“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” - UNESCO (http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/)
“Cultural is a basic need. A community thrives through its cultural heritage, it dies without it.” - (IFLA)
Culture is a fundamental asset, inherited from the past and providing the connective tissue for communities and countries moving forward. Some argue that culture is the highest expression of what is means to be human and the cornerstone of community. According to the Reliable Prosperity Project, cultural preservation includes the protection of language, stories, songs, dances, practical skills, buildings, sacred sites, artifacts, arts and crafts, relationships to land, and forms of subsistence.
Guatemala and Cultural Preservation
What is the culture we want to preserve?
Guatemalan culture is a fusion between Spanish and Mayan cultures, however the indigenous population has many traditions that have remained a part of their culture since the time before the Spanish came to what is now Guatemala. The various Mayan communities in Guatemala have their own cultural identities, from language to identifying patterns in their textiles. Backstrap weaving and the textiles that Maya women create are intricate parts of indigenous communities. Each community has a distinctive pattern they create when weaving and are proud to wear. Due to social and political discrimination, Mayan languages and art forms are being threatened.
What is threatening Mayan culture in Guatemala?
The threat to Mayan culture in Guatemala comes from a variety of social and political issues. There is a great deal of discrimination and marginalization against the indigenous population. This has led to high levels of poverty and resulted in many young people from rural villages migrating into the cities in order to pursue perceived financial opportunities. One of the factors associated with youth urban migration is the lack of cultural appreciation and understanding of their culture as important to preserve. In schools, students are encouraged to learn spanish and shown that opportunity lies in jobs associated with urban centers. There are not many job opportunities in rural areas and high levels of poverty, further motivating young people to seek opportunities elsewhere. Due to a lack of appreciating their own culture and the desire to find better economic opportunities, many young people are not learning the traditions of their culture.
For women weavers specifically, there are various social influences that affect weaving and the ability of women to weave. Some of these include:
Education, specifically education that does not promote culture and encourages women to stop weaving and seek employment elsewhere
Economics, which has made weaving more of an entrepreneurial feat than a solely cultural one
Intercommunication between communities and the demands associated with fashion, tourism, imagery, and transformation become drivers of change in weaving culture.
Young women want to get and education, wear the clothes they see on tv and find jobs that provide more money to them than weaving can. They are not being shown that this is a skill they should be proud of, that people from around the world find it interesting and value it.
Why preserve weaving?
The practice of weaving and creating the unique textiles so highly valued around the world will be lost without a concerted effort to show young people it is something worth valuing. Weaving is not only an indigenous Maya practice that has been around for thousands of years, it is also a living artform. Weavers are not only designers, but are skilled artists and artisans creating beautiful pieces that tell stories. Weaving patterns, designs, and colors are as numerous as the villages around Guatemala, each one bringing to life a special and unique history of the village it originates from. To lose this artform and knowledge would be to break apart the connective tissue of the Mayan community. If culture and heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration, if culture is a basic need that makes a community thrive, then it is fundamental to preserve this defining piece of Mayan culture in Guatemala.
Questions and Reflections
While there are beautiful aspects to culture, such as language and art, there are also things that we need to question. Traditional gender roles, for example, have severely limited women’s rights within indigenous communities. While cultural preservation is important, we must ask ourselves what parts of culture should be preserved?
There seems to be a sense of responsibility from us as outsiders to ‘preserve culture’ and to tell people what parts of culture are worth preserving. We also feel as though it is our place to put the task on to indigenous people as the caretakers of their culture and a particular way of life. In the same vein as questioning what parts of culture should be preserved, at what point is it our right as outsiders to determine that? How can culture change and adapt to modern society while holding on the its traditions? Do indigenous people actually want to preserve their culture? What parts of their culture do they value and what would they like to see change?
Kellman, Julia. "Weaving: Mirror of Change in Maya Women's Lives."Journal of Multi-Cultural and Cross-Cultural Research in Art Education (1994): 79-87. Web.
The International Federation for Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA): Cultural Heritage. Edited by Julia Brungs. Last updated 29 February 2016. http://www.ifla.org/cultural-heritage
The Reliable Prosperity Project: Cultural Preservation. http://www.reliableprosperity.net/cultural_preservation.html