On the Plight of Mayan Women and their Textiles


Sandra Xinico BatzSandra Xinico Batz is an anthropologist and a leader of the National Weavers’ Movement in Guatemala. In this thought-provoking article published in the daily La Hora, Xinico Batz explains why the situation of Mayan women is precarious and self-perpetuating and why their efforts to gain control over their textiles have met withstrong resistance. The central aspect of her argument is that while the Guatemalan State uses the image of Mayan women and their textiles internationally to attract tourists and businesses, the women receive no respect or support or any kind of protection for their creations. Furthermore, because they are desperately poor, they end up selling their products at prices that keep them trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Mayan Hands has partnered with Mayan weavers for more than 25 years. Fair trade has enabled dramatic changes in their lives during this time. Selling their handcrafted goods at fair prices and earning a consistent income, the women are lifting their families out of poverty, sending all their daughters and sons to school, and gaining control over their lives. They have become self-assured and express themselves openly. We share the National Weavers’ Movement vision of the day when Mayan women will be respected and given their rightful place in Guatemalan society; the day when their exquisite handwork will provide them with the means for supporting their families and continue living with dignity within the culture they cherish. 

Mayan Hands backstrap weaver

Collective intellectual property of indigenous communities

by Sandra Xinico Batz

La Hora, March 3 2018

Racism in Guatemala hits Mayan women the hardest because Guatemala has other pervasive structures of inequality including male dominance and class prejudice. Together, these three destructive biases mean that being born a poor indigenous woman locates us at the lowest status in this society.

Ironically, while in our country we are excluded in many different ways and discriminated against as Mayan women, Guatemala makes a show internationally of being “the heart of the Mayan world.” This is the brand used by the Guatemalan state through INGUAT (Guatemalan Institute of Tourism) to promote throughout the world “the cultural and natural riches of the country.”

We Mayan women are the image of that Guatemala in other countries, but in our everyday lives we are harassed and discriminated for living our cultures and maintaining them. On the one hand, they promote Mayan culture, and on the other, they rob and destroy our communities which are the source of meaning of our clothes and textiles. It is the State and national and international businesses that profit from the sale of our clothes and textiles—not the weavers or their communities.

To create and wear our indigenous clothes has become an act of cultural resistance in this globalized world where everything has a price because everything can be sold. This world’s tendency is towards cultural homogenization or, in its extreme conceptualization, a multicultural liberalism in which cultural differences are “accepted” as long as they do not pose a challenge to the status quo.

It is because of all this that the public challenge to this reality and demonstrations by indigenous women against the use and exploitation of our image and our cultures has been received negatively by Guatemalan society. The reactions against our protests have been violent. People do not understand why we cannot agree with our textiles becoming folklore and with the appropriation of what we create and belongs to us--our indigenous clothes and our textiles.

Guatemalan society justifies the inappropriate ways in which they use our textiles and the stealing of these saying that indigenous people are not their authentic owners, that our clothes were an imposition of the Spanish colonizers. There is material evidence, however, to the contrary, that shows that people in Mesoamerica were using clothes like these before the Spanish invasion. This is ignored because recognizing the reality that indigenous textiles are the cultural heritage of Mayan people, breaks with the vision that the Guatemalan State proclaims. According to it, these are the patrimony of the entire nation - even though the State does nothing to protect it and the “nation” knows nothing about the history of indigenous clothes or it plainly rejects them.

Arguing that the textiles belong to all of Guatemalans, they cover up the blatant stealing by businesses that do not respect or consult with the communities about what they do with our clothes. This is the logic of plunder whereby they impoverish and exclude indigenous people and take away their rights as legitimate owners of their creations and their culture, to manage and control their patrimony.

They deny our right to make decisions about the use of our own culture and our image.

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