From the beginning they have been there, the weavers. Or that’s what the Maya say: weaving was the first connection, binding heaven to earth. Before the Hero Twins. Before the long count. Before the predictions for 2012. Before any other knowledge, there had to be this, this binding. The plane of the ecliptic to the milky way, to the makings of women and men in the world. Weaving as cosmic manifestation, the spinner’s whorl the metaphor of movement of the heavenly bodies. And the weaver’s art an activity that recreates and renews the fabric of the cosmos. Always.
Yet in the 1980s, the Guatemalan Army burned weaving as once the priests burned codices. Precious knowledge of the sacred woven into cloth destroyed like the books that once told it all. And the world, most of the world, took no notice. And amid disinformation and destruction the razing of villages and the flight of refugees, even the dead remained uncounted in this most recent of the genocides against the Maya. When the military dictatorships of Guatemala once more took it upon themselves to try to solve their ‘Indian problem’.
And the worst of it in the eighteen months of the government of General José Efraín Rios Montt whose coup brought him to power on the 23rd of March of 1982, during the days of the vernal equinox, thirty years before what some still say--the vernal equinox, not the winter solstice–will be the end of the Maya long count in 2012. The date some have taken for Doomsday. Others for the return of Galactic Maya kings, long lost in space.
Yet I wonder if our end did not begin there: March 23, 1982.
Folkloric, many call it, folkloric. This weaving. A decadent tradition. Over bright. Over complicated. Typical perhaps, I have been told this, of primitive people attracted by bright things. Attracted like monkeys, or was it Indians, to glass beads. To aniline dyes. Without subtlety or nuance. Just colour. Nothing to it. Lacking sophistication in its heavy-handed contrasts. Not like the classical Maya, those galactic kings of yore: the galactic Maya. The depth of tradition, of thought, of connection in the weaving as invisible as its burning. This weaving whose patterns underpin the carving that some have taken to indicate galactic knowledge. Whose patterns too, still indicate each wearer’s connection to the sacred.
So I thought: if western trained eyes cannot see the subtlety, the coherence, the intent, the very decisions made in bringing the weaver’s world, our world, back into balance, what would happen if I excerpted small pieces of my favourite ten foot long tzut--the only great work of art in my possession, I think–scanned them then projected them bigger. Much bigger. Made them look like large, or even smaller, abstract paintings. Could it then be seen. That connection. How it shapes the world, speaks to eternity and the cosmos? Or at least, indicates the brilliance of its maker, like so much religious art speaks even to the unbeliever.
This long head wrap, this tzut, each one, and each time, different as it is wrapped around the head. Perhaps a manifestation of the cosmic serpent, or just in conversation with the sky serpent of the milky way. Would seeing its sections, let us see how its whole converses with the gods. Perhaps still connects us to the galactic centre, even now as we approach the coming dark rift of 2012. The ones astronomers agree the Maya knew to predict. Even if they do not agree on its meaning.
It occurs to me then that it must always have been these women, weaving the cosmos, rather than any Maya kings in decorated spaceships of stone, like King Pakal of Palenque–the figure most cited–who have maintained our galactic connection. Weaving, after all, centres both in their world trees. The women in their huipiles-- their woven blouses–and the king on his sarcophagus lid, surrounded by stone weaving bands that connect him to his ancestors to empower him for his journey through the galaxy. And for his rebirth.
So that I think that might be the prophecy of 2012, where the critical words are missing on the Palenque stone. Neither return of the galactic kings to bring us harmony, nor doomsday. But an acknowledgement of this daily weaving, these women’s millennial, so often invisible, nurturing of our cosmic connection. Should it ever come to pass, I think the prophecy says, that amid the violent destruction aimed at Maya culture, the last Maya woman should ever weave the last huipil, the last tzut, – then it is that the interlacing of sky and earth will be broken, the cosmic connection severed. And it is then our world will end.
As it began. With the weavers.
This piece was created as a literary installation at the Banff Centre for the Arts during the 2011 Aboriginal Arts residency Revolution 2012, facilitated by Adrian Stimson. Shown at studio days in Banff in preliminary form, it was subsequently shown in New Brunswick and Maine.
Although the idea of using closeups of the tzut headwrap, which I consider a tour de force of abstract art, to showcase the brilliance of Maya weaving had already occurred to me and I had brought the tzut and several huipiles with me as well as closeup images scanned at 600dpi, the arrest of war criminal Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa in Lethbridge during the residency created the text.
But in the meantime, as we await our doom or our enlightenment, or just our continuance, in gratitude to those women with their love of sacred beauty, and of connection, I have thought I should make a small memorial to the Mayan dead. To the 646 villages eliminated. To the over 200,000 dead. In what our newspapers continue to call a civil conflict, as if there was anything civil about it, this horror the United Nations has named a genocide. A purposeful thought out genocide.
And, in particular, a memorial to the dead of that most terrible year, that year begun on the equinox of hope. That 1982 year of Rios Montt, the born again Christian with connection to churches in the US, and to the Reagan administration, who thought the Maya needed to be taught once more a new Christianity, and a lesson.
It leapt into my eyes, that one small clipping. That seeming aside in the news of the day. That while Rios Montt still serves in the Guatemalan Congress, a man accused of war crimes in Guatemala in 1982 had been captured in Lethbridge. A town only miles from where in Banff, Alberta, I was making my enlargements of my tzut, and feasting my eyes on the intention in its threads. Thinking this only an ironic aside in the discourse around 2012, an opportunity to speak of the brilliance of the art of the living Maya.
When I saw it there the article about that town, so close too, so very close, to another even smaller town right on the Canadian U.S. border where back in those eighties years so many Guatemalan asylum seekers snuck through. Guatemalans I translated for at their refugee hearings, Guatemalans whose horrific testimony still rests in my archives. I could even tell you exactly where the house was located that you had to go to the left around to accomplish the crossing. To reach a terminus in Canada in the new underground railroad of the sanctuary movement.
Then while I read of the capture of Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa, I noticed the complaints about how Canada’s “lax” immigration standards must have allowed this war criminal in, while there were no calls for celebration of the many Guatemalan lives Canadian immigration policy had saved, as they fled from the acts of men like Orantes Sosa. Who yes, while denying his culpability as a commander in the murders, acknowledges his presence in Dos Erres, the small village eradicated by his group of ‘kaibiles’, of Guatemalan Special Forces. And I thought once more of weaving. Of those who weave our world together, and how in the sensationalism surrounding the capture of a war criminal (and yes, he is a war criminal, his presence in Dos Erres tells us that much), once more the Maya of Guatemala are forgotten. The dead. Those saved from death. They are expendable. Not even there for the sake of argument.
Then I saw the pictures. Not of the massacres. No pictures were taken then. As populations were eradicated. Villages razed. Crops and weaving burned. Cattle stolen. Survivors pursued; their crops burned again whenever found. No, there are no such pictures. Of refugees, yes. And now, now, slowly disinterred: the dead. We see images of the dead. As one by one they are revealed and counted by forensic anthropologists, just to prove that it happened. This genocide so long denied did indeed happen. These people all over Guatemala by relatives and friends, would not simply disappear. They had once lived. And farmed. And woven. And celebrated their heritage.
And in this one small village of Dos Erres with its two hundred and fifty one dead, we can see the excess of cruelty bred in genocide, a cruelty that so totally disregards the humanity of the other, hates the possibility of humanity in the other, that it must humiliate and terrorize, nullify, render nothing, beyond any possibility of endurance, or recovery. Or redemption for those implicated. Where first they killed the children in front of the adults, bashing in their heads with a hammer or throwing them live into the village well. Then they raped and killed the older girls and women with a hammer, first ripping fetuses from the living bodies of the pregnant, then threw them on top of children into the well. And then they tortured the men. And then they killed them. And then the well was full.
Now, they are being disinterred. And small yellow signs demarcate each body by number. And of each one, this is what is left: A small rectangular bulto–a package--of no more than eighteen inches by two feet. Of bones, of rotted clothing, of, perhaps, a perfectly preserved small child’s sandal, a man’s rubber boot. And that’s all.
I know that they will be reburied by those who once knew them. With only two survivors few loved ones are left, but still: there are extended family, friends, neighbours of other villages, friends of friends, human rights workers, others who have suffered but survived. And I know too, that flowers will be brought, and copal burned and prayers sung or said. Yet I feel their terrible nakedness through the newsprint, those exposed bones aching into my eyes across the years, when even I, who translated so much testimony, had no idea how terrible it truly was.
How many times those acts I reported into the record were repeated and repeated and repeated.
It is then I find myself resolved to make some small memorial of my own, to place these haunting images among this weaving I have so long loved. Whose beauty I want all to see. Because yes, I do believe these photos must somehow carry some small fragment of the spirits of the dead, I wish to protect them as their relatives might wish: with this woven beauty, here among the eyes of strangers who they must ask to witness their terrible message. What better place then, than amid manifestations of this great art form, this magnificently woven cosmic connection. As they too, like King Pakal must make their galactic journey. To heaven, or to rebirth.
Perhaps, I think, if others can see this weaving, mourn its burning, its destruction, as they would a slashed Mona Lisa, a smashed Buddha, the burning of a Pollack or a Rothko, perhaps then they will see these people, too. Beyond these bultos. See them living lives worth living, these dead relatives of the living Maya, who were not seen in time. And we can acknowledge how the Maya have never disappeared, despite all efforts to destroy them and to minimize their ongoing achievements. And just as we venerate the mysterious Maya who we once believed had disappeared, we can venerate too, these recently disappeared now brought to light.
And celebrate the living along with their ancestors. For who they are. And all the beauty they’ve created. And perhaps, for 2012, that might already be the shift in consciousness some say we are awaiting.
To begin our world’s renewal. With the weavers.
In this closeup of the tzut, each small bundle inside the diamond of torn paper represents the remains of a woman or a child taken from the village well at Dos Erres, where all of the villagers present the day the Guatemalan Special forces entered the village were killed, save two. Both boys were taken by soldiers who took pity on them, one to be treated as a servant, the other as a favoured son. Identified through DNA, relatives have been able to find them.
The latter, Oscar Rámirez Castañeda, whose father was absent that day his wife and seven other children were killed, was found to be living undocumented in Boston in 2011. He has since been granted asylum in the US and was a principle witness in the triial of José Vinicio Orantes Sosa who was sentenced to ten years in a US court in 2014.
General Ríos Montt was finally convicted of crimes against humanity, including genocide, but never served time. He died on April 1st, 2018. According to his lawyer “Falleció en su hogar, con el amor de su familia, con su conciencia sana y limpia—he died. in his home, with the love of his family, with his conscience healthy and clean.” His daughter, Zury Ríos, barred from seeking the Guatemalan presidency in 2019 as a close relative of the author of a coup, is married to a former Republican Congressman in the US who, along with his wife, believes the same. I wish I could say April Fools.