The Weaver


Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, 49, is a resident of Santa Catarina Barahona, an indigenous village in Sacatepéquez.  She is an experienced tejedora, a weaver who hand-makes huipils, a traditional one-piece dress. She also makes servietas, an embroidered cloth that can serve as a napkin, a table setting, or a covering for freshly cooked tortillas.  All of the woven materials are known as “tejidos.”  

The wearing of the huipil is a proud pronouncement of a local tradition as well as a marker of an indigenous identity, and patterns and designs vary from community to community.  A characteristic that additionally highlights this more traditional style of life is the ability to speak a Mayan language. There are 23 Amerindian languages spoken in Guatemala, 21 of which are said to be descendants of proto-Mayan, the language of the inhabitants of the Mayan empire a thousand years ago. In Hilma’s village, Kachiquel Maya is widely spoken.

Both my mother and father spoke Kachiquel so we grew up speaking it. We speak Kachiquel with family and friends or on the street.  I spoke Kachiquel to my three children so they speak it, but there are some parents who don’t speak Kachiquel to their children, and you can see the difference.  We also learned Spanish in school, but that was easy because we hear it all the time. Thank goodness we speak both Kachiquel and Spanish.

It was my mother who taught me originally to weave.  The most difficult is to do the main drawing on the blouse, the main picture, that is the hardest, and when I wasn’t understanding it, my aunt would come and help me.  She taught me a lot. I eventually learned how to do everything and I have the designs in my head.

It takes about two months to make a huipil.  One feels happy after it’s completed, because then you can receive money and buy what you need. A servieta will go for 100 quetzales (about 13.5 US dollars), and a huipil will sell for 1,500 quetzales  (a little over 200 US dollars).

Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

Thanks to God, life is tranquil and we have everything in this town.  My husband works in carpentry and sometimes helps haul trash for the municipality.  There is also demand for the weaving. I sell what I weave here in town, but I used to sell through my aunt, who would market the materials in other places. Unfortunately, she died two years ago of cirrhosis at the age of 54.

Some young women like to weave and will carry on the tradition, but others don’t.  My daughter, for instance, she is a teacher, and she was never interested in it.  I would try to show her and she would be indifferent, and I would ask her what she would do if she were out of work without knowing the craft.  She would just say, “Hey, I don’t like to weave.”  She would ask me, “Who invented this stuff?” (Laughs)

But later she went and worked selling the huipils at artisan shops.  Weavers would bring their wares to her for her to sell them, and how she could sell those clothes!  She would get contracts with store owners in Antigua and Puerto Quetzal (on the Pacific Coast) to sell the tejidos, and thank God she was so good at it.  She would just put on her pants and t-shirt, or her blouse (non-traditional dress), and do business. Everybody wondered how she did it.  She now lives in the United States, in Los Angeles.

There have been people or companies that are producing huipils and other articles that are made from a machine, and we don’t really know who they are.  About a half year ago people began to buy these clothes because they were cheaper.  They were very tough, very hard.  The people making them were not from here and all of the local weavers were being undermined. Fortunately, the government enacted a law of protection to help us, to prevent the mass manufacturing of the huipil.  Otherwise a lot of people would have no source of income.

Woman dressed in traditional style, Antigua, Guatemala, October 27, 2019.

I know a woman who was in a bad situation, she had children and no way to make money.  She asked me to teach her how to weave, and I taught her, and within a few months she began to make a huipil.  She now knows how to do it, and thank God that woman is now working.  She was so appreciative and told me that because of it she is eating, and that without learning it she would not have been able to feed her children.  She wanted to pay me back somehow, but I am Evangelical and know the word of God, and I told her that she did not have to do that.

Hilma Sagché at her loom, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

I interviewed Hilma Sagché in Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala on July 5, 2019.  My translation.

From Kachiquel to English: One Man’s Vision

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, 39, grew up in a family of 8 children in Santa Catarina Barahona, a town of about 3,500 residents in the department of Sacatepéquez. Most of the community’s inhabitants speak Kachiquel Maya and maintain a culture somewhat distinct from Guatemala’s Ladino population. In this narrative, Sagché speaks of the particularities of having an indigenous identity, his involvement in local politics, and why he plans to start a school to teach English to local youths. He begins by reflecting on his father’s migration to the US, and how that event has impacted his life. 

When my father was young he had land but no more than to grow maize and beans for the family. He needed more money so he left for the Guatemalan military when he was 22 years old, and there he began to study and learn music.  Because of his aptitude, he learned to play many instruments, but particularly the marimba, and he became a music instructor within the armed forces.  He also earned money from playing in bands, but it was still not that much.  My mother weaved clothes in the traditional style to bring in more income, but it was just not enough.

When I was eight, the military offered my father an opportunity to perform music in San Francisco, California.  He agreed and accompanied former soldiers to represent Guatemala in the Guatemalan embassy.  At the beginning he thought it was just a trip, a temporary opportunity to play, but one of the representatives told him he could stay in the United States if he wanted, and he would get a visa.  Obviously, he wanted to be with his family, but at the same time, financial necessity was bearing down on him.  He could provide for us much better in the US, so he stayed in the States.  We always communicated with him, but that was the last I saw him.

My father settled in San Rafael, CA and was there for 25 years.  At the beginning, I think it was hard for him because he did not speak English and that limited the work he could get.  And of course, the rent was high and the food expensive, he had to buy clothes, and he had to go study English, which he learned eventually. Along with playing in a marimba band, he worked in a hotel doing different jobs.  He worked in the kitchen or as a waiter, or in pubic relations.  

My father died in the US seventeen years ago of stomach cancer.  We could not afford to bring his body back, only his ashes. Later, when my mother died, we put her body in a nicho (a small edifice with spaces for the remains of the dead), and put her with my father’s ashes. We could say that they were finally rejoined.

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, Antigua, Guatemala, July 1, 2019.

If my father had stayed here in Guatemala, the truth, I don’t know what would have happened, but with such a large family to support, I doubt it would have been anything positive. As it was, we never lacked for the basics, thank God, because my father sent money to us.  We were even able to buy a lot of property.  In fact, we all received a piece of land and I live on it today alongside my brothers and sisters.  There were other pieces of land that were bought as well. 

But growing up that way was tough for me.  Imagine a ten-year-old without his father.  It was even harder for my mother because, well, let’s just say she was not only a mother but had to be a father also. She had to discipline us, and there were a lot of us children.

I was a little bit restless at school, and that was just part of my character.  I fought with some of my classmates, but I managed to get through and I finished high school. I didn’t go to university for economic reasons, but what really helped me was English. I was able to study English in the capital and in the town of Antigua, and I later got work because of it.  Learning English opened doors for me: to know more people and to communicate better is a very important part of life, and that is the case in politics also.  

Sagché became active politically some ten years ago and recently worked in the mayoral race in Santa Catarina Barahona.

I first participated in a campaign because, truthfully, politics always brings opportunities.  It’s like a bridge to some type of work in the government or elsewhere.  In the last campaign, I was an organizer, and I have to say, this time it was different.  Perhaps because I have matured a little bit, I saw it

Hector at Santa Catarina
Hector Sagché on his family’s land. Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

not as a way to gain something, but to get to know people and to get to know them well.  Through organizing, I could get closer to people in the community and to exchange ideas, and to think about how to make life better.  

The social part is very important in politics. There are many candidates with good academic preparation, licenciados (college educated), but at times they don’t win because they don’t manage to get to know people.  In contrast, there are some in my town that are not as well educated, but they win because they are able to meet and form relationships with so many in the community.  You have to have a lot of friendships.

Unfortunately, many people don’t believe in politics because there is so much corruption in it, and that’s why its reputation is so bad.  Some of the leaders take advantage of their position and are just there to enrich themselves.  In the last campaign, it was clear that it was not clean.  Not only in my community, but in the country as a whole, there are politicians who profit from those who are most in need; the candidates  give them a bit of money in exchange for their votes.  These people really need the money so they accept it, and that money is corrupt to begin with.  It’s extra money that has come in to someone already in office, perhaps as part of a construction contract between a firm and the government. In that last campaign, there was a lot of corruption, but, as I say, it’s not only in my community, but in Guatemala generally.  The national hospitals are an example.  Sometimes there aren’t enough doctors, and they say they don’t have the funds to supply them, but it is generally known that that is because people in high positions have taken the money. 

Having said that, I believe politics itself is good. You can change things in the community because through interacting with people, you become aware of people’s needs.  If you manage to get into power, and your commitment comes from the heart, you can help people.

Sagché reflects on the distinct characteristics of his community, and how coming from his town has affected his experiences and shaped his identity.

My parents always communicated in Kachiquel so I grew up speaking it.  Also, in primary school, they gave us classes in Kachiquel, and they would go over the writing and the correct pronunciation of the language. Different communities have their own pronunciations for certain words, but the Ministry of Education has a standard one, and it is slightly different from ours, at least for some words like “to walk,” which we pronounce, “P’in.” Our neighbors say, “p’en” and the Ministry of Education says, “P’enon.”

Our town is right next to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where they also speak Kachiquel. Despite the fact that we are neighbors, there are variations in the language. In my opinion, the differences mark the communities’ identity.  It’s a way we distinguish ourselves.  If someone pronounces something differently, you know where they are from, you can identify that difference very rapidly. Also, there is a change in the culture and style as you move throughout different communities.

One of the features of my town that we are proud of is that we have clean, natural water in our houses and in public washing areas and it is free to our residents.  There is even a fountain in the park that people can drink from.  They say we are blessed because of it.   We have enough water not only for us but for our neighbors, who pay us to supply them our water. So this is part of our identity.

I would also say that many people from other places have chosen to live here because they like the atmosphere, including the good water and fertile land. The people are peaceful and we normally don’t have problems with violence.  There may be small crimes or arguments, but it’s not a dangerous place to live. It’s nice to be here in this town.

Town square with the fountain, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 1, 2019.

Unfortunately, because of the long-term consequences of the Spanish conquest, many of our customs have diminished.  Right now, frankly, more Spanish is spoken than Kachiquel.  The majority of the people in my town of course can speak Kachiquel, but the number is going down.  

Still, in my community, some of our customs have been maintained, like the creation of tejidos  (garments made from weaving threads) and there are many tejedoras (weavers).  They make the huipil (a one-piece slipover dress decorated with embroidery) and sell it or wear it.  It’s one custom that comes from our ancestors, and it has been maintained.  Another is the food dish, pepian, which we still eat.  (Pepian is a meaty spicy stew thought to have been fused from Mayan and Spanish cuisines.)

Other Guatemalans might know something of my background because I identify myself from the community I’m from, Sta. Catarina Barahona, and people might know that that is an indigenous community.  Also, my last name might sound strange to them because it is Sagché, so there again they might know that I am indigenous. 

On one hand it’s fine because I can identify where I am from and everyone can identify themselves.  The sad and negative part is that in my country there exists a lot of discrimination.  For example, when I worked in a call center in Guatemala City, some who were from the capital believed themselves to be better.  They call themselves ladino or urban mestizo, sometimes as if to say that it is superior to someone who is indigenous.  

But there are several types of discrimination. If you are poorer, they discriminate against you, if you haven’t studied, they discriminate against you, if you are indigenous, they discriminate. This hinders us from advancing as a country because people need to be united. Discrimination is always going to exist and it still exists, but the best way to eradicate it is for the people to change from within, because many say they want a better country, but what are they doing?  No one says that they are going to change their own attitude. 

I would like people in general to be broader minded, to be a little more visionary. Even in my town, If someone starts a new project, say a new business, it can be very difficult.  Some will support it, but others will ask: “what are you doing?” A few people don’t want others to get ahead or they don’t want anyone to do things differently. 

 If we lack for something it’s education.  Some kids end up going to school only up to the 6th grade because of economic necessity. Many large families with limited resources can’t afford the materials needed for their children’s schooling, like supplies, uniforms and lunch money.  As a consequence, several children leave school to go work and contribute to the family. So we need to promote more sources of employment in the community, to give people the opportunity to send their kids to school for longer periods of time.

I would really like to help kids with scarce resources, to help them learn a little bit of English.  In my community, many people find it very expensive to learn English so they don’t have that possibility.  For that reason, I am working on a project to give classes in English, and to give scholarships to students, principally children and adolescents, because they are the future.  English is important in graduating from high school, but the kids here are not going to be able to study it because they don’t have the opportunities here in this location.  Neither do they have the money to travel somewhere to study it.  So I think it would help a lot to establish a school and subsidize their learning of English in this town, so they wouldn’t have to travel outside.  All of that money for transportation is an expense.  

Santa Catarina Barahona is only a few miles from the town of Antigua, a popular tourist site with throngs of foreign visitors as well as foreign residents influential in the community. This milieu has led to a number of vending opportunities for indigenous people in the area as well as a connection to a broader world.

I feel that language study is so important because within it you study a culture, the mind changes, one is more open.  For example, the youth here, by learning English, could speak to someone from Europe and through that interaction they would hear new ideas.  But they are not going to be able to achieve that if they don’t know the language.  The school I am starting is called Escuela de Inglés de Comunicación Excepcional (Outstanding Communication English School). We need instruction to make our youth more capable, but we need the funds to do it. I am hoping to raise money to offer scholarships.

There are many people without a lot of education who have a lot of children, and there are a lot of single mothers, so their own resources become diffused, making it harder for them to maintain their children’s education. I think that helping them to study English is going to induce them to think in different ways and more positively.  To think in terms of potential.  This is what we lack.  

Perhaps in the past it was different because there was so much land then, so having 10 kids, you could still give them a plot of land.  But actually, now, in the community, the residences are getting smaller and many people now rent, so everything has changed.  This educational part is vital and one of the reasons I am forming this project.  I could connect with other educators who could come and give talks to women, to parents who are studying here, so they could become exposed to new ways of thinking.  That is how I want to help the community.

School children in the central square. Sta. Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

This narrative was produced from an interview carried out in Antigua on July 1, 2019, and reflects the author’s translation.

Life in the 1970s

Domingo Boche Estrada, 61 years of age, grew up in Antigua, Guatemala during the country’s civil war (1962-1996) and lives just outside of town today.  While he did not participate in the war, Domingo lived in fear of being dragooned into the Guatemalan Military when he was young, which was a common concern among men living in Guatemala around the age of 18.  He describes the process of forced recruitment and how he was able to avoid it in his youth. I interviewed him on September 29, 2018. Below are excerpts from his testimony, edited and translated.

There was a man, they called him Chita, like in Tarzan, and he shined shoes in the central square and had a permanent place there.  He was always at his workshop, and there were always people around him talking to him.  But when he wasn’t there, that was the signal that soldiers would soon arrive to Antigua and work with the local comisionados militares (military commissioners) to capture people for the army.

[These comisionados militares originally formed in 1938 to recruit people into the military.  Prominent members of a particular community would usually be chosen to perform this role, and they later aided in gathering counterinsurgency intelligence during the war.]

Chita was part of it, part of the recruiting.  Generally, we always monitored Chita, because when he wasn’t there that was the indication that the military was coming to grab guys, so we all communicated among each other, among us young guys, to inform each other so as not to leave our homes, because if we went out we might have back luck and be captured.

No one wanted to go into the army because there was a lot of bad talk about military service.  There was a fear of it.  There were so many stories of guys being taken to the military encampment and beaten.  They would be denigrated.  For example, the army would take a guy, strip him down and throw him into freezing water, or they would make him eat bad things, to degrade him.  If a soldier of a higher rank wanted to punish his subordinate for not doing his job well, the punishment would be severe.  I never experienced it, but the stories were legion.  So many things that were not correct.  Maybe it was a way to harden them, so when they went into the field of battle, they would apply the same attitude that had been applied to them.

In reality, there was nothing in the mind of the people about the conflict, they just heard of the suffering that the soldiers had to endure, so they tried to avoid the military.  The people had no concept of communism or capitalism.  They heard about it but did not understand what the ideas represented.  It was only when I went to the university in Guatemala City that I came into contact with these ideas.  But the people did not have any interest in being part of any one group.  They really did not know why they were fighting.

The military commissioners in town were part of the military, or close to it.  They had a lot of privileges, benefits like access to the comisiariato, a store for the military, exclusively for them, where they could go and buy boots, shoes, clothes, whiskey, a lot of imported goods at really cheap prices.

The military commissioners did the recruiting in their own pickup trucks, and they would usually operate with one or two soldiers that came from the city.  There would be as many as ten commissioners total, and they would take up strategic positions in town, where young men would pass, so when they saw potential recruits, they would attack them.  Maybe they would place themselves in the central square, or at other strategic areas, and usually they would come around the time when people went to work, because they knew people would have to go to their jobs.  The recruiters would hide, chase the young guys, and capture them.  And then they would take them to the pick-up, and there would be an armed soldier waiting.  And if the recruits tried to get away, they would pursue them and beat them with hoses that had blades tied to them.

All of my life that was happening, but when I was almost 18, I really had to hide from the military commissioners, so as not to go into the army, because that was a fear we all had, as a youth, to be captured and taken away to the barracks.

There once was a procession [a parade with strong community involvement, most often carried out for religious purposes].  Usually processions would be respected, but one day we were going along with the procession and the commissioners appeared behind it, so, because I was with two older brothers and some friends who also could be recruited, we started to walk little by little away from the procession, and then we started to run.  Unfortunately, one of our friends was captured.

But that turned out to be a funny situation.  At that time, our friend lived near the recruiting office, the office of military reserves.  It was at this office that they would take and look at the recruits, review their documents and everything, and then see if there was some defect to them, or if they could be exempted because they were married, or if they were butchers, worked in hospitals or health clinics.  Because he lived close to him, my friend knew the official there and was a friend of his.  So the official invited him to sit down and have some coffee, and then let him go.  The soldiers were mad but the official said, “ah, he’s my friend.”

Domingo’s Background

Domingo was part of a large family, being one of ten children, with three sisters and six brothers.  His father ran a bakery with his mother’s assistance.

My mom never studied.  She was from a very poor family that worked on a coffee plantation.  Later, she left, but my grandparents continued working there.  My mother, when she was playing with other children, got struck in the eye with a branch, and after that accident, she didn’t go back to school, so she could not read or write.  Also, my grandmother had trouble taking her to the school on time, and would get scolded by the teacher and my mother didn’t like it.

My father’s parents worked on a coffee plantation also, but they had a piece of land and had some cows.  My father would help his dad and take them out to pasture.

When my father was like seven or eight years of age, he was in the street playing when the police passed and asked where his parents were, and then they took him and some others to school.  The police told the teacher that they had found these kids playing in the street, so they asked the teacher to take them in and teach them, so my father learned to read and write and learned how to add and subtract.

My father stopped school when he burned his hand around the age of nine.  Because his family was poor, they cooked over the floor on stones, and he was sitting near the fire at night, and he began to nod off, and all of a sudden, he started to fall forward and burned part of his hand.  That’s when he stopped studying.

I never knew my grandparents because they died when my parents were young.  I think my dad’s parents spoke Kachiquel, because we had an aunt who spoke Kachiquel.  But since my dad moved from his home in Chimaltenango to Antigua early in life, he changed part of his customs because the culture here is different.  We really all have indigenous roots, but we lost contact with the culture.

Domingo went on to study at the University of San Carlos in architecture, but later took up the humanities to teach high school.  His brother also studied at the university, in economics. 

At the university you learned about capitalism and marxism.  We could not completely embrace marxism because of our catholicism. I was in the middle.  I was what they call a radish, red on the outside but white on the inside.  I used to argue with my brother at home because he studied economics and tended to defend capitalism more.  My mother got worried about the arguments and thought we were going to come to blows, so we had to convince her that we were not going to attack each other, that we were just having a discussion.  But most people had no idea about these ideologies.  The guys who were recruited into the military were just told that communists were bent on destroying  democracy, so they would go out and kill the guerrillas.