With a tie-dye Jansport backpack layered over a navy Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt, 27-year-old Vanessa Martinez stands out like a daffodil in a rose garden amidst the traditional, authentically woven clothing sold at the Mercado de Artesanías in San Antonio Aguas Calientes.“l was going to wear a huipil today, but I forgot,” she says with a laugh.
The two-story, open-roof textile market holds more than 20 vendors just like Martinez, selling and weaving huipilles – a traditional Mayan blouse – and other accessories in designs specific to San Antonio, Guatemala.
Martinez wove her first huipil when she was 7 years old. Three more followed at the ages of 11, 15 and 18. But even while she continues the weaving tradition of her grandmother, mother and sisters, Martinez also pioneers her own way in life. She is the only daughter in her family to graduate from high school, enabling her to manage the family’s business stall at the market and work at a local hotel.“I am a weaver and a retailer, because I have to know what I’m selling in order to sell,” Martinez explains. “There are some retailers who don’t know how to weave, but everything in my store is made by me and by my family.”
Martinez’s family, home and workspace is a 13-minute uphill cobblestone walk away. Lines of freshly laundered jeans and red T-shirts dangle among pots of foliage and unlit string lights, creating a porous canopy of sunlight and shade at least a foot above the heads of Vanessa’s mother, Elma Liria Sotz, and two older sisters, 33-year-old Leidy Amarilis and 36-year-old Esmida Maide. The Martinez family’s tin-wall, open-roof courtyard doubles as a work space for the three bustling women, who weave the clothes Martinez sells at the market. Their creations take shape in the style of the magenta and violet huipiles now covering their flexing forearms and laughing bellies.
Huipiles are Elma’s favorite garment to weave, but as her sight fades she now focuses on table centerpieces, like the tan threads she weaves today.“My grandma taught my mom to weave, she taught me and I taught my children,” Sotz explains, as she caresses a huipil her grandmother weaved nearly a century ago. “Our ancestors taught us all of this. But for us it is like painting. We are inspired.
Most weaving cities in Guatemala possess a distinct pattern or style of huipil which is indicative of their geographical region and survives on the basis of town pride and the continuation of the trade from one generation to the next. In San Antonio Aguas Calientes, huipiles are woven on both sides, a specialized rarity which requires additional time and work.“San Antonio huipils are most expensive because they have two sides,” VanessaMartinez explains. “What we charge is the time we put into it.”
Huipiles require the more time to weave than fajas, cortes, table centerpieces, purses or wallets. They require a detail-oriented process which can take up to 8 months of counting and sorting the threads, organizing them in pattern order, and utilizing wooden instruments to weave the textiles by hand. Huipiles will sell for a final price near 5,000 quetzales, or approximately $665.
While Martinez functions as the face of the family’s company in the market, the three women back home are the muscles, spine and soul behind many of the colorful textiles.“Leidy and I were not forced to drop out of school,” shares eldest sister, Esmida, who is married with three sons. “But the family did not have many resources, so we chose to drop out to weave ... Our mother always said she didn’t have to drag Vanessa to school, she was excited to go,” Esmida says, squinting into a ray of sun. “I wish I could have graduated.”
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Martinez weaves and sells the family’s textiles at Casa de Santo Domingo, one of Antigua’s most expensive resorts. Martinez braves the half-hour drive on bumpy dirt roads into Antigua’s crowded cobblestone to capitalize on the town’s tourist market. An elderly couple, who grew fond of Martinez’s weaving capabilities and work ethic, paved the way for Martinez to sell her wares at this pricy locale.
As exotic birds squawk relentlessly above, she works with two other artisans selling woven goods to tourists. Martinez shifts weight from one aquamarine Converse to another, reflecting on where these shoes have tread. “I had an amazing experience,” Martinez says of her public high school education. “But at the same time I feel very sad when I think about it. I stayed because our family had the economic resources, but I felt guilty.”
Although Martinez treasures her education as the means by which she can organize the finances and understand the workings of the business, she recounts “having all her family and serving God” as her life’s greatest blessings, rather than her schoolwork.
Yet, in a nation where a mother’s average age when she first gives birth is 20.3 years – according the CIA World Factbook – and an industry which relies on the preservation of family tradition, Vanessa currently maintains no plans for getting married or having children. “Family is beautiful,” Martinez says, but not for her. Not now.
Martinez has family in the United States. Her brother and uncle live and work in Los Angeles, and have asked her to join them. “I want to travel soon,” Martinez shares. “I want to go there and sell textiles. But I also want to spend time with my parents.”
The hotel birds shriek and the sun alternately brightens and dims, playing hide and seek behind puffy white clouds. Martinez’s two co-workers resituate woven wallets and adjust colorfully threaded purses, pretending not to listen. “I want to help my family financially and return to them what they have given me,” Martinez says, as the skin above her almond-colored eyes crinkles in concentration. “You can want a lot of things, but God has the final say.”