This is my friend Amalia, showing off her new bag, given to her as a gift by a group of Mayan women friends. She loves it.
When I asked Amalia if she or her friends were offended by the bag being made from a used huipil, she said no, not at all. I asked her if it would matter if it were made from a huipil from her village, and she still said no, and added that part of why her friends gave her that particular gift was they thought they could use the idea also, with their own textiles. What they see is a beautiful bag and an opportunity. No one has told them [yet] that they should be angry.
Guatemalan fabrics, foot and backstrap woven, are very in vogue right now. The fashion world has adopted Mayan textiles for use in all kinds of clothing and accessories, from formal wear to sandals, bags to upholstery. It is very exciting (or exploitive), has tremendous economic potential (for some, but not necessarily the un-included artists), and is creating a firestorm of controversy, being played out in social media and government chambers.
The primary scenario that is angering so many begins with “buyers”, women who go door-to-door in poor rural areas buying old huipils from women who are desperate for cash for as low as $3 – $5. When a huipil is bought in that way, it then goes into a stack with many others acquired in the same manner. Those are then sold in bulk (by weight or dozens) to someone who cuts them up and makes them into bags or shoes or other products that are then sold for big bucks. Affront #1 – paying a woman almost nothing for a garment that still has value, economic and/or cultural. Affront #2 – cutting up a garment seen as sacred by many. Affront #3 – making it into something as lowly as shoes or boots. Affront #4 – making big bucks when the original weaver did not. This last is especially offensive if the person making the big bucks is not Mayan. Each person with whom I have spoken about this scenario has an individual reaction to each “affront”, being incensed by some but not even ruffled by others. Which are okay and which are not varies from person to person.
Google “Guatemalan fabric shoes” to see lots more, and then google “Guatemalan fabrics in fashion.”
If those re-makers, be they large or small companies, would contract to buy new cloth, thus giving weavers more work and a larger slice of the pie, many of those assaults on the sensibilities would evaporate. But again, it depends on who you ask. Some say that using any Guatemalan cloth to make shoes is terrible; others say it’s fine if it was woven for that purpose. For sure it would increase the cost of production, so the question, as it always is in business, arises: would the increase in final price be viable?
In addition to those going for the high end market, there is that now massive green world asking for anything “recycled” or “repurposed”. And anything made with an old huipil fits that description, right? What about when the term is used to mask that practice of buying huipils for pennies from women so strapped for cash that they are willing to sell? What is that called?
There are pieces being bought for more reasonable prices in non-desperate situations, from people who want to sell their “old clothes”. Lots of them. And by now many products are made with new cloth, woven for this market and use. But as a final retail customer, there is no way for you to know which is which. You might be able to determine which cloth is new, and some are clearly old. But whether or not you can get a real answer, it is good to ask how the cloth was sourced. It is good for the sellers of these pieces to know that someone cares, someone is watching. And sometimes the answers are the right ones.
Below are websites from a variety of companies (with English) or newspaper articles (in Spanish) to give you a tiny idea of what is out there now.
www.yabalhandicrafts.com (Their latest newsletter is titled, “It’s not just about Fashion.”)
www.mariasbag.com (one of the most controversial companies in all this)
https://issuu.com/aurorachaj/docs/q__ventana-_dossier0_hd (this is spectacular – Spanish, but go for the pictures)
An interesting aspect of the fashion crowd is that many of them are Guatemalans who feel strongly about celebrating Mayan culture and cloth. They love their homeland, and their websites are full of history, art, design, symbolism, and other aspects of culture designed to educate anyone who will read them. Again, perspective is everything. In the fight against Cultural Appropriation, which is how some see this, this kind of publicity is seen as a ruse, a cover up for the real motive, which is to take advantage of women who don’t know better. It might look like an economic battle, but the root is racist, they insist. For those interested in promoting Mayan textiles, showing the world how beautiful they are and helping to expand the market, this is part of the ongoing process of education, reaching out into the world.
Is there a right or wrong here? Are there good guys and bad guys? The answer is probably yes, to all four questions. The need now, in my view, is to learn how to talk with (not at) each other, to really listen to each other’s points of view. I believe that great good can come from this, but it will take a willingness that currently seems elusive.