They Create Change Through Art


Art is a medium for expression, an exposé of feeling and ideas, a channel for telling history.  But it can also remake society.  In the Basque country and in Guatemala there are groups of women who have found art to be closely connected with healing and promoting change — promoting social transformation.

In a photo of the Mancomunidad Tzolojya, (a coalition of various Mayan groups around Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán area) one sees a woman with her gaze fixed and an expressive smile.  She holds a piece of artwork which she places on her chest.  It is a huipil (the over-blouse traditionally worn by Mayan women) with multi-colored lines of purple and fucshia flowers.  Along side her face is the message,

“Upon seeing my reflections in the mirror I will empower myself and realize how far I have come.”  She is one of the women who through the project “Weaving Lives Free of Violence Through Economic Empowerment of the Indigenous Women of Sololá”  found weaving provides a healing benefit and erradication of the scars of violence.

En Sololá, one of Guatemala’s provinces, during 2019 the Mancomunidad Tzolojya(Manctzolojya) initiated a project through which knowledge of ancestral history, art and healing for women were fused together.

“The relationship is intrinsic:  if one exists, the other exists.  The artistry of weaving and embroidery contribute to realizing ancestral knowledge and above all highlights art as historic expression by First Peoples.  Needlework and backstrap weaving allow women to heal through occupational practices.  Additionally, they analyze, grow, and more than anything, develop self-empowerment.  It helps to create supportive networking, with analysis, with general support, and sisterhood to create strategic plans for making a better life,” explains Marta Julia Cuc Chiroy, general manager of Manctzolojya.

Textiles are open books possessing huge amounts of information.  Through their clothing First Peoples evidence the social struggle in the region despite all the difficulty involved in preserving it.  “Preserving traditional dress represents knowledge and history which can not be erased” claims Marta Julia.

With restoration and reclamation of ancestral  practices like weaving and needlework, along with creativity and innovation, the women have created undertakings which allow for a better quality life and break the circle of violence.

Manctzolojya encourages organization and participation of the people in order to promote sound and sustainable development in this unified region.  Their contributions come out of economic, sociocultural, political, environmental, gendered and inter-generational points of view.  The coalition includes the municipalities of Santa Lucía Utatlán, Nahualá, Sololá and San José Chacayá.

“The work indigenous women in the Mancomunidad region do is a satisfying experience.  It’s gratifying to see women with so many skills and so much training.  When they come together to learn, the weaving classroom turns into a healing space of recreation, filled with happiness and many colors.  We’re grateful for the assistance from Getxo, Leioa (Basque country) and Entreamigos-Lagun Artean for having confidence in our work.  Art can change lives,” Marta Julia adds.

In just three months female students from Group One from the Weaving School of Santa Lucía Utatlán learned to make the faja, a simple sash/belt (worn by those who dress traditionally), a napkin and a huipil  specific to their municipality.  During the process they received training to learn about important themes relating to violence against women and steps toward healing.  While they were weaving and embroidering they were also learning about their rights.

“It is a difficult and exhausting process, but gives much satisfaction knowing that all this work comes as a result of owning our own weaving and having the power to do it,” says Cindy García, one of the participants.

Stories Also Change

There’s a push for innovative communications in which art is the main force of action. Entreamigos-Lagun Artean or EA-LA, proponent of the project Education for Social Transformation in Euska Herria (home of the Basque people) is the group behind this effort.  Among these activities we are highlighting the Jornadas EmpoderArte or Conferences for Empowerment Through Art.  Guatemalan and Basque women from differing artistic disciplines have come together at these gatherings to talk about their life experiences and what it means to be a woman artist.  Along with this effort EA-LA also encourages recovery of Guatemalan legend which has added a new focus, a feminine focus for Cristina Chiquín, Sara Curruchich, Isabel Hernández, and Rebeca Lane, four Guatemalan women.

The four are experts in the oral traditions of their country and Mayan spirituality.  This expertise is passed on to Guatemala via women’s voices — through their voices and diverse artistic expressions.  Narrations of these legends are adapted for adults,  showing actual real life circumstances.  The narratives reflect situations and life experiences which often are surprisingly similar to real life.  They show the inequality and current social injustices where the protagonists are principal players and able to make change.  In this way Entreamigos-Lagun Artean promotes recognition in Guatemala of these stories and that these women transform them by incorporating a feminist perspective through struggle and reclamation of their heritage.  With each story or history, reality is seen through a feminine lens.  There’s a break from traditional roles imposed on women and men.  The initiative shows that history can come full circle and can be told by women’s voices.

These stories, legends and histories have the objective of raising awareness and sensitivity among the Basque people about specific and relevant themes around culture and identity, environmentalism and equitable relations between men and women, presenting initiatives which try to improve the situation of peoples of the southern hemisphere.

“Obligated to marry an older man who believes women should be controlled and that their bodies are a sex toy, but she flees because she knows that her body belongs to her alone,” so sings Sara in the new version of La Siguanaba. 

Artists Who Create Change

La Basu, a rapper from Euskal Herria, is one of the five artists most representative of Hip Hop.  During EmpoderArte conferences she remembers 25 years ago when room for her to perform was unlikely since the majority of performers in the world of art were men. “We needed people to know that there are women rappers, women graffiti artists, DJs, in everything Hip Hop there are women,” says La Basu.

It’s the reason Esquina Feminina emerged.  It is a women’s channel where they rap.  “When they were coming and were saying to you:  There are no women rappers, we say, ‘Excuse me–here’s the channel’.  We began our radio program with the sounds of women rappers exclusively.  We held workshops for women and for both women and men.  I was very interested in insuring that men saw what women were doing with HipHop.   In the men’s world, I sometimes felt quite misunderstood,” declares La Basu, who also organizes a festival where only women sing.

Eli Pagola participated during another conference filled with lively laughing and singing.  She is an important artist to be recognized for her courage in valuing popular culture as a way of demanding  justice.

Forty years ago verse-improvising women began improv in public spaces.  Earlier verse improvisers were men who performed improv in the Basque language for men in spaces closed to women.  Women improvisers distinguished themselves for their talent in traditional spaces for men.  One of these women is Eli who stands out for her criticism of the current system through the use of rhyme.  She began at the age of eight and now is highly recognized and has been awarded prizes.

“It’s important to me, and emotional for me, that people be able to invest their time so that this cultural act can be carried to fruition.  The great number of people who voluntarily make a practice of hanging around improv, which is not a scene where one gets rich, the involvement of all these folks is huge.   It is impressive how there can be people who are listening intently for two hours to the sung discussion, performed a cappella, no musical accompaniment by four or five people, it’s emotional.  Each time there are more of us performing publicly, so each time there are more alliances, even though there are many, many young women who distanced themselves from the places were they can perform.  Alliance is important.  It’s supportive even though we are not always in agreement in every situation,”  assures Eli.

Just as music, photography, and video-recording can promote collectives among women, so too can acting as complainants, as healers, as changemakers, as human rights advocates.  To see more presentations by EmpoderArte and to listen to stories you can visit their YouTube channel, the Entreamigos-Lagun Artean channel.