Thursday, January 10, 2013

In search of the perfect traje

Some time back, one of my closest friends in the Maya community in New Bedford, a labor rights  activist and community leader, asked me to help him acquire a set of men's traditional garments from Chichicastenango. He is not from the municipality of Chichicastenango, but the men's traje from his town is fairly plain (white pants and shirt made from home-spun fabric, with a red woven sash) and not especially distinctive. In many towns, there is no longer really a specific men's traje, and while nearly all adult women in predominantly Maya towns still wear traje, as I have written in previous blogs, in many areas the women wear "generic traje" -- blouses made of shiny fabric, with puffy sleeves, and decorated with lace, beads and sequins around the neck and sleeves, and machine-woven cortes -- and not the traje that is specific to their municipality. This is partly for economic reasons -- the more "traditional" and locally-identified traje is often quite expensive, as it is usually handwoven (at least the güipiles or tunics) and/or elaborately embroidered (again, often by hand). But also, there is more interchange, interaction and travel, and women who have the opportunity to travel often like to collect güipiles (or other handwoven items) from different areas that they have visited. 

But very few men -- with the exception of parts of Sololá and Todos Santos Cuchumatán -- wear men's traje as everyday clothing. A clothing item that has become popular among men as a marker of Mayan identity is a zippered sports jacket made of dark blue fabric (like that used for cortes in some parts of the country), and patches of handwoven fabric from different parts of the country -- with an elastic waist and cuffs, and usually with some dark blue fabric as the background.  I have also seen men with shirts made of the multi-colored corte fabric (sometimes open-necked shirts like what we would think of as "Indian" shirts or tunics, or more tailored shirts with buttons and collars). So that is how men who want to make a public statement about their Mayan identity might dress.

The men's traje from Chichicastenango is very elaborate, distinctive and quite beautiful. It consists of a short bolero-style jacket and matador-style pants (but a bit looser), a woven sash and a head covering that is actually a square of red handwoven fabric (with black and white threads mixed in), over which there is another layer of weaving or embroidery in brightly colored threads, often of a geometric pattern, or animals -- all of which has deep symbolism (both the colors and the patterns). The corners have long tassels of a darker color, and the scarf is wrapped around the man's head so that the tassels fall down on his back.  The overall design of the clothing is modeled on Spanish clothes. The pants and jacket are made of a heavy, coarse-woven dark brown or black wool. The jacket has embroidery along the edges -- more or less thin lines that go around the neck opening, down the front and along the bottom edge, and at the edge of the sleeves. Then the body of the jacket is decorated with larger vibrant designs -- usually red, pink, orange figure prominently in the designs, although blue and green are also used. Sometimes floral patterns across the chest or back, and also geometric patterns and/or animals. Then the pants have a flap that goes down the side of each leg that is also elaborately embroidered. 

One of my Maya-activist-intellectual friends (i.e. someone who is a public figure in the Maya movement) once got into a discussion with the principal general of the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango (the "head" of the indigenous authorities there) about the clothing. He asked, "But this comes from Europe, no?" Regardless, it has been the "traditional" men's clothing of Chichicastenango for at least a few hundred years. Generally, the only people who wear it are the members of the cofradías, on the feast-days, and the members of the "indigenous mayoralty" when there is a formal or ceremonial occasion. For example, once last year there was a one-day conference in Guatemala City organized by Oxfam, and several members of the alcaldía of Chichicastenango were present, and although it wasn't a ceremony, they wore their garments. When they go to present their various legal cases in the courts in Guatemala.

So, anyhow, this friend had wanted clothing from Chichi, and I had tried last time I was here, but no one had any for sale. I looked into having a suit made up for him, but there are only a few people who still make them and no one was able to get me a contact for one of them. I had also looked into getting a jacket from Nebaj: men in Nebaj wear fitted red wool jackets decorated with black trim; they are also very attractive. In fact, when I was in Momostenango just before New Year's my friend there said he knew someone who sold clothing down by Cuatro Caminos. So when I left Momos, Julian accompanied me and took me to see his friend. She didn't have any jackets from Nebaj but said she would have one made up for me if I wanted. I considered that possiblity. But then, I had also asked a young friend who works with the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango and he had said he would ask around.  I hadn't hear from him but then he called me and told me he had found a suit.

Then I couldn't get in touch with my friend in the U.S., to make sure he was still interested and could send me the money -- these are quite expensive, even a used suit. Finally yesterday I was able to get in touch with him and then arrange to go see the clothing. I took photos, sent them to my friend in the U.S., agreed upon the price, and now it just remains for him to send me the money and complete the purchase.

Meanwhile, I found out a bit of the story of why this particular suit of clothing is being sold. My friend from Chichi, V,  had been in Guatemala City, and I had assumed he had gone for a meeting or something having to do with one of the court cases of the alcaldia. No, he told me, he has a brother who has leukemia, and has been in the hospital in Guatemala City for a month. My friend V traveled to Guatemala yesterday to give blood, which the hospital had requested. The family was selling the traje because they need to pay the doctor.

But now it seems that the friend in the U.S. has some money trouble, and after all of this back and forth and running around, might not be able to purchase the traje.  Which makes me feel a little bad, as I had called V yesterday to tell him that we were going to take the clothing, and I would hate to have to call him back and say, no, sorry. But it's not in my hands....


  1. I hate it when that happens. Which is why now when dealing with these kind of scenarios, I just exchange their emails and/or Facebook contact information and leave it up to them to communicate directly. And yes, the Chichi male traje is really lovely.

  2. Well, it seems that we have found a solution....