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Asociacion Maya de Desarrollo

Asociacion Maya de Desarrollo is a worker cooperative of 180 women located in the highlands of Solola Guatemala.  The co-op celebrates its 22nd anniversary this year!

The cooperative strengthens the economic position of rural Mayan women in the highlands of Solola Guatemala, and creates a greater sense of wellbeing and security based on improved earnings -- two to four times what the women would earn weaving for their local market.

These improved earnings allow access to a better diet and to badly needed medicines. The women can stay in their own villages and work at home rather than having to move elsewhere to work as domestics, agricultural workers or in factories. Their children can stay in school instead of having to work at seven years old in order to buy their own food. 

The co-op expands gender equality and leadership roles for village women.

The co-op creates full-time employment for four to eight women in dyeing and management, and part-time employment for about 180 weavers.

The co-op helps the weavers to conserve their cultural traditions in a financially-viable way, by developing a unique line of hand-woven products using the ancient technology of the backstrap loom along with innovative fibers and designs. 

This is an article about the origins of the co-op:

The Georgia Straight  Vancouver, Canada   December 10-17, 1998

"Collective Memory"  By Tony Montague

A little after midnight on July 15, Dominga Samines woke in her home in Pujujil, a Mayan community in the highlands of Guatemala, and started to make corn tortillas to take for the long journey. An hour or so later, her neighbour and fellow weaver, Maria Xoch, appeared at the door with a backpack and a bulging duffel bag. It was pouring with rain as the two young women, accompanied by family members, hurried past the corn fields along the muddy road that wound up to the highway. They were drenched by the time they piled into the bus--a re chich, or “metal", in Cakchiquel, one of more than 20 Mayan languages--waiting to take them all to the airport in Guatemala City to catch their flight to Canada. All, that is, except Samines’ and Xoch’s fathers. Both had been killed in the savagery that tore their community apart 16 years ago.

Within hours of arriving in Vancouver, Samines and Xoch were kneeling on the grass beside the market area at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, weaving side by side. Each woman’s loom consisted of, in essence, two sticks set at opposite ends of the warp (the vertical threads of yarn). One stick was attached by a rope to a tree, while the other was attached to a strap around the weaver’s lower back. The tension of the cloth could thus be controlled by movements of the body. This is a backstrap loom, and backstrap weaving is the most ancient method of making cloth that exists. It can still be found in parts of Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, and, above all, in Guatemala.

For countless numbers of Mayan women in the impoverished highlands, backstrap weaving is the principal or only source of income. It also constitutes the thread that ties these women to the cultural heritage of their people, who, more than 1,000 years ago, had developed one of the world’s most advanced civilizations. Among the most important deities in the Mayan pantheon was, and is, Ixchel, the goddess of weaving, fertility, healing, and the moon. She is often represented with a backstrap loom.

At the age of 10, both Samines and Xoch learned from their mothers how to weave. Within a few years, they were able to make their own huipiles, the intricately decorated traditional blouses worn every day by the majority of Mayan girls and women. The colours and designs are an indication of the weaver’s home community and an expression of her own creativity. "It takes at least two weeks to weave a huipil," says Samines, speaking in Spanish (her second language) in the East Vancouver home where she and Xoch are staying. "If there’s a lot of brocade, it can take more than a month."

When Mayan women sell their work, it’s hard to receive anything approaching fair payment for such a labour-intensive practice as backstrap weaving. But Samines and Xoch are emissaries from a weaving cooperative in Pujujil that’s determined to change that. They have come here, on the invitation of a number of international development and fair-trade organizations, to demonstrate their ancient craft and to learn how it can be used to produce articles that will be competitive in the fickle and fashion-conscious North American marketplace. "We’re meeting other weavers here, and people involved in many different aspects of trade," Samines explains. "We’re working with them to come up with new designs and to try out new colours and materials for our members."

One wall of their Vancouver home is covered in shelves that are filled with lustrous blouses and scarves made from rayon chenille. There are also cotton bags and purses, and table runners woven in the traditional designs of Solola, the town nearest to Pujujil. Some of the items have been sent up from Guatemala by their fellow workers; some have been produced here by Samines and Xoch. In the kitchen are plastic yogurt pots containing inky liquids, and skeins of fibre are hanging to dry, evidence of their latest experiments in dyeing. The beauty of the work produced by the women of Pujujil is belied by the tragedy of their lives--their cooperative has its origins in the aftermath of the counterinsurgency violence that engulfed Guatemala in the early 1980s.

Following a CIA-backed coup in 1954, Guatemala was run for more than 30 years by a series of brutal military dictatorships. A leftist guerrilla movement developed out of an army revolt in 1960, and, in time, it spread to the oppressed indigenous population of the highlands, although the vast majority of the Mayan people had no active involvement. Violence escalated through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Rightwing death squads, linked to the military, sprang up, and thousands of people were "disappeared" Under the 1978-82 regime of Lucas Garcia, who deserves to go down in history as one of the worst butchers of the century, the repression peaked. Selective killings were increasingly replaced by outright massacres as the army sought to eradicate guerrilla support in the highlands through a "scorched earth" campaign of terror.

In the summer of 1981, I was hitchhiking through Central America. My introduction to Guatemala was a military roadblock on the Pan-American Highway. A soldier, hand grenades in his belt and machete swinging by his hip, walked up to the vehicle and shoved a submachine gun through the window. He demanded passports and papers. The look of savagery in his face was chilling. He was a young Mayan, probably a teenage conscript brutalized by what he had been forced to see and do.

As a foreigner, I was relatively safe. I had been told that army activities were confined to remote areas. But the military were everywhere. They were all around Solola when I visited the weekly market. I was deeply affected by the beauty and dignity of the Mayan people and the sense of menace that hung over them. What on earth was I doing there? In my ignorance, I had blundered into what would soon become one of the worst killing fields of Central America. After a few days, I left.

Samines and Xoch did not have that option. "At the end of November, the army came with a truck to our community," recalls Samines, 16 at the time. "They seized the men from 10 families, tied them up, and took them away. These men never came back. Later on, a group of about 30 soldiers came and took two whole families to the cemetery in Pujujil. They killed them there, all of them. The soldiers came back, took what they could from the houses, then destroyed them. On two occasions, the army came and rounded up whomever they could find--it was mostly women and children--and shut them inside a house. Then they set fire to it."

Such tactics of indiscriminate terror were all too typical, as was the fate of Samines’ father. One day he went to Solola with his wife to buy a sack of fertilizer. The minivan in which they were returning to Pujujil was stopped by the army. Four men, including Samines’ father, were taken away. Their bodies were never found.

As for Xoch, her father was a vegetable seller who marketed his products in the coastal lowlands. "He came back to our village from a trip and the army was waiting there for him," Xoch says. "They took him up the mountain to a corn field where they’d murdered eight men the day before, and they killed him too. It must have been May or June, because the corn was already two feet high." Xoch, who was a child at the time, calmly adds, "I lost three uncles and a three-year-old cousin who was shot."

What was left of the community spent almost two years living, on and off, in the surrounding mountains. "At night, we would leave the village, and come back in the daytime," Samines says. "But when more and more people started being killed, we left our homes and fields entirely. We buried stashes of corn and some clothes to come back to.

But we lost all our animals, our houses were burned, and our corn fields were cut down." By 1986, when a form of civilian government returned at last to Guatemala, an estimated 100,000 people had been killed, a similar number had fled the country, and 38,000 had "disappeared". Most of the victims were Mayan. Some 440 villages had been destroyed, and there were hundreds of thousands of internal refugees.

For several years, the survivors of Pujujil struggled. Many were forced to find seasonal employment in the cotton plantations of the coast, where they earned a pittance and were sprayed with pesticides while they worked. But slowly they started to rebuild their lives.

In the summer of 1987, Vancouver resident and development worker Ron Spector, who lived with refugees in their camps in southern Mexico was invited to Pujujil by two community leaders They were looking for ways to generate an income for 17 widows, all of them backstrap weavers. "These women were among the most marginal of the marginalized," Spector remembers. "It seemed to me they were barely hanging on to the mountainside by their fingernails."

Moved by their plight, Spector decided to invest $7000 of his own money as seed capital to set up an organization to buy thread and yarn and to market the women’s work in North America. "From the very beginning, it was not so much a small-business   enterprise as a community project," he stresses. "Their weavings weren’t all that marketable but the hope was that we could at least get something going. So we started and   named the project A Thread of Hope. The idea really took off, and within a month 45 other women in the community wanted to join."

Spector contributed his skills as organizer, designer, marketer, and grant writer. The project continued to grow, and within a couple of years, the women formed a cooperative: the Asociacion Maya de Desarollo Kamolon Ki K’onojel, or Asomadek. "We were asking for funding from a Canadian NGO, and they were keen to see the women take on more of a leadership role,” Spector recalls. "So we held a meeting in Pujujil and elected a board, a directiva of five women to serve for a two year period. It was an incredible challenge for these women, as they’re not normally encouraged to take on any such initiatives, and hardly any of them had literacy or numeracy skills."

Both Xoch and Samines have been part of the directiva, though neither is currently in office. Xoch was just 17 when she became treasurer. "I was chosen because I can read and write a little," she explains. "Being on the directiva involved me in a number of new and different tasks, things like travelling to distant towns to purchase yarns, preparing and distributing them, calling meetings and helping run them, going to the bank to get funds for paydays, paying members, recording transactions, looking at quality control. I learned how to keep track of the money, as well as some bookkeeping. So it gave me a little education and helped me to grow as a person.” Having provided the impetus to set up the weaving co-op, Spector has continued to remain closely involved. “Many people take an attitude with development that it should be a matter of simply providing skills and programs and leaving it all to the community itself," he points out.

"But it’s been and continues to be very difficult for these women to take on leadership roles. I like to see what I do as a process of accompaniment, so that they can feel comfortable managing their own business and organization. The truth is that the co-op would never have survived without fairly constant long-term accompaniment over the years. There’s been pretty fierce opposition in a number of ways," Spector goes on. "I’ve personally received death threats, as have other members and friends. Some of them specifically said, ‘we don’t want the young women taking classes. Back off or we’ll burn your buildings down.’ In November 1990, the workshop in Pujujil was burned down, just a few weeks after a whole bunch of sewing machines and some thread were stolen. It was probably people from a neighbouring community, jealous that the women in this project had work."

Despite such setbacks, the co-op continued to grow. In 1993, the Canadian embassy in Guatemala provided a grant of $65,000, partly to help increase the membership to 280 women, the present size of the organization. A condition of the funding was that the women should participate in literacy and other educational programs to better equip them for managing their own affairs. But it’s an ongoing struggle. "It’s customary for the women to stay at home and take care of their families," Xoch says. "So many of them find it hard to come to meetings and attend classes." 

Asomadek now has an office up a side street in Solola, a simple, single-story house near the edge of a plateau overlooking Lake Atitlan and the three large volcanoes that border it. When visited, one stern afternoon last September, a group women from the co-op were dyeing bundles of cotton yarn on a small terrace outside. I was met there by Juana Cuc, an articulate young Mayan woman in her mid-20s employed as office manager. Inside, she showed me four small rooms, one for sewing, one for cutting, one for sales, and an administration room with an aging computer.

"The women weave in their own homes," Cuc explained, while outside there was a cloudburst and rain drummed on the zinc roof, almost drowning out her soft voice. "They’re paid by the length of cloth, 40 quetzals [about $10] for a piece generally about 40 centimetres wide by three metres long that takes about three to three and-a-half days to weave. It’s more than double what they would be making if they were weaving for the local market. Each woman also gets a year’s-end dividend. Of course, we’d like to be able to pay more, but we’re competing with cheap products made on industrial and computerized looms. 

The floor of the cutting room is littered with remnants of brightly coloured cloth. "We’re increasingly using rayon chenille, which comes from wood pulp, because it’s easier and faster to weave with," Cuc commented. "Also, it’s a fashionable material and doesn’t involve the costs of cotton in terms of health and environment. Apart from the poisons that are sprayed on the [cotton] fields, the commercial yarn has been treated with dyes from Germany that have actually been banned over there.

We do still use some cotton, but we’re doing our own dyeing—like the weaving, it’s very labour-intensive. Our products have to be of a high quality for North America. Right now, we’re putting together a big shipment to send up there."

Back in East Vancouver, Samines and Xoch are unpacking a parcel that Spector has retrieved from Canada Customs. "People have said to me," Spector says, " ‘isn’t it wrong that the women should be weaving products that they couldn’t afford to buy for themselves, and sending them abroad?  I respect that point of view, but the internal market in Guatemala is so desperate that the women wouldn’t have any livelihood if they didn’t produce for export.”  

In any event, the past few years have proved tough for the co-op. After a period of sustained growth from 1987 to 1993, the demand for Guatemalan textiles in North America took a downturn as the competition became fiercer. There have been encouraging signs of a revival of interest of late, but in order to develop further, the Asomadek weavers must find new ways of adapting to the vagaries of the fashion industry. Samines and Xoch, who have both been to Canada once before on behalf of the co-op, take careful note of what changes they see in the displays in boutiques and clothing stores on Vancouver streets. When they’re not busy dyeing and weaving at home, the two women are finding ways to reach out to the community at large by giving demonstrations and telling the story of their co-op to whoever will hear them. Among other forthcoming engagements they’ll be presenting a slide show at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch on Wednesday (December 16), and will be weaving at Mountain Equipment Co-op December 18 to 20. "We are always looking to meet other weavers and artisans, and to learn from the exchange," Samines says. We need support in so many ways for our co-op to survive."

The interest that Westerners show in the work of the Asomadek weavers can lead to unexpected cultural effects back in Pujujil." When we came to Canada before, many people asked us about the symbols on our huipiles," Xoch says. "Much of the time, we couldn’t explain. We’d lost that knowledge. So when we got home, we applied for funding from the Dutch Embassy to have someone teach a course on the meaning of these symbols. A local woman who is a spiritual leader is coming in to the co-op soon to do that. The two of us took some classes with her before we left. We’re also very interested to learn about medicinal plants, and regain that knowledge our grandmothers once had."

For the women of Pujujil, the strands of their Mayan culture are being woven back together again. But honouring the past and staking a claim to the future is a long and often painful process for a people so severely traumatized. Those forces that took them to the edge of the abyss have not disappeared. The mass slaughter of the early ‘80s was merely replaced by a return to more selective killings. There are hopeful signs, however. In December 1996, a series of peace accords were signed by the government of Guatemala and the survivors of the guerrilla movement --after 36 years of conflict. 

On October 15 of this year, a number of amendments to the constitution were passed by the Guatemalan congress. Article 66 sets out that "the State recognizes, respects, and protects the right to the identities of the Maya...populations; their ways of life, social organisation, customs and traditions; the use of indigenous dress by the men and women, and the distinct forms of spirituality, language and dialect, and the ability to pass these traditions down to their descendants..."

It’s the first time the Maya have received any such recognition, but implementation of the accords has proved difficult. Attempts to bring the perpetrators of the massacres to justice, for example, have been stymied. In the case of the Rio Negro massacre of March 13, 1982, when almost 200 women and children died, key witnesses and their families received death threats before the trial of three men accused of the killings opened on November 9. To date, no one has been convicted for any of the massacres carried out by security forces in the early ‘80s. 

It’s a murky late afternoon in Vancouver as Samines completes another scarf on her loom, carefully removes the weaving from the end sticks, and, as is her custom, wraps it gently around her neck before eventually placing it on the shelf. "We feel very identified with our weaving," she proudly states. "It’s something that our ancestors have handed down to us; it’s a way for us to maintain our culture, and to take it further."

In late December, the two weavers will return to Pujujil to share the new ideas and experiences of half a year spent in El Norte. Their community is one that has grown even closer together as it has struggled back from near-extinction. "I’ve suffered a lot as a result of losing my father," Xoch says. "There are seven of us in my family. My mother is also in the cooperativa. Working as weavers has enabled us both to earn a small income. It has allowed the women in our village not to be so tied to the home, and to learn new skills. What we’re struggling for is fair wages for Mayan women and to help our people survive."

By the time Samines and Xoch are back home, the corn plants will be head-high in the surrounding fields, the ears almost ready for harvest.



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