Guatemalan Weaving - Juanita Velaso

February 22, 2003
Juanita Velaso

Juanita Velasco
Juanita Velasco
Photo: Terry Henley

Juanita Velasco came quietly into the Guild meeting room an hour before the start of the meeting, and, with the help of one or two members, quietly attached a large backstrap loom to one of the ceiling pipes in the front of the room and began making magic.

Last month's newsletter had a good biography which Juanita supplied, so I will not repeat all of it. In brief, Juanita, like 95% of all the women in her area, is a weaver who learned her techniques at the knee of her female relatives, in this case her grandmother, who began teaching her when Juanita was 7 years old. Each village uses a different pattern from their huipíl (shirt), based not on a particular design, but on that village's story, some of which Juanita told the Guild. Her village's story includes the characters of a princess, a hummingbird, and a horse (formerly a deer before the Spanish brought horses). When Guild members looked at her weaving carefully later, these figures appeared very clearly within the designs of all her work. She told us that a woman would only weave a pattern from another village if she married into that village, and was taught the myth by her mother-in-law. She did show us woven materials from other villages, whose colors and designs were different, such as that of Cobán, which is on the coast, where the weaving contains a lot of intense blues and greens, representing the ocean (although she said Cobán does not have as many traditional weavers left.)

She talked of the Mayan people, who live in small villages speaking 22 different languages and 11 different dialects. Their weaving tradition using the backstrap loom is 7,000 years old, and traditionally all the clothes they wear are woven by the women out of cotton. She showed us the parts of her traditional clothing: in addition to the huipíl, which, like many of the woven items, is double cloth -- one side with the design woven in, the other side plain, interlocked as one piece of cloth -- she showed us the shawl (rebozo in Spanish, asúte in Mayan) and the smaller zúte which can be used as a wrapper for food, or a pad on the head to cushion baskets or bags, she also showed us the belt (faja) which is also double-sided, one for decorative wear, the other side plain so when it is worn to help carry materials, or while cooking, it can be turned so the plain side can get dirty and leave the pretty side clean. She also showed us how to wear the head wrap (cinta) and explained that this keeps her hair out of her work, as well as being a traditional way to "complete the outfit".

She told us of being invited to come to the U.S. in 1981, first living in Minnesota, where the weather was very different from the warmth of Guatemala, and where she taught herself English from reading children's books and watching Sesame Street, and then coming to New York in 1992, which she liked much better than Minnesota, because of the variety of people here. And she likes bagels. She now lives in New York, and works at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green. One thing she found hard to get used to was talking to the museum visitors at the same time as she was weaving. She later showed us places in her weaving where she made mistakes because she was trying to talk and weave at the same time. She also had to get used to not charging people for taking her picture, as she did in Guatemala. She goes back to her village about once a year to visit, and remarked that most of the people in her village do not understand her wanting to live elsewhere, and are very happy living as they have always done.

She also showed us slides of Guatemala, and of her village, Nevá, of the corn (a staple of the diet) and vegetables, and goats (whose mouths are sometimes covered so they don't eat the nearby gardens when the goat herder -- usually a young boy -- has to stop and get some extra food with his slingshot). She told us that normally all ages work with their hands, and have chores and expected tasks. She admitted that the men work in the fields, and sometimes fish, but that they have an easier life than the women. The men are now beginning to do some of the weaving as well, but they do not usually wear traditional clothing anymore, the way the women still do.

One thing this brief description cannot convey is Juanita's excellent sense of humor. All of her descriptions and comments were given in a lively manner, and in her now-excellent English.

She ended her presentation by standing up at her loom while the Guild members crowded around to watch and to analyze the techniques she was using. Juanita admitted she did not know the names of the parts of the loom in English, but she certainly proved she knows how to use them! At this point, she told us, she does not count the number of warp threads she uses, just "knows" how many to lay out so that she gets the right size of garment she is making. She also supplied some beautiful weavings for sale. Many of us bought a piece of woven Guatemala to take home.

At the end of the demonstration and the meeting -- a generous surprise! Juanita gave her backstrap loom, with an unfinished huipíl, to the Guild! Of course, we gave her an honorary membership in return, so maybe we will see her again soon at a future meeting.

--Karen Gleeson.