My task this week is to find a pair of shoes suitable for rainy season in Guatemala. I’ll be heading down there next week to work on the final photo shoot for a book on people who are keeping traditional textiles alive. Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón, authors and tacticians, have laid out a rigorous schedule that will take us in all directions to see jaspé dyers and weavers, cinta weavers, backstrap weavers of gauzy inlaid cotton, and much more.
As I squirm with happy anticipation, I’m also thinking back to the last trip there last March. It was so rich with encounters, experiences, and images. One that sticks in my mind for its unforgettable unlikelihood is our visit with Don Domingo Asciona, an 89-year-old gentleman of great persistence and charm.
He learned as a young man to make the intricate looped bags fashioned from maguey fiber that are a standard accessory for many Maya men. He made them for decades both for his own use and for sale. He took the silky maguey fiber, the residue left when all the juicy green pulp was stripped off the blades, and spun it on his thigh into a fine, firm, consistent cord.
Then one day, he could no longer get maguey fiber. Maybe it no longer grew in his part of the Ixil Triangle in the Guatemalan highlands, or maybe no one was bothering to harvest and strip the fiber out. I know we saw very little of it growing wild. By now Don Domingo was old and arthritic, but he still had the will to practice his craft.
So he turned to an alternate source of material: chicken feed sacks. These sturdy bags machine-woven of narrow plastic strips are abundant and cheap or free throughout Guatemala. Don Domingo found that he could unweave them strip by strip and spin the strands on his thigh just as he had done with maguey fiber. The resulting cordage is coarser, stiffer, harder to work with than maguey, but by golly it makes a tough and durable bag! A proper traditional bag, at that. You can see him here unweaving a chicken sack, justifiably pleased with his own ingenuity.
We talk a lot about recycling here in the US, and many of us go to some effort to be good environmental stewards. But making bags out of bags? That would be unusual.