Testament to survival: Cotzal’s artists endure pressures new and old

By: Richard Brown

Guatemala is internationally renowned for producing some of the most beautiful textiles in the world, and the women of the Maya Ixil town of Cotzal, in Quiché, produce some of the country’s most dazzling patterns.

Their art is a testament to survival. The Tejidos Cotzal cooperative, for example, was formed in 1990 by six widows of the Ixil genocide of the ‘70s and ‘80s who sought to piece together their shattered lives, feed their families, and preserve centuries-old weaving practices. Today, the 45 women of the cooperative, like the rest of Cotzal and much of the country, are facing increasing pressures new and old.

Cheap, machine-made textiles, some imported from China and Mexico, plagiarize Maya patterns and undercut textile prices. Food prices are rising, and low wages on plantations—where laborers have to work even under torrential rains, sleep on the floors of galeras, or long, roomless dormitories, and often see outbreaks of diarrhea and pneumonia—have fallen with international coffee prices.

Many families can’t afford nutritious food, much less send their kids to school. Lila Álvarez, the Food Security Program Coordinator Cotzal’s health center, said, “There are communities where 100% of the kids have chronic malnutrition.”

Small farmers are also struggling. Most of the area’s best land is owned by a handful of European-descended families who seized it 100-150 years ago to found plantations, and climate change is straining small farmers’ yields as the rains become less frequent and more intense.

An enormous hydroelectric dam built on the San Francisco coffee plantation has generated millions of dollars for ENEL, an Italian construction company, and the plantation’s owners, the Brol family, but has hurt small farmers by disrupting rivers and streams.

Despite the dam—built illegally, without the consent of affected Indigenous communities that Guatemalan law requires—thousands of families in Cotzal have been left off the electricity grid by Energuate, the electricity distributor with a monopoly in much of rural Guatemala that is supposed to expand coverage. Energuate is a subsidiary of I Squared Capital, a US-based private equity fund founded by ex-Morgan Stanley bankers. Community leaders, the mayor, and the town’s Catholic priest all told me that Energuate’s rates are abusive.

Photo: Alex Guerrero.

Over 2,000 people had connected themselves illegally to avoid Energuate’s rates, until, in October, Energuate cut power to the entire town for 11 days to force authorities to dismantle the illegal connections. Doctors in the health center were forced to attend births by candlelight.

I Squared Capital got what it wanted: the illegal connections were dismantled with help from the police, Energuate has not had to lower their rates, and thousands—including women of the Tejidos Cotzal cooperative—remain without power. In the words of Father Diego, “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

But the women of Tejidos Cotzal will never give up. They all lost family during the war, when plantation owners and the military coordinated to murder community leaders, massacre civilians, and burn towns to the ground to quash support for land and labor reform. Some of the women had to flee into the mountains and survived there for years. Without electricity, they’re buying candles to weave at night—for a decent diet, to keep their kids in school, and to prevent their families off the plantations.

Over the last decade, they have slowly built an education center with an office, a shop, and rooms for rent. They prepare delicious traditional dishes—like boxbol sauces of ground pumpkin seeds, peppers, jitomates, and local black salt—and teach students fire roasting and stone grinding. They teach their weaving techniques and explain the ancient patterns they use. They tell stories of the war and their odysseys of survival and guide hikes to waterfalls and through some of Central America’s most beautiful mountains.

They show how they create beauty despite incredible challenges, and they teach how to never give up. To visit, request a virtual catalog, or purchase weavings, contact Pedro Marroquín at cooperativacotzal@gmail.com / +502 4621 9725

Cover photo: Tejidos Cotzal