Myth has it that Our Grandmother the Moon, the goddess Ixchel, taught the first woman how to weave at the beginning of time. Since then, Maya mothers have taught their daughters, from generation to generation uninterruptedly for three thousand years, how to wrap themselves around the loom and produce exquisite cloth. In addition to its important religious and social aspects, historically weaving has been central to indigenous women’s economic contribution to their households.
Well then, little girl,
This will be your hand
This will be your foot
Here is your work
With this, you’ll look for your food,
Don’t take the evil path,
When you grow up
Only with these will you work
With your hand
With your foot
For five centuries, Mayan women have transmitted through weaving esoteric designs that encoded the Mayan vision of the world. In this manner, the work of weavers was essential for the survival of important elements of ancient culture. Hidden between the warp and weft, these escaped the fate of indigenous books that were burnt by Spanish priests and authorities. (For more information on the continuity of weaving designs see Walter Morris, Living Maya, 1988)
There is no question that weavers also integrated elements from other cultures in their textiles. Through the centuries, Mayan people have been compelled to incorporate elements from other cultures. However, with the passage of time, these foreign elements become “mayanized,” i.e., reinterpreted within their own cultural context, and their ties to Mayan symbols and associations give life to new Mayan syntheses.
Women continue to weave their own and their family’s clothes. A woman shows her respect for her community by following its esthetic rules, selecting designs, colors and styles, in addition to following its more general cultural and social norms. Paula Nicho Comez, a painter from San Juan Comalapa, expresses dramatically the profound identity of a Mayan woman with her “huipil” (native blouse, specific to the village where the woman comes from). In one of her paintings, she shows a woman bearing the designs of her town’s huipil directly on her skin. The huipil is for us, she says, like a second skin (documentary Between Light and Shadow: Mayan Women in Transition).
The Aztecs, for whom we have good information, considered weaving as the women’s work par excellance. To fail in weaving was equivalent to be a failure as a woman. Gender identity wasn’t based on intrinsic physical qualities, such as genitals or secondary sexual characteristics. It was based on dress and the instruments of work. Thus, the Aztecs represented a goddess with a loincloth and cape (male dress) to express the masculine nature of her behavior. At death, Aztec women were buried with their weaving instruments. Why were spinning and weaving central in defining womanhood? The most important reason is found in the economic contribution of weaving. Weaving provided, for both Aztec women and contemporary Mayan women, their most important link to the larger economy. Tribute was paid in cloth and it was also a common market currency. The more cloth a weaver produced, the more her household prospered.
Currently Mayan women continue to weave, in addition to their own and their family’s clothes, to obtain a much needed income. Through fair trade, Mayan Hands supports them in their quest to provide for their families, at the same time that they keep their cherished Mayan culture alive and develop their communities.
*Based on the essay “Mayan Women, Weaving and Ethnic Identity: a Historical Essay” by Brenda P. Rosenbaum, in Mayan Clothing and Weaving Through the Ages, pp 157-169. Guatemala: Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena, 1999. The Symbolic Associations topic refers specifically to data collected from Mayan women in the Tzotzil town of San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas, Mexico.