky! Women from our group loved getting to interact with these girls. The girls were a little shy but did ask us some questions, such as how many children we have, our ages (reluctantly surrendered), and our professions.

Late Thursday, we made our way to Tecpan, where we stayed for the night at a very quirky but very cool hotel, the Albergues de Tecpan. Most of us were startled in the small hours of the night (at 4 a.m.) as fireworks went off, as the town was celebrating the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. We´ll know to use earplugs on Friday night, as the feast continues today!

On Friday morning we went to Iximche, which is a site of Mayan ruins from the postclassical period. Those going to Tikal will see an even more magnificent example from the classic period of the Maya. Our guide from Four Directions, Julio Tott, was incredibly helpful in explaining and helping us participate in a lengthy and moving Mayan ceremony with two spiritual guides, Ernestina and Marco Antonio.

The major themes of the ceremony were the eternal duality of the universe, such as feminine/masculine, darkness/light, good/evil, the four directions (hence the name of the tour company!), and the elements of the universe (air, wind, water, fire, earth). We had the opportunity to help place items on the circular altar, including flowers and candles, and we were able to make petitions for ourselves or loved ones. Everyone seemed to enjoy the ceremony immensely. We also made offerings to all 20 of the Mayan energies, or nawales.

After our ceremony, we went to the Escuela Xetonox, which also has students who receive scholarships and tutoring as daughters of MayaWorks artisans. We met the school principal and learned about the hardships of Guatemalan schools (few resources, small amounts of money to feed students, half day schedules because of space issues) and also met a handful of students, including three daughters and a son of one of the MayaWorks artisans. Jeannie and Brenda from MayaWorks again accompanied us.

We went to lunch at the home of Vicenta Ceped, who is in one of MayaWorks’ smallest groups. Her daughter Marcela encouraged her mother and a few other women to become weavers, seamstresses, and artisans for MayaWorks and related how they at first struggled to make corn husk angels as Christmas decorations, but with time and perseverance soon were selling hundreds or thousands each year. The women say that thanks to the proceeds from their sales, they have what they need and can provide for their children.

Being able to have these encounters with women in their homes and to purchase directly from them is very meaningful for us. It´s the kind of experience that we otherwise would not be able to have, so we are grateful for the access provided by MayaWorks, Four Directions, and of course Dining for Women. Kira Walker and her trusty assistant leader Cristina Ramey, both of the Atlanta Chapter, are doing a great job of corralling us and helping us make the most of our time in Guatemala!