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Couple counteract cultural losses

By Mary Stamp

Through weaving and education, fair trade and grant writing, one Spokane couple help counteract the effects of the loss of culture, values and land that conquered, indigenous cultures around the world face. 

Maria Cuc
Maria Cuc and her son Angel

Simply by continuing her family tradition of Mayan back-strap weaving Maria Cuc preserves and passes on her cultural identity, heritage and values to her teenage daughters and two-year-old son, even though she now lives in Spokane.

Her husband, Felipe Gonzales, who grew up in a Mexican family in Texas, shares her commitment to maintaining and restoring indigenous traditions, languages and crafts through his fair trade enterprises and through writing grants for the Kalispel Tribe.

They met when he lived 16 years among the Mayan people in Guatemala.  In 2001, he moved to Spokane where he has a brother.  They married after she came in 2003.

Maria grew up in Solola, Guatemala.  As the only one of her six siblings to finish high school, she worked seven years as an accountant for Mayan, grassroots community development projects in rural communities around Lake Atitlan.  She also studied economics two years at the University of San Carlos satellite campus in Solola.

Since moving to Spokane, Maria has taken up the Kakchiquel weaving she learned from her mother when she was 10.  Through her business, Maya Color, she markets products with multicolored cloth woven by her and woven by Guatemalan family and friends.

Maria Cuc Weaving
Maria Cuc weaves with
backstrap loom.

Designs come from ancient patterns, representing fish, crabs, flowers, pine trees, birds and other plant and animal life in the area of Lake Atitlan.  The jaspe or ikat threads she uses come pre-dyed with the designs in them.

In Guatemala, the cloth might be used to wrap things, to carry a baby or to make a traditional blouse.   For North America sales, however, it is prepared as table runners, as inlaid fabric in leather purses, as scarves, coin bags or other items.

“Weaving is integral to the daily life of Mayan women, considered one of the most important responsibilities to pass from generation to generation,” she said. 

Maria’s sisters learned to weave when they were six and Maria has taught her daughters, Ingrid, 18, and Lesly, 16.  She teaches backstrap weaving at workshops, gives demonstrations, does digital slide presentations on the weaving, culture, languages, poverty and health concerns in Guatemala at community colleges.

One presentation tells, for example, that more than 37 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, and 76 percent of indigenous people are poor.  About 50 percent of the agricultural land is controlled by 2.5 percent of the farmers.  The adult literacy rate is 70 percent, but just 39 percent for indigenous women.

Maria said the loss of traditional weaving and culture in Guatemala stems from poverty, which is the result of the government limiting access to health care, education, food and opportunities.

“We’re on our own,” she said.

The Maya have a long history of  being self-sufficient, with men producing their own food and selling extra, and women making their own clothes to wear or sell.

“While some middle-aged and older women still wear traditional dress, most men stopped wearing it and stopped speaking Mayan language during the 30 years of civil war, because they were targeted and killed,” Maria said, adding, 

“Few children wear traditional clothes.  Those who do, do not make their own," she said.

“With the loss of traditional dress, we have lost values,” she explained. “Young people have to go to work to put food on the table and buy clothes.”

“It’s now hard to distinguish indigenous young people from Hispanic people,” Maria said, as Felipe translated from Spanish to English.  She also speaks Kakchiquel and is learning English.  Spanish is the official language in Guatemala.

While her grandfather practiced Mayan spirituality, her parents raised her Catholic.  In Spokane, she attends La Comunidad Catolica de San Jose, the Hispanic parish of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, at 1503 W. Dean.

 Since the civil war ended in 1996, Maria said there have been some scattered efforts to revitalize the language and traditions.

Felipe, who is the grandson of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Texas.  After college, he lived in Guatemala.  Now along with working half time writing grants for the Kalispel Tribe, he runs two fair trade businesses, Moonflower Enterprises and Maya Earth Coffee.

“The values of indigenous people include connection with the earth and natural surroundings, respect for life, recognition of dependency on the earth and decision-making that considers the effects for seven generations,” he said.  “It’s about living in harmony with everyone and everything.”

Felipe also sees the effects of the loss of language and culture among the Kalispel.  Grants he writes help revitalize Kalispel traditions and improve conditions.

They fund such programs as traditional faith healing for victims of crime and rape, a transit system from North Spokane to the Kalispel reservation, several recreation and cultural programs, support for victims of domestic violence, better health equipment for clinics and improvements in the water system on the reservation.

“The Kalispel and Maya share a history of conquest, genocide and loss of religion, culture and land.  The Maya were pushed to the least productive lands.  Now they try to grow corn in rocky land on steep mountain sides,” he said.

“The Kalispel use their traditional dress only for ceremonies, while many older women still wear traditional dress in Guatemala,” Felipe said.  “Only five or seven elders in the 406-member tribe speak the Kalispel language fluently, but more Maya speak their languages.” 

As the Kalispel Tribe interact with other tribes, they learn of their common struggles and efforts to restore their identities, rebuild their communities, develop their economic health, provide services and maintain their sovereignty, Felipe pointed out.

Through his fair-trade businesses, Felipe helps indigenous Guatemalans gain economic stability. 

He recently created a label of organic, fair trade coffee, Maya Earth Coffee, and a program, Coffee with a Cause, to partner with nonprofit organizations to raise funds. The nonprofit  receives 10 percent of the sales.  For direct coffee sales, 10 percent goes to the Guatemalan Coffee Fund for the farmers.

For example, First Presbyterian Church serves and sells the coffee.  The first Sunday they offered it, they sold 25 bags, he said. 

He hopes other congregations will want to raise funds by selling coffee, while making a difference with their purchasing power.

“Co-marketing is a new concept in fair-trade marketing,” he said.

Felipe buys coffee beans direct from farmer cooperatives in Guatemala.  They ship 150-pound bags of green coffee beans, which are distributed to six roasters.  Three are in Washington and the others are in New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New York.

He links the producers and consumers, eliminating brokers who profit in the middle.

“We are small scale, so the cost of the coffee supports the local economies of Guatermalan farmers and U.S. roasters,” he said.

Maya Earth Coffee is part of Felipe’s fair trade business, Moonflower Enterprises, which sells Mayan traditional weavings, handmade crafts, folk art, musical instruments, gifts and jewelry made by artisans in the western highlands of Guatemala.

Moonflower Enterprises pays producers a fair wage in their local context, building on long-term relationships with dozens of families from several Mayan ethnic groups.

Having a U.S. market means families can maintain their traditional weaving and arts, while producing items marketable in the United States.

Along with selling crafts, Felipe promotes awareness of the culture, art, social life and political concerns of Mayan people, while helping them improve their lives.

For information, call 768-3193.

Copyright © June 2009 The Fig Tree