Guatemalan Stories In London

| 04 December 2006
photo shows embroidery of a tiger on bag

A tiger embroidered on a shoulder bag. Courtesy of the Guatemalan Maya Centre.

A series of events in London this week mark ten years since peace was declared in Guatemala. We discover more about Mayan lives at the Guatemalan Maya Centre in London.

Find out more about Guatemala this week at Canning House

Guatemala is a country a little smaller than England that lies to the South of Mexico. Two-thirds of it is high mountains with volcanoes. Half of the 11 million strong population are Mayan Indians - descendants of the first millennium Mayan civilisation. They live by subsistence farming in the mountainous terrain.

The culture of these Mayan Indians is celebrated in a small centre in West London, dedicated both to telling their history, and to campaigning to help modern Mayans. Textiles are at the heart of the displays at the centre. Many Mayan women continue to dress in traditional clothes with a style that predates the Spanish conquest by Alvarado in 1523.

photo shows model of woman weaving mayan fabric

A model showing Mayan weaving. Courtesy of the Guatemalan Maya Centre.

Really ancient fabrics do not survive in Guatemala, as they have in Peru. But the vivid patterns include pictures of animals, and these tell us how long a particular design has been in use.

The Spanish introduced horses, sheep, chickens and peacocks to the Continent - so their stylised appearance in fabrics must have begun in the 16th century. Other motifs like the double headed bird and the snake are much older. These designs are often used today on 'confradia' garments worn by priests - showing a link between modern and ancient religion. Similarly, many ancient Mayan gods survive in a largely Catholic country in the guise of Catholic saints.

photo shows horse shape weaved on brightly coloured fabric

A horse design on a Mayan textile. Courtesy of the Guatemalan Maya centre.

Amongst the gorgeous fabrics is the story of the Mayan people.

The original Mayan civilisation thrived from 300 - 900 AD and produced some of the most iconic images of Latin America - fabulous cities and tall ziggurats point to highly organised social structures. The abandonment of these cities and the decline of the civilisation was probably due to drought. Six hundred years later, the Spanish conquest consigned many of the late Mayans to slave-like conditions, which in some cases continued until 1944. Although Guatemala itself gained independence from the Spanish in 1823, the government of the country has remained in the hands of a small elite of Spanish descent. Unlike in other Latin American countries, where the balance of power has recently turned more in favour of Indian populations, Guatemala currently has only one Mayan Indian in its government.

photo shows women weaving

Mayan weaver. Courtesy of the Guatemalan Maya Centre.

Mayan life therefore continues to be very tough. Although the civil war ended 10 years ago, murder is widespread, and rarely prosecuted. The violence of the society makes it difficult for Mayans to make a living from traditional crafts, or from tourism. In some ways Mayans have been much more successful than other indigenous people in retaining a traditional lifestyle. But the price of retaining this identity has arguably been political marginalisation and low literacy.

There are only a handful of Mayans living in London, and the Guatemalan Maya Centre itself is run by British people committed to promoting Mayan culture. Talks and films this week at Canning House bring a rare opportunity to learn more about Guatemala in London. Carlos Reyes-Manzo's campaigning photographs are on display at Canning House throughout the week.

drawing shows black and white outline of mayan designs

Drawings of typical Mayan weaving designs. Courtesy of the Guatemalan Maya Centre.


Read a lecture online about Guatemalan textiles in London at the V&A and the Guatemalan Maya Centre.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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