The streets of Quetzaltenango or 'Xela', as the locals shorten it, is moving gently in the cold and quiet. I walk on the cobbled road. I walk past a woman selling plantains, papaya, and avocado. A mural on a yellow wall reads No Mas Gobiernos Genocidas (no more genocidal governments). I walk in the smell of tortillas. I walk in the sun. I walk down azul painted steps.
Emerging from the rooms surrounding a central courtyard come the welcomes of Amparo León de Rubio, president of Trama Textiles, and Oralia Chopen, vice president.
On the walls are women. Murals of women weaving by a lake, weaving by a mountain, women with cloaks of thread and orange halos. Above wet coloured cotton thread are photographs of the women of Trama Textiles.
Trama Textiles is a worker owned women's backstrap loom weaving cooperative, comprised of over 400 indigenous Maya women of 17 weaving groups from five regions in the Western Highlands of Guatemala: Quetzaltenango, Sololá, Huehuetenango, Sacatepequez, and Quiche. Based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Trama emerged in 1988, after the Guatemalan Civil War.
“The tragedies of war united us as women. We all felt the same pain, which gave birth to Trama,” says Oralia.
Amparo, Oralia and I, sit among the colour of the Trama Textiles store. Oralia points to her huipil (traditional blouse). She says she wears the day and night upon her chest; the black white black white pattern of her region, Sololá. The weaving carries her genealogy, her home land, her memory:
“At night my mother would take us to the hills to hide . . . I remember one day when we left, my mother was pregnant then, so my aunt said: ‘Go ahead, get a head start with the kids. We will catch up later.’ My grandmother stayed there. When we got to the other side of the hill we saw a very big cloud of smoke. We knew they had burned my grandparents. They had burned them alive, inside the house. Many other people were trapped too. They burned so many people. I lost my grandparents, my two aunts, and my two nephews in that fire. The majority of people in our town died.”
As she speaks, I write 'they fought /fight' in my journal, and underline it.
“When I'm not busy I start remembering, and I don't like thinking about how my grandmother died, how they all suffered. They burned so many people. I remember the smoke we saw, and I imagine it all again.”
Amparo León de Rubio, president of Trama Textiles | Photo by Anexis Morales
Oralia's huipil is an act of resistance; a reclamation of day and night, dark and light, tragedy and hope.
Between 1960 and 1996 the poor of Guatemala organized against government oppression. During this period, 1.25 million people were displaced, 40,000 ‘disappeared’, and 200,000 were killed, 83 percent being indigenous Maya. To survive, Mayan communities, like Oralia's, fled from their homes, animals, and ancestral land. They were raped, humiliated, tortured, and murdered. Buried in mass, unmarked graves, where their spirits couldn't rest beneath their bleeding earth. Across Guatemala, 626 massacre sites have been identified.
With the dawn of each day they contest a reality not of their choosing—Maya in Guatemala today are often precariously existing in poverty and hunger, reworking their sacred culture in ways that are compromising and courageous.
"The civil war was a time when most men from our communities—our fathers, grandfathers, husbands, brothers, and sons—disappeared," says Amparo. "One woman lost her husband and father in the war, and is now providing for nine children on her own."
Women widowed as a result of the political violence are considered the most vulnerable economically and socially.
"It is only me who supports my family. Without this association [Trama Textiles] my children would have died of starvation," a weaver shares.
"They [the women at Trama] work on their own, they fight for themselves. It has been difficult for them to have the energy or the strength to go back into weaving, to go back to work. They have received no professional help, no help from the government. They have no trust at all in the government, it has betrayed them. Yet they have maintained their fight."
From spinning cotton fibre to adorning chest, the transparency of the process at Trama Textiles speaks to the ethics of true sustainable and ‘slow fashion'.
"The most important part of the process of involvement for the women at Trama is to be able to weave and earn,” says Amparo. “Right now we are in a good position. The women are happy because they have plenty of orders. They are always weaving.”
"Not everybody understands why the products are more expensive here at Trama, that's something that really affects us," adds Oralia. “When you buy a product from Trama the money goes directly to the women and their families, many families. There are cheaper products [out there], but when you wash them, the products will bleed, and you are not helping the families. The women barely get paid for those cheap textiles. You are only helping one person, the middle man.”
“In the beginning we didn't know what a metre was. What the women would do is they would take a length of thread and put it on their ear, stand very straight, then this side of the thread would go on the waist. From the waist down is two fourths," says Amparo as she wraps thread around her ear.
An NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) from the Netherlands provided initial training for the weavers. They taught the weavers Western measurements and how to finish a product professionally for the international market. Trama then began working with international volunteers, found through platforms such as ‘Workaway’ and promoted locally in Quetzaltenango. The volunteers are in charge of publicity, international wholesale, social media, and the online store.
“The availability and quantity of volunteers fluctuates. For example, the eruption of Volcan de Fuego  scared off the tourists, and it was difficult to find volunteers, and visitors to the store and weaving school were less frequent,” says Oralia.
Hannah Moore, the current Trama Textiles volunteer coordinator, talks to me about the education fund the volunteers are currently establishing for the children of the incorporated weavers:
“The prices for education in Guatemala is on average 500Q (65 USD) per child, per month—the wealthy in Guatemala get around 2000Q (260 USD) a month. Most of the weavers have multiple children, so it's impossible for them to pay. Plus the public school system is not good.”
Trama aim to hold workshops on nutrition, hygiene and managing finances in some of the highland villages, to provide the children with accessible, practical education.
The family that I stayed with in San Juan (Cristina's family). Photo by Adam Welker
The children of Trama play an important role, they will be the next generation to continue the fight. The number of cooperative members continues to grow: daughters become weavers too, such is tradition. Weaving is passed from grandmother to mother to daughter.
In the afternoon, Oralia teaches a small group of Spanish language students and myself the process of dying thread with plant-based materials. Oralia has beetroot stained hands. She passes me thread, which I lower into the red water. On the floor she cuts banana bark, to naturally fixate the colour. Indigo leaf, tobacco, hibiscus, carrot, quilete, marigold, avocado, achiote, perricone, and pomegranate, are plants, fruits, vegetables, and barks also used for dying, she tells me. Beside her, Amparo spins previously dyed thread around a star-like wooden machine. This is to double the thickness, therefore strengthening the finished product. I tell Amparo that the shadows on the ground look like stars: "Las sombras parecen estrellas, ves?” She smiles, "Si."
As I sit watching Amparo and Oralia work I see the power of this sacred process. In Mayan cosmology it was Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, water, and childbirth, who taught the first women to weave. The whirling of her spindle is said to be the centre of the universe. Ixchel represents female empowerment—weaving cooperatives such as Trama Textiles are empowering Mayan women by giving them a reliable income, and a space to commune and create.
The following day, I catch a collectivo (shared van) from Quetzaltenango to San Juan. I am going to stay with one of the incorporated weavers of Trama Textiles, Cristina, in her rural village, San Juan, on the edge of Lake Atitlan.
Two hours into the journey I am dropped at a petrol station and told to wait for another van to take me to Panajachel. The man who picks me up says I'll probably miss the last boat from Panajachel across the lake to San Juan. Meanwhile, the sun is making its descent. After arriving to Panajachel, I run from the van to the docks and manage to catch the last boat. The sun sinks, the volcanoes rise, then it is dark. The skipper yells "San Juan" and I'm suddenly alone on the San Juan wharf with just starlight to guide me.
A faint silhouette calls to me, “Mira?”, “Mira?” I call back, “Si!” Cristina exclaims. Her and her husband hug me joyously, lit by her phone flashlight. They lead me up a hill, down dirt paths, through yards, along a creek, across a small bridge. Their home is warm, smoky, their children Andreas and Lucia envelop me. Cristina's loom rests beside an altar built for Virgin Mary. I am fed tortillas and soup while Mariposa, the family’s runt-of-the-litter-puppy, sleeps on my lap. “Come come amiga, come come,” Cristina says as I eat. Meaning, “Eat eat friend, eat eat!”
After dinner, I carry baby Lucy on my hip though incense and an easter repenting procession. Andreas holds my hand. A girl repents in her native Mayan tongue. Above us the moon is full and yellow. Amarillo, Amarillo, Amarillo we sing as we walk. Amarillo (yellow) above.
Cristina weaving. Photo by Adam Welker
When we return, I head to bed. I hear the village men praising at the church down the road. All night the men sing, all night I listen.
"Buenos Dias!" Andreas says as he pokes his head through the curtain which separates my bed from the family’s bed. The rising sun catches the dripping, hung washing. I smell the mint in the garden, clasping a mug of Cafe de Maiz (coffee made from toasted maize). Cristina tells me her husband has already left for work; he harvests beans in the highlands, and does construction and carpentry in the afternoon. She dresses Lucia in a huipil which matches her own.
During the day, Cristina, the two children and I travel by boat, tuk tuk, and pick up truck to Santa Catarina, a village across the lake. In Santa Catarina all the weaving is woven in tones of blue; blue like the lake. I meet Nana Catarina, whose weavings hang in her blue shop. I buy my mother a blue huipil. We visit a ceramic studio, where men sit painting blue cups one by one. In the afternoon we taste Cristina’s friends cacao beans, and indigeous Mayan honey. We go up and down the hills in the burning sun. Andreas has been grinning all day. It is not until later, when Cristina is ecstatically showing her husband, mother, sister, nieces, and nephews the photos I took of her, that I realise this was the first time Cristina's family had been across to Santa Catarina.
On my last evening, Andreas and I walk down to the lake to wash. Again the volcanoes rise, puncturing the taunt pink and blue sky. Andreas passes me soap from his spot on the rocks. The last boats hum like insects.
In the morning, the family come to the lake to say goodbye. With Andreas's hand in mine, Cristina beside me, and Lucia on my hip, we wait at the dock. It all feels tender. There is something that has shifted in me upon arriving, being, and leaving San Juan. It was not so long ago when these communities were bleeding, fleeing, burning. Yet here I have been held, fed, and bathed with unflinching generosity. On the boat from San Juan to Panajachel, a volcano billows with smoke, and I think of Nana Catarina making her income from her weavings woven with her wrinkled hands. I think of all that the volcano and those hands have seen.
Oralia meets me at the Panajachel wharf. Up and up we drive into the highlands. We stop at the top of a hill and walk down to Pujijil village, where by earthen huts women congregate, passing melon which drips juice upon the dust. With her grandchild beside her, a woman winds pink thread around nails on a urdidor or warping board. She says this is her least favorite part of the process (Oralia translates this from Quechua to Spanish). We laugh. The thread is removed from the board and then slipped upon the rods of her loom. For lunch we eat tortillas, tamales, and frijoles beneath drying red maize. Together we look across the valley, through the looms.
We continue driving and eat steamed yucca in the backseat of the car. We stop on the side of the main highway and walk down the hill to the small village of Chirihox. Here, two women share a space upon a concrete floor. The elder sits beneath a pulled waterfall of yellow-blue thread, stemming from a steel roof beam. She controls the loom tension with the moving of her body, rhythmically passing the paddle back and through. Beat, beat, beat, sounds the paddle. They give Oralia a pile of skirts to be made into kimonos, and a white embroidered blouse. Oralia ties them in a piece of fabric, a blanket, balances them upon her head, and walks back to the car.
Cristina's sister and her son in San Juan. Photo by Anexis Morales
As we drive into Quetzaltenango, a procession of Maya dressed in traditional garments walk behind a black wagon singing. The streets are empty. Oralia drops me off in the town square. We embrace, and I feel so grateful, so in awe. I wave.
The following day, I wake early. I walk to the Quetzaltenango General Cemetery. A slow crowd of older men walk in front of me through the cemetery gates, carrying tools in their hands. The graves are all in colour—glorious colour—layered and crumbling, blessed with sun, chiseled angels, and dead flowers against the mountains. I hear the men scrape at the moss upon the tombstones. I see a hummingbird feed on flowers freshly laid. I walk with prayers rolling from my tongue, to the many lost as a result of the civil war.
Repeated in traditional Mayan weavings regardless of region is the symbol 'X' or 'ish' in Quechua, meaning 'women'. I begin to notice this pattern in textiles as I continue my journey through Guatemala.
When I return home to New Zealand, I gift my mother the blue huipil Nana Catarina from Santa Catarina made. She tries it on in front of a motel mirror. She wears the 'X' pattern across her chest. I tell her that when the women of Guatemala weave, they weave in the dust, by the lake, on concrete, tiles, and beside highways—just a set of sticks gathered and carved, a sash, some rope. I tell her how the backstrap encircles their hips, how their tongues click with the Mayan language as they speak, and the beating loom paddle sounds much like a heartbeat. Women, women, women, the 'X' you wear, means.
Women, women, women, weave the women fighting.
Watch: Trama Textiles Episode 1