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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Art as Territory: Mayan weavers advocate for collective intellectual property rights in Guatemala

AFEDES fighting for Mayan weaver’s rights
(Courtesy of Amherst College Official Facebook page)

Angelina Aspuac, a Mayan-Kaqchikel activist and lawyer in Guatemala, gave a talk at Amherst College on Tuesday, on a range of issues indigenous women face in Guatemala and around the world. These issues ranged from everyday racism to her topic of focus, the systemic exploitation and appropriation of Mayan weaving throughout the world.

The Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, AFEDES, is an organization that is fighting for weaver’s rights, with Aspuac serving as the legal coordinator. The group is a coalition of indigenous Mayan Kaqchikel women who have brought their grievances to the highest courts of Guatemala and are instigating important change.

Aspuac began her talk with a slide that read “ayer, ahora, y manana,” highlighting how the struggle of Mayan weavers is for the women of yesterday, today and tomorrow. She went on to talk about the Spanish Invasion, and how the past is an integral part of this conversation because of Guatemala’s history of repressive laws and because “Mayan woman have always been there.”

“We continue to resist not only legally and politically, with what we wear and what we want, which has always been an object of dispossession since that invasion,” Aspuac said.

Throughout her talk, Aspuac discussed how indigenous philosophy plays a large part in the creation of designs on huipils. One such view is a cosmic vision, called “Utz K’aslemal,” which roughly translates to “living well, or living plentiful, living harmoniously, with love.” To explain this, Aspuac displayed a web, with different things and values, all surrounding the word “vida.” In this model, what is most important is all life, not just human lives.

One major challenge she described was the racism that indigenous people face on a daily basis. She explained how from an early age, indigenous children are taught in school a history that depicts naked Mayan people next to Spanish soldiers in golden armor. Another major challenge Aspuac described was the failure to protect Mayan designs, just one way Mayan people are denied their right to be respected, she explained.

“We are right now facing various troubles; one is industrialization of the machines, to impress our designs in textiles all over the world,” said Aspuac. “So, people come to the machines and in Guatemala they buy those and then appropriate those designs, economic benefits that never come back to the community. It takes three months for a weaver to make it, it takes machines an hour.”

Weavers are labeled as “artisans,” not “artists,” which takes away certain values and protections endowed to artists. Coupled with this, the appropriation of textile designs makes it difficult to preserve and respect Mayan weaving traditions, where designs symbolize a range from ceremonial to daily attire.

“Companies have no meaning of if it is ritual, daily, gender based, for a certain age,” Aspuac explained, “They assume an authority in the community because they are deauthorizing the way that people use the clothes.”

Over the last year and a half, AFEDES has sued multiple times for not protecting Mayan weavers, and for allowing national and international companies to use Mayan design and fabric.

They proposed a law to the Guatemalan Congress, where one part proposes to reform intellectual property rights, and another to create a whole new law altogether that takes into account indigenous communities. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala passed a law protecting indigenous property. Among the changes Aspuac and AFEDES are working to implement is a council of weavers that companies have to appeal to if they want to use the indigenous designs.

“We have an organization of six communities with councils of weavers, so companies that want to make benefits with those weavers can talk to them.” Aspuac explained, “[companies] can’t say ‘we don’t know who to talk to,’ it is now clear.”

“I’m from Guatemala, so for me it’s really inspiring,” Soledad Slowing, a sophomore history and Latin American studies major at Amherst College said. “I know how Guatemala is, it’s a very oppressive state where activists are often targeted, so the fact that she and her organization have gotten so much done is crazy inspiring. There’s a lot of obstacles, especially as indigenous women in Guatemala, that they’ve overcome. I can’t imagine having done something like that.”

Manuela Picq, a visiting professor at Amherst College, invited Aspuac to speak at Amherst College to her class “Indigenous Woman in World Politics,” as part of a series of talks by indigenous women activists.

“The idea is to bring various indigenous women to speak, covering their struggles, industries and strategies,” Picq explained. “My hope is that they understand that there is not one culture that is superior to the other, and that it is not only what is said at Harvard that counts but that indigenous knowledge is not only precious and valuable, but it’s also shaping politics, stateness and sovereign.”

“It was completely different to hear her talk about her own experience, versus us learning about her through our own class and Manuela.” Araceli Alvarez, a senior economics major at Amherst College said. “For me it was that she is an elected leader from the committee, but my concept of leaders is that you only see them and they’re the most important person, and so all the pressure is on them. Whereas in all the pictures she showed, she was in a committee of women.”

“It was very clear that it was a committee of women that are spearheading this not just her. That was super powerful to see that it continued to be a community that led through this, not just her.”

Claire Healy can be reached at [email protected].

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