In March of 2016, six graduate researchers travelled to Guatemala as part of The New School Practicum in International Affairs to conduct research on issues faced by indigenous communities around Lake Atitlan. This website serves as platform to showcase the short documentary that we produced, as well as the research exploring these topics in relation to Maya female artisans and cultural preservation in Guatemala today.
In Guatemala, the absence of a capable state has led to the presence of thousands of NGOs stepping in to provide social programs and create opportunity. NGOs working with Maya weaving communities are some of the most commonly found projects, particularly in the highlands and indigenous areas. From an academic perspective we found that many layers relating to Maya weaving traditions could translate into a graduate research project. The social, cultural and economic implications of weaving, in particular among indigenous women, were rich research topics.
The questions of how, and why, we might share this knowledge with our colleagues and friends was more complicated. We came to the realization that as consumers, we have all confronted these topics more closely than we may realize. In clothing shops, at Whole Foods, in restaurants and coffee shops, the “fair trade” label is one we’ve all become accustomed to. But what does fair trade mean exactly? And what does it translate to for those on the other side of the process? Ethnic prints and indigenous materials have come into fashion, especially here in New York, and we wanted to look into where these products come from, who makes them, and in what way are they impacted by this expanding global market? By us? What does preserving culture mean, and can it be as simple as buying authentically, locally made products?
We found a client organization that is one of the most prominent weaving preservation and social development actors in the Lake Atitlan region, Maya Traditions Foundation, who has an incredible program and staff. As foreigners we noticed a lack of awareness, especially at an international level, about the importance of their work.
We set out on this project to bridge the academic research relating to rights and development with the beauty and rich cultural heritage of the Maya in Guatemala. Working with MTF, we designed an advocacy package based on 6 themes:
We aimed to create something beautiful and accessible that would resonate with an audience of consumers and travelers who might be interested in anything from handmade textiles to human rights.
During our research in Guatemala, we wanted to interview as many stakeholders and actors involved with Maya weavers as possible. We interviewed a journalist, NGO workers, foreigners and locals using and selling Maya textiles, a cultural tourism coordinator, and most importantly the weavers themselves. We wanted to paint as comprehensive a picture as possible of the above issues, and we hope this information can be used to better inform tourists, NGOs and those interested in traditional Maya weaving.