Politics Affect Fiber Arts Development


The recent history of textile and fiber arts in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua reflect how life is changing dramatically for the people of those countries. Authorities who account for changes in the artisanry solely by citing foreign trade influence and industrialization have ignored how recurring political violence over the past 50 years has penetrated these societies and drastically altered cultural traditions. In looking at economic development within the context of textile arts, varying patterns emerge ranging from severe constraints to broad government support.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, government repression has forced over two million villagers into exile inside and outside their countries, tearing apart communities and cultures in which textile arts are deeply rooted. Widespread violence has brought tourism and business almost to a standstill, affecting all strata of society and particularly subsistence level villagers; who become less and less able to afford skyrocketing costs of yarn, food or fertilizers. It is currently cheaper for many traditional weavers to buy a huipil (traditional woven blouse) in a Guatemala City market than to make one.

In Nicaragua, a dramatic effort to reclaim diverse aspects of cultural life inside Nicaragua and to move toward the economic development of small crafts production is thwarted by the US-supported contra war. The financial drain of defense costs and the additional contra destruction of cotton and agave fields have made it nearly impossible to fund imported dyes, cloth, thread and other items necessary for a healthy artisan economy.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua have much in common. A large segment of those populations derives or supplements their incomes from craft work. In Nicaragua as many as 20 percent of the people are artisans, particularly during the holiday seasons. In all three countries, plant fibers - palm, agave, tule, bamboo and others - are the basis for many items used daily as well as items made to sell. Petates, the plaited mats on which many are born, sleep, give birth and die, are visible everywhere. Hammocks, bags, hats, nets, furniture, baskets, toys, festival items and tapestries are among the items made from plant fibers. The production of handwoven and other handmade textiles, however, varies widely, as do the histories of the indigenous peoples.


Guatemala has one of the Americas' richest and most celebrated textile traditions. Rigoberta Menchu, a Quiché Indian, spoke about the indigenous Guatemalan weavings:

When one speaks of the earth in Guatemala, it is Life, You are talking of corn, of beans, of a way of life...No other way of survival exists. So the earth for many people has value almost as if it were a mother, nursing its child every day. And it is the same to speak of the tejidos [weavings] as it is to speak of the earth. Those things have equal value because the tejido is the expression of it all. And all the tejidos of Guatemala express not only a knowledge of technique, but also an affection, a tenderness, a very great dedication.

In her hands Rigoberta held the last huipil she had woven before she was forced out of her village and into exile seven years ago. Typical of the richly brocaded cotton huipiles, it was woven on a backstrap loom and contained the rows of complex twill that once marked the weavings of her village.

Enduring centuries of pressure, the traditional culture of the Guatemalan Indians has adapted and remained remarkably intact. Every costume bears it historical legacy.

Our history tells us that the root of the 180 varieties of weavings came from the Spaniards. They made every ethnic group servants, divided them up and gave them different uniforms to see who belonged to whom. But the uniforms were not as they are now. Our people perfected the trajes [costumes], making them multicolored, an art of great impact, the distinct art of our people. But originally they were from the Spaniards to separate the people, to enslave them.

The activity of a growing band of "guerrillas" struggling against the Guatemalan armed forces prompted the government's 1982 "scorched earth" campaign in the highlands, which left 22 villages destroyed in Quiché province alone. Many people took refuge in the mountains, Rigoberta continued, Perhaps it's not like this in all of the country, but if the majority of the Guatemalan weavers are in the highlands, and the army has left 20,000 to 30,000 dead there - then undoubtedly many valued old weavers and teachers of weaving, like my own mother, are dead. It is certain that some of the weaving techniques are already lost.

Many Indians from villages labeled subversive are now afraid to be identified by their traje. In particular, fewer men are wearing them.

While the situation varies greatly and some villages, like San Martin Chile Verde, have seen little repression, hundreds of small villages have been moved into centralized, controlled "model villages" (based on the "strategic hamlets" of Vietnam). This is part of the development model that Guatemala holds out to international funding agencies in hopes of attracting aid cut off due to human rights abuses. Yet, it is clearly the antithesis of development. Out of roughly 400 cooperatives that flourished in the 1970s, few are left. Coop leaders were among the first victims of government repression and coops were labeled "subversive." Therefore, there is reluctance to form new ones. Concurrently, the dying tourist trade has left piles of unsold weavings sitting in corners of market stalls while weavers in desperate need of cash beg owners to buy more.

In spite of these problems, several successful coops have managed to survive, and a few ones, organized to be less identifiable as coops, are being formed - particularly in communities with large numbers of widows and orphans. Start-up money and periodic assistance come exclusively from small non-governmental sources based outside the country.

For the many who have been removed from their land, crafts particularly textiles, have taken on an important role. Textile projects are being developed inside camps of displaced people and refugees living both within and outside the country. These projects are primarily supported by the Catholic Church, but they also receive assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More a form of relief than true development, nevertheless this work is finding an international market and contributing to a reassertion of Indian identity.

Since 1976, under the direction of the National Reconstruction Committee, development programs have become the flip side of counterinsurgency. Economically, its main concern is to attract desperately needed international aid with development plans as the bait. The aid will undoubtedly be used to further restrain genuine grassroots development.

"I saw a paper about a village of weavers by an anthropologist," Rigoberta said, trying to convey the hypocrisy of a government that draws in tourists with the artifacts of the culture it is destroying. "He did a study that depicts the weavers as if they were a great wonder. 'How pretty this is...how nice that is,' forgetting the daily reality, the suffering of our people. This a lack of consciousness, a lack of will. To depict it as wonderful - this is what the army and the Guatemalan government do."

El Salvador

The Indians of El Salvador - some of whom are descendants of the Maya - developed their own textile traditions. In spite of the seizure of communal Indian lands in the late 1800s so that elites could create coffee estates, indigenous culture persisted until 1932. In January of that year, a group of peasants - mainly Indian - staged an uprising demanding land reform. The government responded by killing over 30,000 people. Indians suffered the greatest blow a they were easily singled out by their clothing and language.

Greatly traumatized, most of the surviving Indians of western El Salvador took off their traje, stopped speaking their native languages and changed their work to avoid identification. The Matanza (slaughter), as it is known, is still mourned as the time of El Salvador's greatest cultural loss and a turning point in its history. The terror spread so widely that today only the most intrepid visitor to El Salvador will see traces of traditional Indian clothing.

Most villages had developed a specialty - baskets, mats, etc. - with their own unique patterning, but over the last 20 years the individuating patterns have disappeared and plastic "baskets" are commonplace. "In the 1950s," as one Salvadoran woman told me, "big companies came along and nobody from the Salvadoran government was in support of the artisans. So they introduced machine-made shoes, furniture and clothing. In great quantity. Even the small vendors sold goods from the US and France instead of the beautiful handmade things we had made." This woman now teaches traditional embroidery in refugee camps in Nicaragua when materials are available.

The recurrence of state-initiated violence and a campaign of terror since 1979 have both limited and created new forms of craft survival. Quite similar to the situation in Guatemala, there is no formal support for cooperatives or other development projects. Crafts workers dependent on tourists and affordable materials are almost unable to produce or sell their work. The large populations in refugee camps inside the country are dependent on tourists and affordable materials are almost unable to produce or sell their work. The large populations in refugee camps inside the country are dependent on assistance from the church and NGOs to help develop and market their work.

Grassroots projects are taking root primarily in the "zones of popular control." On the edge of one these zones the town of La Palma has emerged as the most well known of Salvadoran towns still producing indigenous craftwork. Here cooperatives have been formed to make, among other craftwork, bordados (embroideries), using popularized forms of traditional imagery. Onto a backing woven of native hemp an artist draws a scene, usually including women and children working or playing around their homes. Then members of the coop embroider the scenes in wool or acrylic, depending on availability. These are exported, and as a result the La Palma style of imagery has been taken up in much of the Salvadoran craftwork being done by refugees inside and outside the country, and identified as a Salvadoran style.

Salvadoran refugees in Nicaragua have found themselves in a unique situation. Craftwork and textile projects are being encouraged and developed. In a joint project with the Nicaraguan Office on Refugees and the Ministry of Internal Development, skilled Salvadoran weavers are teaching both Salvadoran refugees and Nicaraguans, who have no tradition of floor loom weaving, loom construction and weaving. The goals of this project are several: to introduce weaving in Nicaragua as a way to produce blankets, mosquito netting and other items at lower than import costs; to establish small production projects that utilize native materials; and to provide employment. The same Salvadoran teacher told me she had learned to embroider bordados since living in Nicaragua, and that the Salvadorans are using this time in forced exile to "rescue our lost culture."


Perched high on a mountain ridge above the lush coffee-growing valleys of the Matagalpa area of Nicaragua is the small indigenous community of El Chile. Her four older women are relearning weaving skills on backstrap looms and passing on these skills to a group of younger students. As children they had begun to weave in the tradition of El Chile, which was probably once part of a much larger highland Indian network.

Cristina, one of the weavers, related that during the 1950s, when commercial cotton cultivation doubled in Nicaragua, Senators and delegates came who were connected to the dictator Somoza and said it was illegal to grow cotton. They wanted the land to grow coffee on. Those who resisted were thrown in jail and their land seized.

Consequently, free raw materials for their huipiles were gone and the art of weaving disappeared from El Chile's subsistence economy.

After the overthrow of Somoza, the people of El Chile again began to spin cotton fiber and then weave it into crude lengths of cloth. "We were timid about it at first and had lots of fear from our past experiences," Jaimie Lopez, El Chile's adult education promoter, told me, "but after thinking about it, we became excited." Currently assisted by the Ministry of Culture and Oxfam Belgium, El Chile is just completing the construction of a cultural center which, along with the crafts workshops, will house a health clinic and a basic grains storage and buying coop. Money is being raised to buy land on which to grow the high-bush cotton that thrives in the mountains.

Using El Chile as one of many possible examples, it is clear that Nicaragua is the one country in this region where true grassroots-initiated development projects can be carried out and, in fact, are encouraged. Nicaragua, traditionally more sparsely populated, the least identified with strong indigenous traditions and generally less developed in craftsmanship than either El Salvador or Guatemala, has set for itself the task of rescuing and developing arts and crafts as part of its search for lost cultural identity based on the history of its peoples.

In the seven years since the revolution, textile and fiber arts have been encouraged. Basket-making, embroidery and other skills are taught in the public schools in Monimbo and other indigenous communities. In the 40 new Centers For Popular Culture (CPCs), workshops have been established to introduce quilt-making and appliqué as art forms, and the fine traditional embroidery from the lakeside city of Grenada is also being taught. The new government is promoting the use of ceramics and other native materials. By contrast, Somoza, who owned the plastic and import businesses, ignored the artisans and encouraged the use of plastic and imported goods.

The Ministry of Culture's Department of Artisanry works with the Artisan's Union (UNAD) in importing and distributing needed raw materials, encouraging the formation of cooperatives, organizing conferences, research and education on technical and cultural issues, and distributing products produced. The problem of convincing isolated craftspeople to join together after years of repression under a dictatorship is one of the inherent difficulties in the transition to self-reliance and self-respect. But it is only through this process that communities like El Chile are able to participate in the national economy and help define the country's long-range political, cultural and economic development.

In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua it is increasingly clear how patterns of textile development and grassroots economic development based on craft production are consistent with levels of political freedom or repression. In Nicaragua this development is occurring because of the government's support for self-sufficient, small-scale and culturally relevant development. In the cases of El Salvador and Guatemala, textile development projects are struggling to survive in spite of government repression.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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