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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 5 (1998)

Weaving Identities: Construction of Dress and Self in a Highland Guatemalan Town, by Carol Hendrickson (1995). University of Texas Press. xiv, 245 p.

 

Reviewed by Tracy Bachrach Ehlers, Department of Anthropology, University of Denver.

Over the last few years, Carol Hendrickson has shown herself to be one of the more compelling analysts of Guatemalan textiles. She has been in Guatemala during many of its most troubling times, and her longevity as a researcher, volunteer, and visitor means she appreciates the daily routine as well. Luckily, her field site of Tecpán, a well-known entrepreneurial textile town, perfectly complements her own background in home economics. Over the years she has brought her facility for making and explaining handicrafts to her work on what she calls "the geography of clothing." In Weaving Identities, she purposefully stitches together the meaning of traje and the cultural construction of weaving, interweaving it with the life-cycle and with the historical roots of clothing in the highlands. As well, she convincingly demonstrates just how the clothes worn among the highland Maya are transformed by culture change.

There is little the author does not tell us in Weaving Identities about Tecpán's traje, and scholars will be pleased with the materials she has accumulated on the weaving process and its integration into the quotidian routine. Chapter One, "Introduction," traces the author's history in Guatemala, and sets the stage for the analysis of Tecpán, "el municipio vanguardista." Perhaps in this early part Hendrickson spends too much time rehashing familiar literature, particularly old debates on ethnicity. One suspects some holdover material from her dissertation, which, interestingly enough, she later disavows. Chapter Two, "The Geography of Clothing," begins with a careful description of threads and fibers, but it is most interested in connecting choice of indigenous clothing (or traje) with awareness of the world within and outside of Tecpán. In Chapter Three, Hendrickson extends her discussion of presentation of self through clothing, this time examining the contrasting images of Indianness in the broader context of Guatemala.

Chapter Four is an ambitious section devoted to life span. In this chapter, Hendrickson steps away from the weaving theme to the tangential cultural questions of cultural appearance and conceptions of beauty. She includes an important lesson on traditional Mayan values of traje and community, both of which are being tested by the imposition of ladino beliefs on Tecpán. At the same time, in this chapter the author's emphatic concern with traje becomes somewhat troublesome, and indeed, some of the problems in these pages may be generalized to the book as a whole. Specifically, in "Between Birth and Death," Hendrickson successfully links life-cycle with the production, wearing, and meaning of traje, but she largely ignores the context into which all this is embedded. For example, discussion of old women naively offers them up as honored ancianos without considering the immense powerlessness and poverty of old highland women, particularly when they enter the decidedly difficult status of "widow."

Some parts of the book are especially strong. In Chapter Five on "The Cultural Biography of Traje," for instance, she devotes many pages to establishing just how women learn to weave, the precise conceptualization of the design motif, and the recognized symbolism of color choices. She does not turn away from the tiniest detail. Every part of the weaving process is attended to from start to finish. Even laundry methods receive considerable attention. Some of this exhaustive material on producing and wearing indigenous clothing is available in other texts. Yet, Hendrickson's book fairly bulges with thoroughly researched information that pulls the whole cultural package together in one source. I for one, read and reread the section devoted to clothing and the body as I had long wondered about modesty, bedtime, and "pajamas" in the highlands.

In sum, I was fascinated by Weaving Identities in the sense that it may serve as a primer of Mayan weaving and traje. Along the way, Hendrickson does a fine job of demonstrating just how intricately wedded the meaning of clothing is to the Mayan life cycle and to personal and ethnic identity. It may be, however, that the exquisite detail the author provides will be a handicap in terms of the wider dissemination of the book. Although Weaving Identities will appeal both to textile specialists and to Mayanist ethnographers, it is decidedly not for classroom use, and indeed, I doubt that this was its purpose. Although the book has been discussed as an ethnography, my sense is that its emphasis on material culture sets it apart. Its orientation is not the Tecpanecos, but the textiles they weave and the clothes they wear. The author's interests do not lie in telling stories or providing case studies. Her passion is the cloth itself. In spite of the intimate tone with which the book is written, its rationale was not to search out ethnographic drama in the usual places. Readers in search of linkages between traje and gender, or analysis of the aching impoverishment of weavers and wearers should seek out other sources.

Weaving Identities sets out to describe carefully the production of clothing as an essential part of the identify of the people of Tecpán. As such, it establishes itself as a marvelously fertile resource and should be in a prominent place on one's shelf of books on textiles. Some readers may be frustrated by Hendrickson's narrow focus on traje, but those who are seeking an encyclopedic examination of this topic will be richly rewarded.