Guatemala Day 2 (Antigua)

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After a warm and delicious breakfast at the hostel, Katie and I packed up for the day and ventured down 5a Avenida Sur, the main cobblestone street in Antigua. Passing the famous arc and central park, we arrived at a quiet string of apartments. Behind a simple white door, we were greeted by Olga Reiche--native Guatemalan, textile designer/product developer, and community organizer.

Olga’s apartment has been transformed into an amazing showroom for indigenous and innovative textiles. She works with groups all over the country to produce these exquisite works of art and their quality is tremendous. We sat down in a side room--light streaming in softly through a large paneled window--eager to hear her story. Her voice is quiet yet commands a presence. Her smile is genuine and contagious.

I first met Olga this past summer while traveling to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, new Mexico, and was eager to get to know her and her experiences a bit more throughout our time together. She was born in Guatemala City, and in 1977, after the Guatemalan earthquake, moved to Antigua. With no background in textiles, product development, or even anthropology, she began working with NGOs in the area who had come to help rebuild Antigua and the surrounding cities. At that time, Olga describes Antigua not as the “cosmopolitan” city it is today, but rather a quaint colonial town with little infrastructure but a great deal of charm.

She describes her interest in textiles as beginning at an early age. Her grandmother was Kekchí, one of the twenty-two ethnic groups in Guatemala, and she grew up seeing her grandmother proudly wearing the group’s traditional dress. Through her work, Olga ventured to artisan families and cooperatives in the surrounding villages, gathering research on their skill and practice, what was needed, and how they could improve. She has connected with various marketplaces that sell artisan goods in the US such as DaraArtisans, Mercado Global, and even Lauren Conrad’s The Little Market.

What she found was of great interest to me having studied textile development among artisan groups on my own and in my professional work. First, and perhaps most apparent, is the lack of export markets in the Guatemala. There are regional opportunities for artisans to sell their goods, but they often lack access to a bigger network for sales, causing their income to be sporadic and inconsistent. Contributing to the inability to export and sell on a larger market is the products’ high costs, as the raw materials are often imported and themselves expensive. The cost of labor is also high in Guatemala in comparison to competitors like India and China. Olga comments: “This weaving is dying and we must find a market for it.” Her need, she says, is not wholesale, but rather smaller niche opportunities for sales. Many of these artisan families and cooperatives are small, and taking on large orders poses a significant risk for maintaining high quality.

In post-civil war Guatemala, Olga worked with widows in the highlands, helping them develop their craft in a way that would sell on a large market. Her influence is apparent, as even after she left this work, these cooperatives she helped to establish are still there and continue to flourish.

Yet another roadblock contributing to the continuation of craft within Guatemala is the lack of design education. While many people learn how to weave from their mothers and grandmothers, there is no access to formal education that teaches technical textile design. Weaving and craft education lacks the didactic, the technical teaching that will enable preservation. There are no formalized documents on the techniques, no books in native languages to pass down these traditions. Olga comments that the number one opportunity needed for the preservation of this traditional craft is a platform for education. She has worked to create this sort of opportunity for Guatemala, co-founding a school in 2008. Unfortunately, lack of financial resources caused the school to close in 2010, but she dreams of a future textile museum for Antigua with an adjacent school and educational workshop. This, she says, will enable tourists and students alike to learn about traditional weaving and work to preserve it.

While we visited in her showroom, we also met Ángel, a young man from Morales, Guatemala (a small village in Sololá), who is a weaver in his community. Chatting with him in our broken (but improving!) Spanish, we learned of his love for Olga’s innovative perspective on design and the ability to preserve his family’s traditional weaving techniques while also incorporating new materials such as recycled t-shirts, cassette tapes, and old denim jeans. This, perhaps, was my favorite moment of the entire visit, as my passion in the artisan space lies in the preservation of traditional craft but also the ability to embrace strong design principles and innovative perspectives so as to make products more viable in a global marketplace.

Olga has perpetuated innovation among artisan groups extremely well. She is sensitive to the traditional motifs and symbols of the groups she works with, yet her strong design eye infuses new life into these designs. She mentors individuals and groups on the ways traditional designs can be reworked (through color, pattern, and motif), so that they look to future market desires. Additionally, she herself has begun to work with natural dyes, harvesting local plants, herbs and vegetables that she reduces to dye the gauzy cotton that is then woven into bufandas or bolsas (scarves, bags) by the artisan women. 

Before we left, I purchased a beautiful monochromatic white scarf, hand woven by female artisans in Cobán on backstrap looms. It will be a treasure to me as I remember this experience in Guatemala. Olga has quite a great deal of experience in the artisan space and she is quite a presence in the community. Her insights and ideas are invaluable to me, as her perspective has such integrity. I am excited to continue these conversations with her as I learn more about Guatemala and its exquisite artisan craft.