Pride and profit: Why Mayan weavers fight for intellectual property rights

Why We Wrote This

Who owns culture, if anyone? It’s a complicated question that can seem almost theoretical. But its real-life consequences are keenly felt by many traditional artisans.

Morena Perez Joachin /Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Florentina Con Juarez does traditional weaving at the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez. The grassroots organization is pushing to have Mayan designs recognized as collective intellectual property.

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Marisol Bucu runs her hands over an embroidered huipil tunic, covered top to bottom in traditional symbols used by Mayan weavers. The flowers on the bottom have three colors, a symbol meaning it’s meant to be worn by a grown woman, she explains – the kind of nuance that is lost on many outsiders.

“Weaving is math, it’s history, it can be like a therapy,” she says. “It makes me feel empowered to have a better understanding of where I come from and to promote my culture.”

Today, Mayan textile designs have become popular, embellishing everything from tourist tchotchkes to haute couture around the world. But here in Guatemala, many weavers have stories of being unfairly compensated for their work, or their communities’ designs. It’s one more way, they way, that indigenous communities are marginalized.

Weavers are pushing for legal reform, though, arguing that intellectual property law should apply to their communities’ traditional patterns. If passed, companies would have to return a percentage of profit to indigenous communities. The proposed law “is not just for economic reasons,” says Angelina Aspuac, a weaver and activist. “It’s about defending our identity, which is weakened every day.”

The vibrant, woven huipil Florentina Con Juarez wears while spooling thread this morning took her more than four months to complete. The bright primary colors on her shirt combine to make an intricate piece of woven art, but even here in her Cachiquel Maya community, many don’t know their deeper meaning, the octogenarian says: red for the blood of ancestors, blue for the heavens, and green for life and hope.

“Many go to study and work, so there’s not time to weave,” says Ms. Con Juarez, who started weaving when she was 7.

But there are deeper challenges to preserving this historic art. That includes widespread discrimination against indigenous Guatemalans – particularly women in traditional dress – and their communities, and the exploitation of their ancient crafts. Tourism plays up Maya weaving as a national treasure, but handwoven textile designs are frequently copied and mass produced without remuneration.

It adds up to intellectual property theft, Maya activists say. But a legal initiative proposed and supported by indigenous communities like Ms. Con Jaurez’s aims to change that, by amending Guatemala’s copyright laws to protect collective intellectual property. 

Morena Perez Joachin /Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Angelina Aspuac explains the Mayan cosmic view in relation to the weaving pattern.

The legislation has progressed by fits and starts since 2017, when it was first presented to Congress, but activists say it’s already created new awareness of textile design and creation – and the indigenous communities behind it. More are mobilizing to preserve their craft and history, aiming to protect them from international businesses, or their own communities’ fading knowledge of certain symbols and traditions.

The proposed law “is not just for economic reasons. It’s about defending our identity, which is weakened every day,” says Angelina Aspuac, the former director of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), who now leads the grassroots organization’s advocacy strategy. 

“Indigenous communities are treated like we’re holding the country back. We have to protect our clothes and history of our textiles, but we also need to improve our treatment by the government,” says Ms. Aspuac. She’s part of the National Movement of Women Weavers, which brought together 30 organizations from 18 different linguistic communities to propose the legal reforms around weaving.

The weavers’ fight is more than a judicial battle, says Juan Castro, a lawyer supporting the legislation. “It’s an act of resistance for the autonomy” of their communities.

Stolen designs

AFEDES is located on a narrow street brimming with cinderblock homes and small shops. The building is covered with a colorful mural of geometric shapes, and a woman’s face emerging from corn husks.

Marisol Bucu, dressed in a Kelly-green huipil with triangles embroidered in warm yellows, pinks, and reds, didn’t grow up weaving – her own mother never learned. When her sister suggested they attend a six-month-long AFEDES weaving workshop together, she jumped at the chance. 

Morena Perez Joachin /Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A weaver displays a traditional huipil tunic in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. Huipils' colors and symbols are richly layered with meaning.

“I feel a stronger connection with my ancestors,” she says. “Most young people aren’t weaving because they lack the opportunity to learn.” She runs her hands down a huipil covered from top to bottom in symbols whose meaning she only learned last year, in the workshop.

“I always thought these were zeros and ones,” Ms. Bucu says of one section, “but they represent the sun and the moon.” On the bottom, she explains, three-color flower designs indicate the top is meant to be worn by a grown woman. It’s frustrating to see these nuances overlooked by outsiders, she says.

“Weaving is math, it’s history, it can be like a therapy. It makes me feel empowered to have a better understanding of where I come from and to promote my culture.”

Since the twice-weekly workshops first launched in 2005, the number of weavers here has grown from just a handful to 1,500, according to AFEDES. They’re increasingly common across the country, observers say. 

For years, members searched for more affordable thread so they could earn more from their weaving. But in 2014, they realized they needed to concentrate on the bigger picture, Ms. Aspuac says.

Morena Perez Joachin /Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, or AFEDES, which runs weaving workshops and advocates for traditional weavers' rights, stand for a portrait in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.

Many weavers had stories of foreigners commissioning designs or taking photos or videos of their work – but they saw little, if any, of the profits. Government agencies, like the tourism ministry, often feature indigenous women and children weaving or wearing traditional textiles, but invest little back into the communities, Ms. Aspuac says.

In 2011, she recalls, a foreign designer asked a weaver to use some of their traditional patterns, but move their positioning on the shirt and change the color palette slightly. Once the work was complete, the designer told the artist she herself now owned the design, and if the weaver made anything like it again, she would take her to court. 

“The women here didn’t understand what was going on,” Ms. Aspuac says. “No huipil is identical, but they often look similar to each other. You always know what community it comes from. When it leaves our hands and we’re told it’s no longer our history or our art, that’s a problem,” she says.

Risks of legislation

The national weaver’s group presented its proposal to reform current intellectual property laws to legislators in November 2016, and it was accepted for debate in 2017. The initiative aims to recognize that indigenous communities are the intellectual owners of their art, automatically allowing them to benefit from intellectual property law as a collective group. If they’re recognized as the creators of these textile designs, the individuals, companies, or corporations that financially benefit from their work would be required to return a percentage of the profits to the indigenous communities.

The proposal has received support from indigenous lawmakers, though they only represent about 12 percent of legislators. But some question whether trying to adapt modern laws to ancient practices is the most effective approach.

“I’m completely sympathetic with the women behind this initiative,” says Walter Little, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, who studies textiles in Guatemala. They have “a long history” of “not being recognized for their cultural contributions in fair ways.”

He notes examples of Maya weavers in neighboring Mexico, where internationally-known designers like Christian Louboutin have been accused of using Maya textiles without fairly compensating local artists.

“On the surface it sounds good: trying to protect cultural heritage as expressed through textiles and a set of designs,” he says. “The problem is that many of these designs have already spread throughout the whole region,” he says. “It gets sticky when you say ‘This is my symbol, or this design is from my town.’ ”

Morena Perez Joachin /Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A woman works on a loom. Fewer young people learn traditional weaving methods today than a few generations ago, Guatemalan weavers say.

Dr. Little fears that looking at textile design through the lens of fashion essentially “freezes it in time as a kind of folk art or folk material and that doesn’t allow it to actually live.”

“I think of [weaving] like a language,” he adds. Among indigenous communities, “it’s more vibrant when everyone is using it, fooling around with it, taking from others, and making new combinations. Vibrancy in language indicates strength, and in textiles it’s the same way.”

‘It’s up to indigenous women’

Even as the proposal drags on, weaving collectives say they feel a sense of hope in the awareness it’s raised. Indigenous Guatemalans make up between 40 and 60 percent of the population, yet suffer widespread discrimination.

Indigenous women like the weavers “are subjected to jokes and racism in the streets,” says Ms. Aspuac. Even in Guatemala’s Congress, colleagues have referred to indigenous legislators as “stupid Indians.” 

Today, six Maya communities have established advisory boards, says Ms. Aspuac, and two more are establishing them. They field requests from the likes of government ministries wanting to publish photos of textiles from their town, or Ph.D. students studying textile design in Guatemala. There are also efforts to document different symbols, and sources for natural dyes. 

Back in AFEDES, a small group of women gathers on the top floor to weave using back-strap looms.

“If we lose our textiles and the history of weaving, it’s another form of losing our language and who we are,” says Maria Corina Puac Con, as she works on a white textile with red, yellow, and green symbols. She’s sent her youngest daughter to one of the workshops here.

Ms. Aspuac echos this sentiment. “The government isn’t doing anything, so it’s up to indigenous women to hold on to our identity,” she says.

“We’re simply asking for a fair relationship, where there’s a conversation and understanding between those who want to sell and benefit from our history and those who are the true owners – the community.”

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