Lidia Serech Cutzal paced and frowned as she watched one, two, three hours slip by. The short clicks of the clock snipped and snapped like scissors shearing away the final frayed threads of her bittersweet childhood.
A 15-year-old with an 8 p.m. curfew, Serech begged and pleaded her boyfriend to allow her to return home, before it was too late. Finally, at 11 p.m. he relented and let her leave. Three hours past curfew and Lidia’s hour of reckoning had come. “My father was a strict and bad man,” Lidia recalls. “When we were young, he beat us with a whip this wide.” She spreads her thumb and forefinger about an inch and a half apart. “I was afraid to go back home, I was afraid my dad would kill me.”
With her love for her boyfriend crumpled like a dirty handkerchief in a back pocket, and the fear of death at her father’s hand clenching her stomach, Serech made a decision that would change her life forever. Rather than return home, she took a 10 quetzales (approximately $1.25) loan from a friend, and left her life, family and sleepy hometown of Comalapa behind to find work in Guatemala City.
When Lidia Serech Cutzal grins, her mouth transforms into a gleaming mosaic of crooked teeth and decorative gold crowns. Her shiny metal accessories at once disguise and augment past cavities and grievances. For this 58-year-old weaver and business owner, such scars and sorely won bandages prove a running theme. Her past and present are woven together like the many threads of the huipil and corte – traditional Mayan blouse and skirt, respectively – she wears under a thick golden sweater.
“Lidia’s not a typical Mayan weaver or woman,” says Molly Berry, one of Serech’s primary clients and owner of the Antigua home-goods wholesale company Luna Zorro. “She owns her own home. She owns her own car. She drives. She speaks Spanish and she has her own business. She’s a single mom. That’s just not typical.”
Almost all her life, Serech has lived in the dusty and sunburnt rural community of Comalapa, Guatemala. Red tuktuks, fruit vendors, and inexplicable patches of upturned asphalt obstruct most of the roads and pathways to her front door. One such Comalapan alleyway separates Serech’s wooden garage door and tan courtyard wall from a crumbling concrete structure in a field of crunchy hollow cornhusks.
A doorway within the garage door opens and Serech’s toothy grin emerges.“Welcome to my home,” Serech says in her native Mayan language, Cakchiquel.
Behind her a green courtyard leads up to her home, where a metallic Toyota RAV-4, parked beneath two slanted slabs of sheet metal covered in plentiful green vines, shimmers in competition with her sparkly silver hairclip to catch the rays of late morning sunshine.
A passageway off the front courtyard leads to Serech’s workspace and conjoining living space, which she shares with her red-cheeked, adopted son, 13-year-old David Emanuel. At the end of the passageway, Serech’s coworker, housemate and friend Esperanza sits in dappling sunlight, operating a wooden weaving instrument with firm hand movements, creating and responding to the rhythm of the soft hum which follows. Decades of shared tears, laughter and threads connect her to Serech.
In 1973, Serech found work in Guatemala City as a housekeeper, until the friend who loaned her the 10 quetzales a few months before discovered the reason Serech left and implored her to return home to Comalapa. “I came back and my father was waiting for me,” Serech recalls.
He knew about her boyfriend and gave her an ultimatum. “He had a whip and said, ‘You’re going to get married.’ I kneeled and begged my father, because I did not want to get married at 15.”
He forced Serech to marry, before she could escape once more. For days on end, Serech haunted the streets of Comalapa, as her father’s reputation kept people from offering her a job, a roof, money to leave town or even food. “I had nowhere to stay. Sometimes I ate, sometimes I didn’t.”
When her father found her, Serech refused to cooperate with him and return to her husband. She called the police, who claimed she must obey her father or go to jail.
Holding out her upturned wrists in demonstration, Serech said, “I would prefer to go to jail.”
The police handcuffed Serech and took her to jail. Before long the mayor of Comalapa got involved and asked the police officers and Serech’s father to release her. “My father said, ‘I will sign the divorce papers. You can go this way or that way, but you are no longer my daughter,’ ” Serech recalls, leaning back against a sewing table, hands clasped as though the interwoven fingers were a capsule restraining her grief from seeping out.
Once more she was without work, without a husband and without a family. For two years Serech wandered the streets, homeless. That’s when she met Esperanza, who helped her find employment as a housemaid for a woman named Josepha.“I know who your father is,’” Serech remembers Josepha saying. “I know he’s a bad man, but I’m not scared of him. You can stay with me and have a roof over your head. But, you have to earn your keep.’”
Though her father and Josepha each died many years ago, Serech’s eyes flit back and forth behind her glasses as if their ghosts dance among her workshop’s wooden weaving instruments as she speaks. “Since we were little we were taught to weave,” Serech says. “Because of discrimination. Because our parents would not send us to school.”
Serech began weaving when she was 8 years old. After just one year of school, Serech resigned herself to a life of weaving tablecloths and other textiles alongside her six sisters. “My father loved the boys more than the girls,” Serech says of her eight siblings. “We never had the love of our father. He never hugged or kissed us and when he came home we were afraid because he didn’t like noise.”
For years after her estrangement with her father, Serech was almost completely isolated from her family. When her brothers and sisters informed her that their father was dying, Lidia felt overcome with guilt and rushed to his bedside to ask forgiveness. He granted it, but still she felt unsatisfied.
As she raises her son, David Emanuel, Serech is slowly finding a way to reconcile her past by bringing up a child with the love and attention she never received. “I don’t like to punish him as long as he obeys the rules,” Serech said of the shy boy with sweeping black bangs and a gray and orange Nike hoodie, who watches and listens from across the room. “I don’t like the way I was raised. I want him to be a good man, a working man, a man with integrity.”
On mornings when her son goes to school, Serech rises early to cook tortillas with eggs in a kitchen with lime green cabinets. “I didn’t have an education,” says Serech. “But I want him to be a professional.”
Serech never thought she would adopt a child, but when she met 5-month-old David Emanuel, her preconceived notions dissolved.
“He never cried. He was the perfect baby,” Serech says of the boy who now shares her last name. “I fell in love with him. I wanted to hold my head up high and that’s why I adopted him legally.”
David Emanuel knows he’s adopted, but rarely speaks of it. Once he asked to meet his birth mother and Serech consented.
After the meeting, he looked to Lidia and said, “Even though you’re not my biological mother, you are my real mother and I love you.”
When Serech was 20 years old, she left her home and job with Josepha and became a weaver and administrator for Milena Prim, owner of the Antigua textile companies Textura and Hilosophy. When a popular Antiguan newspaper, Prensa Libre, featured Prem’s work, the businesswoman raved about her employee Serech, calling her special and hard working.
Soon after the article was published, a man came to Serech’s workplace and said his boss would like to meet the woman mentioned in the article. Intrigued, Serech mustered her confidence and agreed. The next morning, she ventured to the boss’s address and rang the bell. Jorge Santos answered.
A tall 25-year-old businessman dressed in a suit, Santos pushed his tailored, black coat sleeve to expose an expensive wristwatch, noting, “8 o’clock exactly. I like people like that. Black is black and white is white. You must be Lidia.”
Santos suggested they walk while he explained his proposition. “I don’t trust women,” Santos began. “They are liars and gossips. We men aren’t like that. I want to see everything I’ve read in this article about you. I don’t know if I believe it.”
He requested a sample of Serech’s work be delivered the next day, once more at 8 a.m. Serech consented. But when she punctually arrived and rang the doorbell, sample in hand, the next morning, Santos appeared shocked.
A man who was supposed to deliver a similar sample that same day had failed to show. Santos started to question Serech about her finances and possessions, how much she made, if she owned a car, if she owned a house. “You can have all of those things if you work with me,” Santos promised.
Serech knew she must take this opportunity and although her resignation angered Prem at first, she quickly relented and guaranteed her doors would always be open if Serech ever chose to return.
From that point on until Santos’s death in 1991, Serech worked as one of his most valued employees, with up to 60 weavers working under her, creating textiles to sell in the United States. “It’s because of him, I have a house and a car and a business.”
Santos’s unexpected death quickly derailed his company. But for Serech, a new life began. Never again would she take orders from a man. Never again would she labor for strictly for the namesake of someone else’s business. In the wake of tragedy, Serech blossomed.
As an independent businesswoman, dealing with high-end, custom-order clients, Serech possesses great pride in her work. “Lidia is the most expensive artisan I work with,” says client Berry, who typically rotates between three different families to create her designs. She recalls once paying $200 to Serech for a king size bedspread. She feared retailers would not want to buy a product that expensive for wholesale. But, to Berry’s surprise, a retailer in California paid $400 for Serech’s handiwork, and resold the bedspread for $1,250.
“[My competitor’s] product is expendable,” Serech says of weavers who use cheaper threads and damaging chemicals. “It falls apart after a couple of uses. My product is expensive.”
Serech’s work and success has resulted in many opportunities throughout the years. She taught herself to read. She traveled to the United States several times, once on a 5-month university scholarship to learn business. Another time, a man approached her as she walked through the streets of Antigua with a basket of textiles on her head. In admiration of her designs he put her in touch with the Guatemalan government, which funded 85 percent of the expenses for a textile showcasing trip to Venezuela. Serech also uses her success to empower young people seeking an education. “When we have a lot of work, we contract students who are on vacation because they need money to keep studying next year,” Serech said, who places great value on helping others receive the education she could not.
Serech’s life, like the textiles she creates, began as a hollow, shapeless loop of thread. Over the years her story was spun and twisted, ordered and reordered, thread, sewn and woven into something entirely different, a creation unique, beautiful and altogether transformed.
When asked what she enjoys best about her business and life as an artisan, Serech pauses thoughtfully and clasps her small, tough fingers together. “Everything.”