Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

Weaving A Life at Home

07 Jul

Don Justo is the only resident of Colonia Naranjo who knows how to weave on a loom. He is in his early 70s and spent more than 10 years trying to make a living with his traditional textile work after resettling in Colonia Naranjo during the internal displacement in the 80s. When he could no longer sell his textiles profitably in the local markets, he dismantled the looms and stored them in a shed up the hill from his house just in case they were needed in the future. This past Saturday, Don Justo led me up the hillside to his shed and unpacked the looms. They were covered in dust and spider webs, but in tact and ready to be put to use.

Taking a Look at the Loom

I was in Colonia Naranjo to meet with local artisans and structure a series of future workshops to strengthen skills in embroidery, sewing, and a variety weaving techniques that are being lost. Don Justo was the only man in the group of 40 women present, and he was ready to get started. Now. The weaving workshop will last a year, and as he noted, he is not getting any younger.

Don Justo´s Catalog of Designs

When the women have developed their skills sufficiently and we have designed a viable product line, they will organize into a cooperative and begin production for export under COCAHICH’s economic development plan for all of the dam-affected communities. Jobs in these communities are scarce. Many people have marketable skills, but no market and no jobs. Theirs will be one of several regional cooperatives for the 28 affected communities for which we will research startup funds. Based on Don Justo’s textile samples, the women in Colonia Naranjo will have no problem finding external markets. And based on similar projects in Guatemala, this can work.

Striped Wool Shawl by Don Justo Morente

Their community is emblematic of what every other dam-affected community is experiencing, what Guatemalans as a whole are experiencing. The unemployment rate in Colonia Naranjo is roughly 90%. Pacux is equivalent, meaning 10% of adult males have work. And these are the urban resettlement communities with greater access to labor resources.

More than 70 of the 1000 residents of Colonia Naranjo have left for the US to find work. That accounts for nearly one-fifth of the adult population of this resettlement community. During the reparations meetings last week, many people expressed their frustration to the government officials about the unemployment situation. Please review testimony in my previous blog, Ya Estamos Cansados.

Nationally, although unemployment was officially just over 3% in 2007, Guatemalans are migrating to the US from rural communities like Colonia Naranjo at a rate of 150,000 a year reports Prensa Libre. Roughly 25,000 make it across and 100,000 are detained and deported. What happens to that other 25,000 is not documented. There are 1.2 million Guatemalans, considered ‘co-nationals’ in the internal discourse, who are living abroad. Over 90% of them are in the US, and 60% are undocumented*.

Remittances from the US to Guatemala reached 2/3 of the country’s export income last year, or nearly $5 billion dollars of a $67.5 billion dollar GDP. In Colonia Naranjo, Pacux, or any other remote village in the region, one can only hope to make $150-200 a month, six days a week, for manual labor, if you are part of that 10% who can find work. It makes sense that someone would look elsewhere for a way out of the economic oppression brought on by internal displacement and attempted genocide. In a resettlement community like Colonia Narnajo, that translates to becoming a refugee from the life of an unemployed, landless refugee.

However, this issue is larger than the effects of CAFTA on the Guatemalan economy or political trends in Latin America. In a country like Guatemala, where 45-60% of the population is indigenous, discrimination and thinly veiled forms of slavery have prevailed from contact through the colonial period and the civil wars to today. These practices and prejudices are normalized and integrated into the fabric of the larger society.

Many local Achí men were forced to labor for free on local plantations from the founding of Rabinal well into the 1970s. Their subsequent forced integration into the Army or the PACs during the civil war was simply an extension of the encomienda system that the Spanish enforced throughout Latin America. Into the mid 1970s, men were rounded up on market days when they visited the plaza and taken to training camps or told by the local authorities to work on a given plantation until further notice, without pay. If they did not comply, the consequences were generally fatal.

Understandably, those few Achí men and women who did join the guerrilla movement felt justified in their fight to end such forms of oppression. And this happened for centuries in a town founded by none other than Bartolomé de las Casas, considered a liberator of the indigenous populations in the New World.

Back in that town not far from Rabinal called Colonia Naranjo, founded by INDE rather than de las Casas, most people I met had a relative or friend now working in the US. Looking through the lens of life in Colonia Naranjo, traveling to the US to work seems more like exercising a basic human right to have access to paid labor rather than a series of illegal actions to defraud Americans of their income. How they get there is a tough story, though. People must sell what little they have or go into debt to an agent, called a coyote, to get them across the border. The price for attempting to cross from Baja Verapaz runs $5,000 US, which includes three attempts and transportation within the US to a chosen destination. Although it may sound like a cruise package, it is not.

People have sold their homes, failed to cross, and been left homeless with no means to get back to their villages. Even when someone is able to keep their home and make it across, they then face difficulties in both countries. Prensa Libre reported today on a new wave of robberies targeted at homes belonging to migrants. In the US, these co-nationals must then find reliable work and pay off the heavy debt to their coyotes quickly or face violent consequences.

Don Justo’s sons have already worked in the US and returned home. They did not learn to weave because it was not a viable profession for them, so they both crossed into the US for several years to work in construction, sending money home when they could. When we met this past Saturday, they were working on an addition to Don Justo’s house for their families.

So many people in the US have the misguided impression that all migrants want to stay permanently in ´the land of the free.´ Most simply want to earn enough to buy a decent house or pay off the one they own in their own country, amass some savings, and then go home to start their own businesses or improve their quality of life.

After a new wave of ICE raids began in the US in 2007, support and advocacy groups for Guatemalan co-nationals in the US began to pressure the Guatemalan government to step up diplomatic efforts on behalf of deportees like those who were caught in the raids in New Bedford, Massachusetts last year. Organizations such as CONGUATE, the Coalition of Guatemalan Migrants, MIGUA, the Guatemalan Immigrant Movement in the US and RPDG, the Guatemalan Peace and Development Network have been instrumental in pushing for federal reforms in Guatemala that led to the establishment of a new migration agency called CONAMIGUA, the National Council for Guatemalan Migrants. CONAMIGUA´s role is to attend to the needs of Guatemalan migrants in other countries by assisting to guarantee human, civil and labor rights from nationals living in foreign countries, execute economic development plans within Guatemala to reduce migration and assist the families of deportees with legal, economic and political concerns.

At the archeological museum in Colonia Naranjo, women like Aurelia and Maria showed me examples of their skills and quite reluctantly spoke of their interests in sewing, weaving and designing new products like embroidered tunics and wool scarves. Don Justo has wanted to teach people how to weave for years and everyone was hopeful that the time has finally come. They need to work and they don´t want to migrate.

Aureliana Calo´s Embroidery

A Table Runner by Maria

Typical Crocheted Wool Handbags

Aside from learning weaving skills and hopefully generating a family income, these women and men who become involved in the development plan in the coming years will learn basic accounting and business management skills and become more engaged in the development of their communities. As a side effect, the stronger and healthier the community becomes, cultural identity is strengthened and migration may become less appealing as well. It is not so far fetched to think that one can weave their way toward a new life in a town like Colonia Naranjo. All it takes is a little will and a great deal of wool.

*Statistical information in this blog was obtained from Prensa Libre and Nuetro Diario reports, Guatemalan migration records, IMF and CIA Fact Book documents for 2007 and personal interviews.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jul 7th, 2008


  • Virginia Glenn

    July 18, 2008


    As a weaver it breaks my heart to think that this wonderful tradition is in such danger. I traveled to Guatemala and Peru back in the 70’s and saw first hand the great creativity and dedication that the weavers had. Thank you for your wonderful work.

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