Crafts in the Guatemalan Highlands

by | Dec 20, 2002

Braiding bracelets. Photo by Jennifer Burtner.

​Tourists often seek handicrafts as a reflection of genuineness of the culture they are visiting. These products are more than souvenirs; they are complex reflections of multiple cultures, a microcosm of the hybridity, identity and economic exchange systems of the societies in which they are produced, marketed and consumed.

During the 1960s and 70s, indigenous women weavers from San Juan La Laguna, Sololá (Guatemalan central highlands) began crossing Lake Atitlán to the tourist community of Panajachel, becoming marketers for the community’s surplus production. This integration into the international tourism market has generated tremendous social, economic, cultural, and aesthetic changes. As regional tourism and foreign demand for indigenous handmade goods grew, division of labor increased and the production teams of mothers, daughters, and grandmothers expanded to incorporate religious and fictive kin relations. Within a generation, a full-scale cottage industry emerged with differentiations between marketers and weavers, marked by language skills, access to primary capital, family membership, age, and the ability and willingness to travel. By the late 1980s, weaving for international consumers was commonplace, with more than half of all indigenous women living in Guatemala’s western highlands producing textiles for tourist or export markets.

Tourists and exporters influence the goods produced through what they buy and order. However, many stylistic creations are not the work solely of foreign designers, but the result of inter-cultural cycles of innovation and adaptation. These feedback systems have produced many hybrid forms, such as the huipil Juaneras (women from San Juan) created specifically for foreigners. Unlike the earlier huipiles (embroidered blouses) that identified the wearer’s home community (as well as their age, gender and economic status), this hybrid “no pertenece a ningún pueblo” (doesn’t belong to any town/people). An integration of stylistic elements from different towns (hand-woven lienzos copied from Zunil; embroidery modeled after the cofradí­a sobrehuipiles from Sololá), these pieces try to appeal to foreigners’ cultural beliefs, aesthetic preferences, and wallets. “All natural” 100% cotton fibers and dyes replace the synthetic colorfast yarn used by contemporary indigenous peoples. Muted earth tones and pastels replace the region’s bright reds. Simpler patterns and looser weaves requiring less time and materials lower costs. One local account has it that the huipil was created when a merchant “Juanera” who traveled throughout the country during the 1950s and 60s purchasing antigüedades for foreign exporters, presented her design to her foreign patrona. The patrona liked it, made modifications, and began exporting. It was copied by distributors in Panajachel and Antigua until the late 1980s when the market became saturated and prices began to drop.

As international market tastes turned towards more “authentic” goods in the early 1990s and tourists made increasing offers to buy the huipils displayed not on the rack but on the marketers’ backs, Juaneras decided to begin selling their own huipils. At first they sold the few older pieces they still owned, then those made for special occasions but rarely worn. By 1991, rows of red San Juan huipils lined the racks of the roadside marketing stalls in Panajachel and young Juanera donned the cheaper surplus/seconds hybrids their mothers had woven for tourists and exporters, but were unable to sell.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2

Jennifer Burtner is the Brazilian Studies Coordinator at DRCLAS. From 1988-1994 she worked in Guatemala with international, national and regional development initiatives, studying the relationship between planning institutions and beneficiary communities.

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