Blog > Mayan Families Staff Spotlight Family Aid > Traje—Tradition Meets Trade

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Traje—Tradition Meets Trade
Lauren Erlandson

Herlinda can’t remember a time when her family wasn’t wearing traje.

The traditional clothing is a cornerstone of the Mayan culture with its brightly colored hues and intricately woven thread. However, traje is much more than its aesthetic appeal—the clothes tell a story of expression, identity and preservation.

Herlinda; Photo credit: Erin Crandell 

“It’s representative of the  way of life—of ancestry,” says Herlinda, who works for the Mayan Families Artisan Program.

Herlinda’s family is indigenous, and choose to wear traje even in the face of economic hardship and the rising popularity of blue jeans and cotton t-shirts. To them, traje is a tradition and a vital piece of their history. 

According to Heirlinda, traje is only complete when worn in its entirety. For some women this means a hair ribbon (cinta), blouse (guipil ), sash (faja), shawl (rebozo) and skirt (corte). For men, traje consists of a hat (sombrero), carrying cloth (tzute), overshirt (capixay), shirt (camisa), belt (cinturon), bag (bolsa), pants (pantalon) and sandals (sandalitas).

Weaving a story

Traje is unique for its storytelling function. The garments serve as an important expression of both identity and geography.

According to Herlinda, embroidery and patterns are significant in Guatemalan traje, and different communities can be identified in the smallest of details. For example, in Chichicastenango, the sun and the four cardinal points of north, south, east and west adorn guipiles. In San Antonio Palopó, blue guipiles with vertical stripes are paired with darker striped cortes. In Sololá, brocade sleeves are customary.

San Antonio; Photo credit: Brendan James

Color, too, conveys a message. Red is symbolic of blood, black of the darkness of night, and white of purity. Heirlinda says that though these meanings are known today, years before they carried greater significance.

Creating a lifeline

Making traje is a very complex process, and is therefore labor intensive. If made by hand, a single piece can take months to complete. This process starts by spinning cotton into thread and then dying it using native plants, flowers, and berries. The thread is then woven together using either a traditional backstrap loom or a more modern footloom. Each piece is sewn together and then embroidered.

Woman weaving on a backstrap loom; Photo credit: Matt Dayka

Weaving is an artisan tradition in Guatemala; one that women have been doing for centuries. In 2005, it was estimated that there were between 700,000 and 900,000 weavers in the country— most of them indigenous women. The trade provides stable work in a place where poverty is abundant and job opportunities for women are scarce.

According to The World Factbook, 54% of the Guatemalan population lives below the poverty line, and the majority are indigenous. By purchasing and wearing traje, a person does more than promote their culture—they contribute to the local economy and the advancement of local artisans.

Preserving tradition

Although a source of economic stability for some, traje’s labor intensive nature makes it more expensive than the Western clothing sold in pacas (western clothing stores). In its entirety, adult traje can cost nearly $250. This, according to Heirlinda—as well as traje’s impractically thick nature in Guatemala’s warm climate—makes it less desirable to younger Guatemalans.

Peña Blanca; Photo credit: Erin Crandell 

“The culture of traje is easily lost—it’s more expensive, but also lasts longer,” Heirlinda says.

Traje is more than just an article of clothing. It is a key component of culture, a means to put food on the table, and an expression of self.

Mayan Families’ Family Aid program aims to support the indigenous families of Guatemala in the face of all obstacles—including providing clothing to those in need. To give the gift of traje, donate to the General Family Aid Fund.

Receiving traje would be “incredibly special,” said Heirlinda. “An incredible gift.”


This blog was written by Mikayla Raley, Mayan Families Communications Department Volunteer. 

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