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Fine weaving as a way of life

Lidia Chile does not consider herself to be a fancy dresser, and she certainly is not rich. Yet she would never think of leaving her house in Santo Domingo Xenacoj wearing anything less than a hand embroidered blouse worth many weeks' earnings.

Throughout the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, textiles are a way of life as well as a source of income, a statement of personal and community identity whose traditions reach back centuries. The fabrics, whose designs are often revealed to the weaver in dreams, could be considered an anachronism in a world of international fashions and assembly line production methods. But hand-made textiles are what these people know and what they do well.

Unfortunately, most highland weavers are commercial neophytes, according to Carmen Santos, executive director of the Mixco Development Foundation (Fundemix), an IDB-supported nongovernmental organization that administers training and credit programs for microentrepreneurs. Her staff helps producers adjust their product line to the realities of the global marketplace.

Fundemix's loan officers and design and production experts guide weavers into product lines that will sell, such as pillow cases, table cloths and napkins. They help the weavers to increase production by adopting new technology, such as the foot pedal loom.

When Fundemix opened its doors a decade ago, villagers suspected its staff of being tax collectors, thieves or guerrillas. But over the years, the microentrepreneurs and Fundemix have learned a great deal about each other.

Santos, for example, was not surprised when her knocks went unanswered at the first of several houses she visited on a recent afternoon. The families are probably off planting corn and beans in their plots, she explained. Farming guarantees the people something to eat in uncertain times, but it also limits their production of textiles.

At the third house, Santos found the women at their looms. They all wore the colorful blouses called huipiles, but their children ran about in factory-produced clothing.

Is the huipil disappearing? Not according to weaver Lidia Chile. "How else would people know where we're from if we're not wearing our huipiles?," she asks, adding that her daughters wear huipiles at special events.

But even as Guatemala's 21 ethnic groups, which comprise two-thirds of the country's population of 10.5 million, are reasserting their indigenous identity and pride, the old ways are changing. Many young women opt for contemporary fashions, and many of them actually work in clothing assembly plants outside of Guatemala City. When they arrive home from their factory jobs, they have little time or energy to devote to traditional weaving.

In the final visit of the day, this one to a family with a foot pedal loom, Santos asked the weaver--a man--how the payments are going.

"Look, doña Carmen, we are very behind," he replied.

"The problem with him is that he is a man," Santos later said, only half joking. The men are more prone to experiment and they over extend themselves and get into trouble. Some of them also spend their earnings on drink, she added.

The women, who make up nearly half of the credit recipients, are more realistic in their aspirations and more inclined to plow their earnings back into their homes, she said.

In general, Santos reports, her clients not only pay back their loans on time, but are demonstrating that a little business knowledge can go a long way in preserving their art and their livelihood.

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