Silent Looms

[ Latin American Studies ]

Silent Looms

Women and Production in a Guatemalan Town

By Tracy Bachrach Ehlers

How economic development affects women's businesses in Mesoamerica.



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6 x 9 | 264 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72103-6

Based on new fieldwork in 1997, Tracy Bachrach Ehlers has updated her classic study of the effects of economic development on the women weavers of San Pedro Sacatepéquez. Revisiting many of the women she interviewed in the 1970s and 1980s and revising her earlier hopeful assessment of women's entrepreneurial opportunities, Ehlers convincingly demonstrates that development and commercial growth in the region have benefited men at the expense of women.

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Acknowledgments for the Revised Edition
  • Introduction to the Revised Edition
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Ethnographic Sketch
  • 3. Female Labor and the Family
  • 4. Female Traders
  • 5. Cottage Industry
  • 6. Women and Men
  • 7. Women and Social Change
  • References
  • Index

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When I first went to San Pedro Sacatepéquez, I wasn't planning to write about Mayan women. I arrived in the town with my advisor, Waldemar (Richard) Smith. During the 1960s Smith had spent three years in San Pedro with his wife, Linda, researching the impact of development on this commercially viable community (W. R. Smith 1975, 1977). My dissertation proposal, assiduously prepared for months before leaving for fieldwork in Guatemala, was titled "The Value of Children in the Family Productive System." It was December 1976. Richard introduced me to his informants, found me a place to live, and, with our spouses in tow, we celebrated the new year with his Sampedrano friends. During that first overwhelming week in Guatemala, Richard turned to me and, in an offhand way, said, "You seem to be getting along so well with the women. Why don't you change your topic to the impact development has had on them?" In a trice, I did exactly that.

The vigorous jump start Richard Smith gave to my work on gender is doubly ironic when considered against the backdrop of Smith's own conclusions on modernization in San Pedro. Smith's reputation as an anthropologist emerges from his assessment of San Pedro Sacatepéquez as one of the most productive and entrepreneurial "boom" economies in all of Guatemala. Before other ethnographers (e.g., C. Smith 1977, Goldin 1986) described the rich markets and economic potential of a number of highland productive systems like Almolonga or Totonicapán, San Pedro seemed almost anomalous in the ability of this Indian town to take advantage of rapidly expanding market opportunities. In light of this groundbreaking research on development, it is dismaying to see how much Smith had overlooked by never considering women in his enthusiastic embrace of this "pattern of economic progress."

In the first edition of Silent Looms, I demonstrated that an expanding, modernizing base of production destroyed women's traditional work, transforming them into a dependent and exploitable rural proletariat competing for scarce economic opportunities. In fact, where development had been effective, it hadn't benefited women as much as it had benefited men, as benefits were often at the expense of their wives, daughters, and mothers. Richard Smith never realized that while development may have been an overall boon in San Pedro, it was a major socioeconomic catastrophe where women's production and independence were concerned. For example, in his book, Smith celebrates the "completely new machine-knitting industry" that had sprung up since the 1950s as yet another example of "real economic advance." Clearly, he did not appreciate that what drove the knitting machine industry and afforded its owners considerable wealth was its exploitation of women knitting piecework at home or being paid sweatshop salaries in urban factories. Although he visited factories, he never realized that the apprenticeship system he applauded fooled workers into believing they needed a year without pay to learn to knit.

Smith's case study of "Anselmo Orozco" further illustrates my point. He describes Anselmo as running a soap business with his wife. But Anselmo realized the handmade soap business was a dead end given the stiff competition of industrially produced soaps like Fab, so he took his savings (from the business that he had shared with his wife), bought a truck, and got rich in transport. We never learn from Smith what happened to Anselmo's wife. Did she go on to become "wealthy and modern" too? When I tracked her down, I found that her life had changed, but not in the same way that Anselmo's had. She continued in the marginally profitable soap business in order to generate whatever small earnings she could to support her children. While they had a new house and educated sons symbolizing their father's newfound status, wife and children lived a precarious existence. Anselmo's trucking profits went into his own pocket and into the huipil of any one of a string of girlfriends he now supported. Household budgetary responsibilities fell to the wife who found herself dependent and abused in the house of this newly rich and modern San Pedro entrepreneur. In short, what Richard Smith painted as an optimistically entrepreneurial town looked very different to me when I included women.

Two Decades of San Pedro Fieldwork

After my initial year of fieldwork in San Pedro, I, like most other Guatemalanists, stayed away from the region. As members of a solidarity group called the Guatemalan Scholars Network, most ethnographers agreed that our presence could endanger the lives of our friends and informants during the terror and violence of the early 1980s. Accordingly, my work came to a halt until the election of Vinicio Cerezo as President of Guatemala in 1985. Cerezo's victory signaled (falsely, as it turned out) a return to democracy and thus the reopening of ethnographic research in the highlands.

In those years, I turned my attention to San Antonio Palopó, a more traditional Mayan community on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I again examined gender as a critical variable in the move toward an expanded economy and the search for a less impoverished way of life (Ehlers 1991, 1993). But in almost every field season, I would make the all-day bus trip from the lake to visit the Sampedrano families I now considered my friends.

And so it went until 1997, when I decided that San Pedro merited a second, more serious ethnographic look. I could not see Sampedranas encased like bugs in amber within a cultural explanation that might no longer fit. They were not static, inert case studies, but real people in a dynamic reality that might defy many of the predictions that emerged from Silent Looms. Intimate knowledge of two very different Indian communities has caused me to rethink many of my early assumptions.


Aided by a travel grant from the University of Denver, where I teach, I spent much of my 1997 summer in San Pedro Sacatepéquez. I lived with the same people I had stayed with in the 1970s, the Fuentes family. I made the same morning treks to San José Caben to visit weavers and did my rounds in the marketplace where many old friends still sold on Thursdays and Sundays. Although I had been back for briefer visits, there were many people I had not seen again. Happily, grown women I had only known as little girls welcomed me as a long-lost relative. Old friends had my photo with their families on their mantles, and stories were told about me that I, of course, had long forgotten. I brought photos of them in their youth and an album of my family in Boulder. Fortunately, almost no one among my informants or friends had died or disappeared or left town. Only Juana (my original guide to Guatemalan love and marriage) had gone to live on the coast, forced out of town after one too many ventures involving stolen car parts.

In my first San Pedro fieldwork, I ate almuerzo, the main meal of the day, with the Fuentes family, but I was adamant about having my evenings alone in my little apartment where I made a sandwich and read novels to escape. To a certain extent, I felt more like a boarder than a guest or member of the family. The Fuentes daughters had their boyfriends, their parents were busy, and their brothers were off limits. Only the elderly maiden aunt, Violeta, was around enough for serious heart-to-heart chats, and they were mostly about her. Twenty years later, beyond the few minutes I needed every day for organizing my field notes, I couldn't imagine being by myself. I allowed and encouraged the Fuentes family to take care of me. We were all older and wiser now. They had become my best friends and most trusted associates. I found myself making the rounds of their offices and shops just to check in every day. While previously they devoted hours and hours to watching the newfangled TV they had bought, now we were all too involved with our nighttime discussions and gossip to even turn it on.

Where the Fuentes family was concerned, I confess to no longer maintaining the orthodox anthropological distance, or hiding my routines and habits so as to fit in better. I introduced my comadre, Liliana, to power walking, for example. Every morning at six, we were off for an hour's brisk hike. Then we'd linger over breakfast while she filled me in on the family's stories and the town's developments. Although I had always believed an anthropologist should eat everything and anything so as not to offend, after twenty years, I was over seeking entry. And I have to watch my fat intake! So my breakfast was cereal and skim milk yogurt (one of the blessings of development), while Liliana ate her daily scrambled egg and white buttered toast. At lunch I was inserted into the family of what was now twenty-five adults and children. Everyone knew I was a vegetarian of sorts, so they made sure I had enough of the squash and corn when everyone else was eating pork. Basically, the 1997 field trip was like going home. We laughed a lot. We made up jokes that we still giggle about on the phone. We worried together about a friend's health, compared notes on our own bodily functions, and went out drinking, dancing, and visiting. In short, I stopped being outside the culture. I had found a comfortable vantage point, and I nestled in for a good look.

San Pedro Twenty Years Later

After my original research, the people of San Pedro lived through the extremely difficult and frightening violencia of the 1980s. Everyone has a story of a friend, neighbor, local official, or teacher who was assassinated or kidnapped by death squads, the paramilitary, or hired thugs. The army had established itself at a military base in neighboring San Marcos, a fact which occasioned considerable numbers of rapes, drunken brawls, and beatings in both towns. Highway robberies at gunpoint were common fare, as was the presence of the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) guerrillas who lived in the surrounding mountains or in the lowland region, and who made trips to town for supplies and propaganda purposes.

While the implementation of peace accords has brought an end to much of the institutionalized violence, the community, the highlands, and the country continue to confront lawlessness, corruption, and civil mayhem almost on a daily basis. This social anarchy seriously undermines the progressive image being carefully developed by the national administration. Television ads show runners--one male and one female--traversing the country while the voice-over says "Guatemal--We Are Changing." Billboards announcing new roads proclaim, "Work. Not just words." New road safety laws bespeak this modern orientation of the country, e.g., they forbid cell phones or headsets while driving and seatbelts are now mandatory. At the same time, however, Guatemala ranks fourth in the world in kidnappings, usually the kind where ransoms are paid (twice in some cases) and the victims killed anyway. Analysts look at kidnapping almost as an entrepreneurial opportunity for an increasingly desperate tide of unemployed people. Rising social inequality means more Guatemalans continue to live wretched, impoverished lives. In a recent essay, ex-president de León Carpio pointed out that during 36 years of war 150,000 people died due to war and repression. At the same time, 450,000 children under five years old died from malnutrition, poor health care, and social injustice. As support he notes that in an analysis of human development indicators among its 185 member nations, the UN now puts Guatemala as a lowly number 117, down from number 112 the year before (de León Carpio 1997).

Today, the town has recovered from the fear and paranoia that separated neighbor from neighbor but remains divided, in part, by growing class distinctions made even more complicated by religious factions begun in the 1970s and crystallized during the 1980s. In 20 years, the number of evangelical churches in the town center of San Pedro grew from only two to twenty-five, and at least one such temple exists in each of the seventeen aldeas. Although these new churches are distinct in their origins and orthodoxy, they tend to share a sense of cultural separateness and a suspicion of nonbelievers that is unsettling and seriously off-putting to the majority Catholics. The Catholic Church, seriously dispirited by the political assaults of the 1980s, has been further demoralized by this new competition. At the same time, robberies and attacks at various neighborhood chapels have given Catholic parishioners a strange sense of being besieged. Who, they wonder, would steal the statue of the Niño de Atocha, the patron saint of my own San Pedro parish?

This sense of vulnerability seems to be occasioned by the new atmosphere of rootlessness, alienation, and uncertainty in the town. Partly, this is a result of population growth, but due as well to a huge spurt in immigration. In my original fieldwork, I often took walks with Violeta Miranda and she could greet by name (or identify and avoid) nearly everyone we passed. That does not happen anymore. People complain that the strong Sampedrano identity and shared sense of community described by W R. Smith (1977) is being undermined by the number and diversity of newcomers who now live and work in the town.

Indeed, it is true that population has grown far beyond what normal reproductive patterns would have suggested. Immigrants from all over the country now compete with locals in hundreds of easily capitalized plaza businesses. Not only have they brought in businesses previously unheard of in the plaza (e.g., ice cream cones, fresh-killed chickens, Pepsi in cans, etc.), but they compete side-by-side with longtime traders selling the same products for the standard, and invariably higher, price. Who are these strangers? They are the thousands of people attracted by the opportunities for entrepreneurship, investment, a quick buck, or a route through Mexico to the United States, who have flooded the town in the last few years. Some come only for the market, but many have relocated for a longer stay. They are from all over Guatemala, Central America, and even places as far away as South America.

I took a walk through one rather tawdry example of this commercial influx, the red-light district that has evolved near the old bus station behind the church. In Silent Looms, I wrote about the one whorehouse in town, a dingy cantina with a jukebox out in the cornfields. Then, the working girls were bored ladinas (non-Indians) who shared a table and their conversation with the three local women (teachers, it turned out) who had recently inherited the business. Now, the prostitutes are indigenous teenagers as young as thirteen, brought in from the altiplano still in their huipiles and speaking Quiché. They behave like preteenagers, giggling and doing each other's hair while waiting for clients. Their pimps are unsavory, secretive men who direct their charges and their clients to the many open storefronts with only a flimsy screen to hide the bed.

Seemingly without exception, locals blame deviance and delinquency not on their own children, but on the aforementioned immigrant population. I was repeatedly told that these were the people, especially those from the coast, who were stealing money from plaza merchants, hanging out at the disco, dealing drugs, getting pregnant, and generally debasing the traditional values of the town. One variation on this theme of "the other" is to blame teens from the neighboring ladino town of San Marcos for all these problems. This was more common among teenagers themselves who found an easy target in their rivals and enemies from across the tracks.

I knew that immigrant influx only explained a small part of the 1990s version of San Pedro Sacatepéquez. One Sunday, eager to have another look at the changing local scene, I decided to stand outside the Catholic church after mass. Among the usual Sampedranos in traje (indigenous costumes) or worn dresses and pants, I saw men in expensive leather jackets sporting ponytails and earrings, and women with French-braided hair and high heels. Their sons looked like suburban skateboarders with baggy clothes and swoosh caps worn backwards, while their gum-snapping, heavily made-up daughters might have just wandered over from the nearest shopping mall.

Who were these people exhibiting such affluence? I knew they were locals, because I actually remembered some or recognized family members of others. When I asked around, people told me that locals or not, they were, without any doubt, drug dealers. While this suspicious finger-pointing may be true for a few of these people, it cannot explain what is indeed a marked trend to a pervasively upscale, Westernized affect in San Pedro. I believe that influenced by television, by travel, by visits to relatives in the United States, and by their college-educated children, many middle-class Sampedranos have adopted a "look" that expresses their desire for social mobility. To some people, such conspicuous consumption is grounds for suspicion--thus the drug-dealer analysis. To others, it is easy to understand. Their mothers and grandmothers eschewed the traditional clothes that they believed would mark them as backwards, rural "inditos." They opted for the clothes local ladinos wore as a sign of their being modern. Today, they and their more sophisticated offspring have selected a novel identity, one found in Miami or even Guatemala City, but until recently, not in San Pedro Sacatepéquez. I couldn't help wondering if what I was witnessing was the simple conscious adoption of Western styles, or a more serious choice, i.e., the abandonment of the entire indigenous culture package.

In short, I think it is fair to say that although drug dealers or invaders from elsewhere are partially responsible for the kinds of changes associated with rapid urbanization, it is development that has destroyed the very heart of the town. Money and affluence have caused the collapse of the nuclear family and to some extent have reshaped the values that have sustained the community for centuries. Disposable income accumulated since the 1970s has meant that family members are free to do things other than work night and day. Fathers no longer insist that their children carry on the family business. Instead, they demonstrate their own success and newfound status by investing in the education of their offspring. This movement has been so pervasive that this newly modernized Indian town has more professionals than its state capitol neighbor, San Marcos.

Since parents may no longer expect children to be working by the side of their mother or father, television, video games, and roughhousing on the streets take up the free time many young Sampedranos have after school or in the evenings. Teenage girls are conspicuous shoppers and media addicts who have adopted the ladino custom of greeting each other (and every adult they encounter) with a cheek kiss. Elaborate parties are held for children's birthdays with expensive gifts, piñatas, cake, Cokes, and specially made favors for guests. Bikinis have replaced huipiles in local beauty pageants, and several youth-oriented radio stations have opened, sponsored by national brands of junk food, clothing, and cosmetics.

Looking at these teenagers wandering around the town in packs, I was reminded of a story I often tell from my first fieldwork in San Pedro. Arriving in San José Caben after a 30-minute uphill trek, I realized that I had forgotten my notebook. "No trouble," said Don Carlos Fuentes, whom I had come to visit. "Manuelito will run to your house to fetch it." And before I could say a word, off went his nine-year-old son, eager to do his father's bidding. There, I thought, is a well-adjusted boy, confident of his value to his family, even if that day it consisted of running a silly errand. Here is a lesson about the value of work. When I tell this story, I always contrast this poor, rural family with that of the wealthy Velasquezes, Norma and Juan Carlos, the owners of the town's hotel and movie theater. Their son, Vinicio, was a bored, pampered, diffident little boy who always seemed to be rattling around his big house with nothing to do. In spite of having every comfort, a life of affluence did not provide him with more than disquiet about who he was, where he fit in, or what his purpose was in life.

This bit of amateur psychology has long been my guide to understanding middle-class angst and the value of work, Guatemalan or otherwise. And now it seems an apt model for explaining the seemingly pointless existence of a growing group of Sampedrano teenagers. Like Vinicio, they seemed to have a lot of spare time to hang out, party, and get into trouble. Sadly, one of the costs of this modernizing economy has been that young Sampedranos were now being schooled beyond their usefulness to family businesses, and, to a certain extent, to themselves.

Work Today to Eat Tomorrow: Stasis and Change in San Pedro

I learned several basic lessons about San Pedro during that summer fieldwork. First, things had stayed the same in terms of the "all business, all the time" nature of the community. As I had anticipated, people of all ages and financial situations worked as obsessively as ever. Sampedranos seem to have internalized their own reputation as hardworking, clever businesspeople. They know they are energetic and skilled, and many of them, especially those with educations, are constantly coming up with new ideas and new businesses. Thus, the commercial sector was, at least to look at it, booming with activity. The streets were clogged with cars, buses, and trucks moving goods and people into the market from all over the region. There seemed to be a photocopy store on every corner, and even the corner drugstore used a computer to keep track of bills and inventory. Fast, modern self-service bakeries had been introduced by educated children of traditional bakers who had patronized such places in Guatemala City. Film could be developed in an hour across the street from where I lived. There were more doctors than I could count, and more than a dozen development agencies had offices employing local college graduates to implement projects targeting the rural poor.

Most people, especially women, still worked several jobs, or combined commerce with a job or perhaps two jobs. My friend Ana Miranda taught first grade, managed a clothing store, oversaw her husband's auto parts store, and, in her spare time, made decorated Styrofoam crosses for funerals. If I could convince Ana to put down her work for a coffee and a chat on a Sunday afternoon, I considered myself lucky.

Those Who Made Good

As one would expect, over a twenty-year period, the lives of individuals had evolved in both predictable and surprising directions. Gloria, the young woman whose baby had died in 1977, never did marry and now has a Ph.D. in education. I had imagined that César and Ana Gabriela, the teenagers who were forced to get married when her pregnancy was discovered, would be miserable together quite soon after they were wed. As it turned out, however, they went on to become successful and happy with three daughters and more than a dozen profitable businesses and investments. Mari, a seemingly poor soap maker from Chamac, had built, with her husband, a large, comfortable house and had two children in college. Doña Angélica was still doing a little weaving two decades after we met, but her investment in the education of her eldest son had paid off. He had become a highly placed executive with Aviateca, the Guatemalan airline, and made a sizeable salary. He provided his family with the economic security they had never had, as well as five TVs, two stereo systems, and a pickup truck.

The children of my closest informants and friends had been educated as professionals. After high school some of them found jobs as teachers, usually with the help of a considerable bribe to the right officials. The pay is poor and the commute to distant aldeas or rural communities long, but it is a job. Few of the growing hordes of high school graduates actually work in their chosen fields. Doña Yolanda's parents, for instance, wanted to provide their children with the means to better themselves. Accordingly, Yolanda and her siblings acquired degrees in teaching, nursing, accountancy, and technology. Their current jobs are as a sweater maker, shoemaker, tailor, candy seller, and shopkeeper.

Those who had been able to afford the time and money for college returned to San Pedro as dentists, architects, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Like their compañeros with lesser degrees, however, very few of them have work in their professions. If they do practice, they make little money as their clients are usually too poor to pay more than a pittance for the service. Thus, young professionals are often obligated to open shops or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. Eve, for example, is a doctor's daughter and has a dental degree from the University of San Carlos. But local técnicos with minimal training can do much of the routine dental work for far less money than she would charge just to maintain her office. Thus, she has opted for a more traditional female role. She works in her clinic two days a week, but she helps out in her husband's store much of the rest of the week. In addition, all the nurturing of their two children falls to her.

As the discussion of Pacas will illustrate, educated Sampedranos have been able to infuse the economy with dynamic organizational models, innovative products and services, and confident business leadership, bringing a new, sophisticated emphasis to San Pedro commerce. It seems that young adults prefer doing business in their hometown to practicing their professions in Guatemala City, where they might have a better chance to succeed. I found this to be true for both college-educated men and women. For example, Manuela Miranda was wooed back from her job as an educational administrator in Totonicapán by the offer of a partnership and leadership role in her family's chicken business. Instead of having her weekends free for excursions and parties with her colleagues, Angélica now lives at home where she works seven days a week managing the business and considering what improvements she might introduce.

In short, many Sampedranos have made good. Deeply embedded in a growth mode in their town, the middle class has ridden the economic wave toward affluence and has arrived there with financial security, educated children, and a sense of accomplishment. For most, the secret to their success has been the loyalty to their families and to their town. While the promise of more money lured other Guatemalans to Texas or California or Miami, very few Sampedranos have moved away. Always there is the potential of the marketplace, the promise of an income from the vibrant San Pedro economy, and the ability to apply oneself to making a living.

Those Who Didn't Make Good

At the same time that the town's growing middle class can look back proudly on its accomplishments, the majority of Sampedranos still struggle to survive. There simply isn't enough profit to go around. Crowded out of the market by competition, comparatively weak business skills and networks, or a simple lack of opportunity, many people's pocketbooks are empty. These people fall into two camps.

First, there are those for whom the town's abundant opportunities have been irrelevant, i.e., they had never had the resources to take advantage of the market or the schools or the jobs in any real sense. Doña Tomisina, for instance, has never been able to afford her own house. Twenty years ago she cooked at a makeshift fire on the fringes of her in-laws' home, and today she lives with her son's family. Still landless and desperately malnourished, Tomisina and her husband are barely subsisting on the Q15 ($2.50) a day each makes, he as a day worker and she washing clothes for the Fuentes family. Strategizing around poverty has not changed either. Doña Tomisina's son, Chepe, allows his sons to study, but has pulled his daughters from school after three years (in spite of their good grades and eagerness to learn) so that they might produce some kind of income.

Clearly, Chepe learned this strategy from his father, who similarly denied education to his daughters. In Silent Looms, I talked about Doña Tomisina's granddaughter María Dolores, who as a five-year-old was considered valuable to the female family business because she could already wash dishes. Obviously, helping her mother with domestic tasks was the only skill she was ever encouraged to develop. Today, she describes her life in these words: "I have always suffered." Pregnant at eighteen, now with four children, her husband beats her and rarely gives her enough money. She only has the gasto (minimal household budget or allowance) from selling the vegetables her husband grows on their little piece of ground. On the day I sat with her in the market, María Dolores had brought only a few lettuces and bunches of cilantro, and in the first two hours had only sold about Q20 ($3.33) worth.

This picture of a battered, struggling young woman is all too normal in bustling downtown San Pedro. Everywhere I saw women scraping together meager profits from the sale of marginal products. I counted several hundred young women like María Dolores entering the commercial arena with just a few bunches of flowers or radishes in the plaza but with no means for investing in a more sizeable inventory. Most established plaza businesses had not changed at all since my first visit years ago. Women were running the same stalls, selling the same products their mothers and grandmothers had, without any expansion into more profitable items or capital improvements. When queried about their futures given rapidly diminishing sales, they shrugged and suggested it was all in God's hands. This part of the story of women's production has remained remarkably constant.

Many Silent Looms

The second group of hard-pressed Sampedranos are those who had done well during the 1970s and 1980s, but who have been caught in the maelstrom of the economic transformation confronting the town and Guatemala in the 1990s. Hard times are erasing their progress. Previously, I wrote that Rosario and Edulina Ramirez had built a fine house in town with the profits from ten years of plaza business in soap and comestibles. They had been able to afford to educate all three of their daughters, whose labor was only minimally integral to the running of the store, the plaza stall, or any of a half dozen other moneymaking activities. In the last year, however, serious competition, both locally and from Mexico, means their business has dropped more than seventy percent. They've had to rent out rooms, and Rosario, desperately searching for income, quizzed me about the possibility of work in the States. This was not an unusual request. On this trip I had daily inquiries about jobs and salaries and routes to the United States, something that had never happened to me before in San Pedro.

The Típica Weaving Business

In Silent Looms, I wrote about the male-driven típica business taking over looms from women when their traditional weaving businesses collapsed in the move toward modernization. During the 1960s and 1970s, many people from town and the near aldeas made their fortunes by selling yard goods of Maya-based textiles to wholesalers and exporters in Guatemala City and Xela. For instance, Gumercindo Miranda, one of the dozen or so weavers who founded what seemed at the time a rather modest textile cooperative in San José Caben, now owns a house in Guatemala City and a square block of real estate in downtown San Pedro.

Today, these wildly successful típica operations are no more. U.S. interest in importing Guatemalan textiles has waned. Of the two dozen businesses that once provided work for several hundred men in San Jose Caben, only two remain. One is owned by Florinda, Doña Angélica's daughter, and her husband, Roberto. The couple's business is handled by four in-house looms and sixty people (half of them women) weaving out of their homes. I was initially surprised that women had entered this male domain in such force, but the explanation was understandably familiar. Florinda and Roberto said that they would prefer to use men since their experience has shown that, given female reproductive responsibilities, a woman working at home can only manage half of what a man can do. The economy of the town is so dynamic, however, that they cannot find enough male weavers! Young men eschew work at a loom, preferring to study or to earn more money in town as cab drivers. So, although they only can make about Q220 a month (approximately $36), women are lining up for this work.

In terms of traje típico (the traditional indigenous costume), the weaving of wearable textiles is almost completely dead as a source of women's income. Twenty years ago, I saw that de traje women were fewer, and that huipiles and cortes grew dusty in shops when no one could afford to buy them. What I hadn't envisioned was that even the best and busiest weavers (who still had their wealthy older clients) could not meet the demands of the increasingly higher cost of living and were abandoning their looms. Among the older women, a fortunate few are allowing their successful children to support them. Many are working with their husbands, selling the vegetables he raises in the market. Others, particularly the young mothers, are actively investing in enterprises with more economic potential, such as opening Pacas or carrying contraband from Tapachula.

This does not mean that women in the region no longer weave. Female weavers of the poorer, more traditional aldea, Santa Teresa, have inherited the bulk of the corte and huipil business. They produce for local traders to sell on the streets or on order for rural women who are still de traje. These women have more customers who wear traje and fewer demands on their income as their children are less educated, their houses more basic, their diets simpler.

To get another angle on the transformation of the traje business, I visited Lucinda Orozco in her mercado clothing store. Lucinda reflects the town's evolution toward middle-class female autonomy in her status as a single, professional woman who, over the years, has had a long sequence of half-serious boyfriends. Addicted to business and determined to be self-supporting, she keeps up her mother's shop during the day while teaching school in Chamac at night.

Lucinda inherited this business from her mother, Doña Celestina, the típica dealer who had first taken me along on her route to Totonicapán and Palestina in the 1970s. Lucinda still buys from Toto weavers, but her San Pedro locale is decidedly slow. In fact, after sitting there all day without a sale, I wondered why Lucinda came in at all. In reality, she lamented, her profit margin has been dropping steadily. She has had to pay more to keep regular weavers, but she has lost more than two-thirds of them because they cannot make any profit even at the higher rates. Now she finds herself competing with freelancing Santa Teresa weavers who sell to her and then sell on the street for the same price. So while Lucinda has to mark up a Q125 huipil to Q150 just to cover her overhead (rent, taxes, salaries, and electricity), the weaver's lower street price means a sale lost.

Yes, says Lucinda, there are still de corte women in the far aldeas, and rural women from other parts of the state come to buy when they have money after working the harvests on the coast. But as the population grows, they are putting their daughters into skirts and blouses. Then, too, these are poor people who cannot buy the big-ticket items like hand-embroidered huipiles or silk cortes on which Lucinda might make a decent profit.

Gender Relations--The Same Old Story

Parallel to this category of struggling businesswomen, I want to include a new group--the female working poor. In the San Pedro of the '90s, girls and women have options outside cottage industry or the plaza for income potential. The town's size and the movement of commerce and people through its center translate into growing retail and service sectors, and thus a considerable opportunity for wage work. For example, while in the 1970s and 1980s there were few cafes or bars, fast-food restaurants are now opening (and closing) all the time. Unfortunately, working women cannot command very much money, and most of them complain about their small salaries. These money problems are complicated by the fact that many workers are single mothers. Time spent with women from this sector assured me that gender relations had changed little since the 1970s.

For example, I interviewed six waitresses at a local restaurant, all of them in their twenties. Each had a familiar story: they came from poor aldea families, and at first, most were being educated with the hope of a job and a decent income. Then each of these young women was seduced and abandoned. Juana, for example, had sex with her boyfriend three times before she realized she was expecting a baby. She says she knew nothing about her body, menstruation, or pregnancy. He left her when the baby was two months old. Santa was an orphan of fifteen, raising her two brothers, when she met her boyfriend. She became pregnant; he promised to recognize the child, but he never did. Instead, he married somebody else, left for Guatemala City, and has never seen his daughter.

The other stories are similar. Scorned by their families as putas, and with a child to care for, one waitress after another told of having to scrounge for whatever kind of job she could get. One worked in a sweater factory from 3 AM to 10 AM, making less than Q40 a week. Another sold atolito de elote (corn drink) from a jug she carried around on her head. From this work, she made so little money that there were whole days when neither she nor her baby ate. She lived like that for two years and lost thirty pounds as a result. Finally, she found a waitress job where she was required to work seven days a week. She made no money there either, but, she says, at least she wasn't carrying around the baby on her back and her livelihood on her head! Their current work at the restaurant pays a decent wage with fair benefits, but even so, by the end of the month, none of these women has enough money left to feed their children.

The same tales of struggling women and violent, irresponsible men kept coming up. In Chamac, I visited with Julieta, the daughter of Doña María Luz, the soap maker. She is now thirty, has three children, and lives with her parents. Fourteen years before, she had married Geraldo, the driver of the minibus that dropped us off at her house. Geraldo wouldn't let Julieta work in the plaza with her mother. He made her stay home to care for their cows. He beat her. He had other women. He drank. Finally, after a decade of abuse, her family helped her to leave him. She filled up a truck with her meager possessions and moved out. Luckily, he gives her Q200 a month, an extremely rare occurrence in Guatemala.

Machismo isn't limited to poor men. On this visit, Liliana told me a story about her uncle Daniel that certainly outdoes all other tales of machismo in San Pedro. It seems Uncle Daniel had women all over the country. While he traveled around visiting them, his wife, Corina, ran his business. Corina was dedicated to Daniel in spite of all his girlfriends and lovers. Her devotion was so extreme that during Semana Santa, she would prepare his favorite tamales de carne and send them to all his novias so he wouldn't miss this traditional food from home while he was away!

These stories are only a few examples of the constant soap opera of household gender relations. Unfortunately, while a few middle-class Sampedranas have opted out of this drama with good jobs, family support, and their own money, most women (rich or poor) are still victimized by the unreliable men in their lives. Some men cherish their families and treat their wives with love and respect, but the theme of dissatisfaction with men and marital dissolution remains. Women still expect to be mistreated by their spouses, and this brief revisit suggested their expectations often came true.

In previous work (Ehlers 1991) I have written that this imbalance of power is based on women's economic vulnerability, that women must put up with abusive and irresponsible men because their own productive efforts are so minimally rewarding. I still believe this to be true. Even where women have benefited from education and job opportunities, they are still expected to combine income production with domestic responsibilities, an extremely challenging task.

Female Entrepreneurship and the Family Productive System

Since writing Silent Looms, my understanding of household gender relations and women's economic vulnerability has been influenced by the work of other social scientists and feminist academics (Bruce 1989, Jiggins 1989, and others) writing about men's and women's distinctly separate productive and reproductive agendas. This literature, and my own research done in the interim (Ehlers 1998), has caused me to rethink the nature of household production in San Pedro--even to the point of arguing that a true family productive system does not exist. I no longer consider, as W. R. Smith did, that San Pedro has thrived because all members of the family work together pooling their energies and income for household consumption purposes. Instead, I now appreciate that it is women who are primarily responsible for meeting the basic needs of their children, not only in terms of reproduction, but also in income generation. I think of women not only as providers, but also as the providers of last resort. If men cannot or will not contribute to the household budget to ensure survival, women must pick up the slack however they can. It is true in San Pedro Sacatepéquez that women and men see the care and feeding of children to be the woman's job. Men's priorities lie elsewhere. Sampedranos in general are expected to provide basics like corn and firewood for their wives, but women must provide everything else. This may not be the rule, but, to some extent, it is the common expectation.

As Bruce (1989) and others have found elsewhere in the Third World, I believe that San Pedro, too, has two distinct production /consumption agendas in the household, one male and one female, and these agendas, while sometimes complementary, can also compete for scarce resources. Instead of Richard Smith's smooth system of cooperating family production, I see separate survival strategies and considerable tension over the allocation of money. Most women feed their children based upon what they can convince their husbands to give them, supplemented by their own small incomes. Even where women work for their husbands as day-to-day managers of stores or home businesses (the classic family production system), they are expected to turn over all the monies to their spouses. It is his decision how much allowance they receive from the receipts for household expenses. The only arena where women can be sure of controlling money is in female family businesses, and these, as we have seen, create extremely minimal returns. In short, in their role as nurturer/provider of last resort, women are coping with one economic crisis after another, with far fewer resources than their husbands.

Meanwhile, men are often living in nonfamilial worlds to which a considerable part of their earnings are directed. As in Smith's Anselmo case (and in the dozens like it that I have documented), men have their own uses for their wages or commercial income. In general, men do give their wives money, but retain the lion's share of their cash for purposes other than household consumption. Some men may drink it up, while others gamble it away or give it to other women with whom they are having extramarital relationships. In other words, they spend it on themselves. With or without these bad habits, men normally reinvest their profits in their businesses or in the conspicuous consumption of televisions, boom-box stereos, and the like.

Not surprisingly, women's consumption agenda is very different from their husbands'. Most women use their daily receipts to buy food for the household. They rarely have money to spend on themselves, nor can they keep aside cash needed for food or school uniforms to better capitalize their small businesses. Business profits directly fuel household budgetary needs instead of being used as investment for growth. With such a built-in short circuit of the rules of business, it is no wonder women's enterprises seldom thrive.

Given these parallel agendas, the real-life implications for business competitiveness and success are compelling. Imagine a woman's tomato business right next door to a man's tomato business. For the moment, we'll assume all things are equal in terms of business experience, access to credit, etc. (although we know they most likely are not). They've both just started in business. At the end of the first day, the tomatoes are gone and they've each got their Q10 of profit in their hands. The man assumes his wife will have dinner on the table and doesn't worry about food. Thus, he can put some of his Q10 into savings. Maybe he will even drink a beer or two before going home. Meanwhile, the woman puts aside her capital for tomorrow's crate of tomatoes, takes what money she has left to her neighbor's stall where she applies the rest of her profit toward the purchase of a half-pound of chicken, some noodles, and a few vegetables. Next market day, the man dips into his reserve to buy two crates of tomatoes. The woman can only buy the one. Two weeks later, he has three crates; she still has the one. Next market day, he has three crates of tomatoes and has expanded into the sale of onions. She still has only the one crate of tomatoes. The following year, no change for her, but his business has taken off.

What have we learned from this rather simplistic example of market economics? Men are buoyed by their wives' small but secure businesses which cover household expenses they don't meet. They can thus take full advantage of the marketplace, reinvesting profits and expanding their businesses. They are entrepreneurial, but their wives are definitely not.

Tracy Bachrach Ehlers is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver.

From reviews of the first edition:

"This intriguing study of women's role in household, town, and regional economic activity is a very revealing and important contribution to the growing literature on women and social change in Latin America.... Scholars and undergraduates interested in the Indians of Mesoamerica, and, more generally, in the changing relations of men and women everywhere, will welcome this book."


"Ehlers clearly shows the differential impact of capital penetration on women's survival strategies by social class, showing how options for some are limited, for others expanded, but changed for all. Silent Looms would important book to include in courses on women in Latin America, women in development, and feminist methodologies."

—Association for Women in Development Newsletter

"Ehlers weaves a lively tale as colorful as the huipiles worn by the women she studies. She embroiders the small details that bring to life a whole town of women and children."

—Latin American Research Review