In Guatemala, a folk art collecting adventure

November 18, 2011

Last spring, I gave a lecture at Montgomery College on my 30-year passion for folk-art collecting. Afterward, a student approached me with a question: Would I ever quit?

It seemed like a reasonable enough query, considering that I’d just told the audience that my house is filled floor to ceiling with more than 2,000 pieces from 75 countries. Even our closet doors have been pressed into service as art space, for heaven’s sake.

But I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my voice when I responded: Quit collecting? Not if I can help it!

Guatemala: How to get there, where to stay, what to do

And sure enough, there I was once again, in a remote corner of the Guatemalan highlands late last summer, crammed into a public minibus with my wife, Freddi, our 18-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and about 20 Ixil Maya commuters, all headed to a village named Chajul. We three foreigners on board were well into our latest folk art collecting ad­ven­ture — this one, ferreting out fine examples of the handwoven Mayan woman’s blouse known as the huipil (pronounced wee-PEEL).

Across Guatemala, a Tennessee-size nation of 14 million where the 6 million indigenous Maya speak more than 20 languages, the designs woven into huipiles vary from town to town. Some are decorated with human figures, others with animals, flowers and birds, including the brilliantly colored quetzal. All are made from two or three woven panels with a hole cut in the center for the neck.

I’d seen photos of the huipiles made in Chajul — some are embroidered with whimsical double-headed creatures — and thought that they deserved a spot on our walls. (Okay, so we don’t have any wall space left. But that’s my problem.)

Our journey to Chajul — a mere 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City as the quetzal flies, but a full day’s drive on winding mountain roads — would be rewarding. Before heading there, though, we would make stops in a half-dozen other towns in the highlands, soaking up culture and scenery while pursuing our passion.

Guatemala is one of my favorite folk art collecting destinations in Latin America, along with Mexico (especially the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas), Peru (Cuzco and Ayacucho) and Bolivia (La Paz, Sucre and many other towns on the altiplano, or high plateau). What these nations share are large indigenous populations that have clung to tradition, especially in their dress. The finest weavings from these regions enrich museum collections around the world.

For us, the thrill of collecting goes beyond the hunt for stuff to hang on our walls. Just as enthralling is the insider access it gives us to the communities we visit. Over the years, we’ve been invited into the living rooms of maskmakers in Indonesia, painters in Haiti and basket weavers in Ethiopia, to cite just a few examples. We’ve met these artisans’ spouses and kids and smelled what was on their stoves (or charcoal pits) for dinner. Even though, in most cases, we didn’t speak their languages (I know a bit of Spanish and Gabriela is fluent), communication has rarely been a problem. At times, we’ve been helped by a bilingual guide. But usually the artisans’ work — and our obvious interest in collecting it — speaks for itself.

Finding the good stuff in Guatemala can be as easy as strolling into an upscale shop in Antigua, the cobblestoned tourist hub, or as challenging as taking a muddy trek (or a crushing minibus ride) to a far-flung village. And there’s a wonderful compromise: the outdoor artesania markets that seem to be everywhere in Central America’s largest country, most famously in Chichicastenango, an easy 2 1/2-hour drive from Antigua.

As we prepared for our first journey to Guatemala in 18 years, we learned that violent crime had become an issue as drug cartels have moved in. The major trouble spots are Petén, a province north of the Mayan highlands, and Guatemala City. A well-traveled friend also warned us that he had lost $1,000 to a pickpocket in the Chichicastenango market last spring.

So, in addition to investing $10 in a cloth money pouch, which I wore under my jeans, we swore off using public buses (which backpackers have affectionately dubbed “chicken buses”), opting for shared minibuses on short trips and private drivers and tourist shuttles on longer hauls. We booked the latter — with excellent results — through a Guatemala-based operator named Adrenalina Tours.

Our first destination on the two-week trip was Lake Atitlán, a picturesque region with volcanic mountains (long inactive) and Mayan villages, less than three hours northwest of the Guatemala City airport.

We unpacked our bags in touristy Panajachel, which has more hotels, shops and restaurants than any other town on the lake but little in the way of serious folk art. (Think lots of Guatemala-made T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Guat’s Up” and “Guatever.”)

We would return to the lake. But after a night in Panajachel, we grabbed the 1 1/2-hour shuttle to Chichicastenango, arriving on a Saturday afternoon so we could get an early start at the sprawling Sunday market.

“Chichi” was every bit as frenetic as we remembered, with vendors vying for the attention of prospective buyers and a shaman — though almost invisible in the plumes of incense — presiding on the steps of Santo Tomás Church. We were delighted that in spite of its entrenched status as a tourist town, Chichi still offers some surprises, such as the pig sale we discovered on a side street ($45 was the going rate for a plump one).

The twice-weekly market (Sundays are better than Thursdays, when there are fewer vendors) is easily one of the largest in Latin America. We picked up a multi-colored bedspread for Gabriela’s college dorm room ($20) but thought that the masks and carved religious figures, known as santos, looked mass produced. Some of the huipiles were tempting, but we decided to save our suitcase space for more traditional towns, where we expected the quality to be better.

Back at the lake, we headed by boat to Santiago Atitlán, a bustling Tz’utujil Maya community known for its folk paintings (many depicting local customs), woodcarvings (a popular subject is Maximón, a folk deity with a cult following) and, of course, huipiles (vividly colored flowers and birds are the favored motifs). For shoppers, Santiago is an ideal base from which to explore other lake towns, all easily accessible by public or private boats.

On the main drag, we revisited the gallery of Nicolas Reanda Quiejú, a self-trained painter whose work has been exhibited in Europe and the United States. During our previous visit in 1993, we’d purchased a striking primitive-style painting that shows Tz’utujil musicians at a candlelit ceremony. The three-by four-foot canvas, which cost just a few hundred dollars, hangs above the fireplace in our living room.

We were eager to see more Reanda paintings with Mayan themes. But as we poked around his gallery, we mostly found colorful abstracts with prices as high as $2,500.

“Why did you change your style?” I asked Reanda, trying to mask my disappointment.

“I opened my mind to new styles when I traveled to the United States, Spain, Italy, the U.K. and Israel,” he said. “I was influenced by the work of the other artists I saw. Cubism. Realism. Abstract modern.”

I was delighted by Reanda’s artistic growth but pleased that we had snapped up one of his primitives.

Back on the street, we browsed through shops selling all sorts of textiles — pillowcases, purses, blankets, bedspreads, huipiles, shawls, table runners and handbags — priced from a few dollars to several hundred, depending on quality and size. Although Santiago’s offerings were generally finer than anything we had seen in Chichi, we vowed not to make any purchases until we’d combed the town.

Our patience was rewarded the next day, when we spotted a weaver outside the Santiago Apóstol Catholic Church, selling huipiles with unusually detailed designs. After a negotiation that lasted all of 15 seconds, we acquired two of Marcela Damian’s beauties for $120.

We enjoyed five days on the lake, also hiking, horseback riding and checking out cultural sites. But now it was time to move on. In Panajachel, we rendezvoused with the driver we had hired to take us into the remote Ixil Triangle, where Chajul was calling me.

With limited sleeping accommodations in Chajul, we based ourselves in nearby Nebaj, the largest of the three main Ixil-speaking towns in the region. All these communities suffered enormously during Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed.

The day we arrived, eager to stretch our legs after a four-hour drive, Nebaj was deep into its main annual festival, honoring the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. But we saw few foreign tourists in the town’s main square and even fewer in the artisan’s market, where the quality of textiles was impressive.

One rainy afternoon, we spent several exhilarating hours perusing the huipiles, which bore a mix of human, animal, bird and geometrical designs in every imaginable color. Competition among the dozen or so weavers was fierce. As they called out to us in Spanish, we sensed that we were their first customers in days. But the service was gracious. After we’d plunked down $150 for four gorgeous textiles, one weaver insisted on walking us to a restaurant we’d inquired about, 10 blocks away.

The next morning, we squeezed into a public minibus for the misty 45-minute ride to Chajul, where we faced a familiar shopping challenge: finding folk art in a town with no folk art shops.

Wandering through the dirt streets, we made our first inquiry at a shop that sold thread.

“Do you have any huipiles to sell?” I asked the shopkeeper.

She didn’t. But one of her customers did.

“Come to my house. It’s only a block away,” the woman implored. “I have many things to sell.”

Six blocks later, we were sitting on Isabela Sanchez Xinic’s front porch, overlooking an outhouse and a menagerie of roosters and pigs.

Over the next three hours, Isabela darted in and out of her small adobe house, emerging each time with a skillfully embroidered huipil for our inspection. There were blouses in reds, blues, purples and burgundies, and most were decorated with mythical creatures. We had stumbled onto a folk art feast.

We quickly surmised that most of Isabela’s offerings had come straight out of her wardrobe. As the pile of used clothes on her porch grew, I felt as though I’d just hit the jackpot at Goodwill.

Isabela’s asking prices matched those at the Nebaj market, which were eminently fair, so we bought almost every piece in the pile. (Our Christmas shopping was done!)

After packing the weavings into an empty 100-pound fertilizer bag, Isabela told us, “Don’t go yet. I have something else to show you.” She opened a black plastic bag and revealed a collection of slingshots with wooden handles carved in the liknesses of rabbits and Mayan deities.

“My husband made these,” she said with a laugh. “We use them to kill mice.”

More fabulous gifts, I thought. Sold, for $5 each!

Then she reopened the fertilizer bag and threw in a huipil she had forgotten to show us. “Un regalo,” she said. A gift.

In a few days, we would be enjoying the comforts of Antigua, a wonderfully walkable town of galleries, clubs, restaurants, colonial churches and high-end hotels. By any measure, Antigua is a cultural gem, worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It’s also a must-see for collectors.

But it was in Chajul that misty afternoon, as we hugged Isabela goodbye before returning to the dirt streets with our new treasures in tow to find a minibus, that I recalled the question that student had posed some months earlier.

Quit collecting?

No way, I told myself again.

Not when I’m having so much fun.

Guatemala: How to get there, where to stay, what to do

Brubaker is a former Washington Post staff writer.

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