Most people think of the Mayan as an ancient civilisation that has died out, like the Aztecs or the Incas. But there are 6 million still living today. They don’t use the term ‘Maya’ themselves. They call themselves by their specific group, like Tz’utujil. Cristina was a Tz’utujil who set up a Maya weaving cooperative in San Juan, on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. I interviewed her about the benefits of having a cooperative.
To me it meant that their precious traditional Maya weaving skills, talents, not to mention the hours and hours of time that goes into creating their weavings, was rewarded when a tourist buys something. Most of the money goes to the women and is therefore much more likely to be spent, in turn, on benefitting the next generation.
Unlike many other places around Lake Atitlán, that are arguably just another form of colonisation: gringo owned with profits not filtering through to the Mayan communities; San Juan is special. This feels important in a country whose indigenous population has already been massacred by the Spanish and then a CIA backed dictator.
But Cristina found it hard to talk about. Not because it’s such a touchy subject but because she simply didn’t have anything to compare it to. We mentioned another town on the lake that was a classic example of this exploitation, San Marcos, which is only ten minutes away by boat. She said she had only been there once. She could see how the cooperative had empowered the local women but didn’t have a sense of a larger context.
Hopefully the interview has given her a greater perspective and appreciation for the importance of her own, largely Mayan town. Mayan culture is still very much alive!
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