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Monday, 25 September, 2000, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
A Mayan revival
Mayan women: children and chickens at their feet
By Rosie Goldsmith in Guatemala

On market days all roads lead to Chichicastenango. From early in the morning there are traffic jams of rickety painted buses with old suitcases and bundles of cloth weighing down the roof rack.

The buses splutter and amble up winding mountain roads, past smouldering volcanoes and cut deep into dark valleys. And then there's Chichicastenango, strung out like a white stucco thread along the crest of a mountain.

I couldn't hear the market but I saw it - an explosion of colour. Nearly everything in Guatemala is strangely subdued.

Breaking the silence

The market: a canopy of textiles in every colour and design
As our driver explains, after a history of suffering, it's hard to break the habit of silence.

First the Mayans suffered Spanish colonial cruelty and then it was the civil war between the military regime and the left-wing guerrillas.

He rattles off the figures which are now on everybody's lips: "Nearly a quarter of a million people dead, one million displaced - most of them Mayans."

I walk through the market under a canopy of textiles in every colour and design. And tucked away in corners of their stalls, with their children and chickens at their feet, are the Mayan matrons dressed in their rainbow cloth.

There are the cortas or skirts with a faja or belt to hold it up, then the huipiles or blouse with a hole for the head and heavily decorated with embroidery. Thrilling pinks and butter yellows, lush greens and azure blues.

Elvira, a young Mayan woman attaches herself to me, and we speak in French - which she is studying because she likes the sound of it - not because she has aspirations in the outside world. Like most Mayans she is passionately attached to her village.

Reading the cloth

Weaving and slaughtering chickens are as important as learning French, especially if I want to get a man one day!

Elvira explains that each village has its own method of weaving and its own designs and colours - so the variety is dazzling.

"You have to read the cloth, like reading a book," she tells me.

"Look at that woman over there," she points. "You can tell she's from the shores of Lake Atitlan".

The woman's blouse is a purple-striped white cloth embroidered with flamboyant images of birds, animals and flowers.

Elvira's mother, who is sitting in the shade of her stall, is weaving on a small hand loom. She has made Elvira's huipile of bright greens and purples - two months of patient labour. And she's taught Elvira.

"All my friends weave!" Elvira laughs. She's also the first person in her family to go to university.

"Weaving and slaughtering chickens are as important as learning French, especially if I want to get a man one day!"

Elvira's father was murdered by the military in the early 80s and her mother has brought up four children by herself.

She proudly shows me a photo, not of her father but of Rigoberta Menchu.

"She always wears Mayan clothes." I recognize the smiling face and blazing red cloth of Guatemala's Nobel peace prize winner.

Rigoberta Menchu draws attention to the plight of the Mayans by travelling the world in her native dress.

Defiance and identity

museum piece
There are the cortas or skirts and the huipiles or blouse with a hole for the head
Guatemala's new democracy has at last granted them equal rights with the ruling Latinos, and their languages and customs are thriving. Wearing their own clothes is part of their defiance and identity.

Elvira's on a roll now, keen to practise her French and educate me in textile anthropology.

"All the patterns on my blouse - these plants and animals - are linked to our love of nature. Mayans are very spiritual people."

Their spiritual leader is the shaman or priest and Elvira visits her local priest most weeks - sometimes just to help get rid of a headache.

She leads me through the market to visit him. He performs his mysterious ceremony in a black embroidered jacket and peacock-bright headdress.

This is the shorter "tourist ceremony" and afterwards he changes into jeans and T-shirt - and looks very relieved. "Western clothing is so much more practical and cheaper for me," he sighs.

Tradition versus competition

Mayan women are much more faithful to tradition but they're up against competition.

The export and import of global textiles are increasing in Guatemala.

Most of the cloth is acryllic and large factories now spew out acres of commercial cloth. Guatemala has to survive. It's having to link up with global markets after decades of isolation.

Now I'd be happy if everyone wore traditional costume and bright colours.

So Elvira points me in the direction of her Mum's stall where I purchase everything needed to make an honest Mayan woman of me - to add to my collection of unworn saris, salwar kameezes, kente cloth, Assamese tribal dress and Mexican blouses. You get the picture.

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See also:

09 Sep 00 | Americas
Lost Mayan palace found in Guatemala
04 May 00 | Americas
Guatemala Indians sue for 'genocide'
17 May 99 | Americas
Guatemalans reject reforms
08 Apr 99 | Americas
Tradition triumphs at school
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