I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.
I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.
Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.
Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.
While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.
It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.
Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.
Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.
Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.
Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.
After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.
At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.
Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.
I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
Read more about my journeys in Guatemala: