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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 5 (1998)
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.