The History, Heritage and Symbolism of the Patzún Huipil
In Guatemala, it’s common to see women wearing traditional, embroidered blouses known as huipiles. In the U.S., their intricate designs make them desirable as wall art to many weaving enthusiasts, too. Huipiles, though, are much more than pleasing to the eye. Colors and designs used in huipiles are specific to different regions in which they are made. Hand-embroidered details pay tribute to Guatemalan ancestors, and symbolize the world view of the indigenous Maya.
Huipiles like this one made in Patzún, a town of about 26,000 people in the Chimaltenango department, are most often a shade of red to represent fire or the sun’s rays. To the Maya, fire represents life and family. Founded in the 12th century long before Spanish conquest, Patzún was part of the Kaqchikel territory and belonged to the kingdom of Iximché. The shape of the embroidery around the neckline symbolizes a rainbow. This, like many other symbols in the design, is a reference to the Maya’s close relationship with nature.
The Patzun huipil has 10 rows with different shapes. Starting from the neck and moving downward, the shapes symbolize the following:
Volcanoes present in Guatemala’s landscape. Guatemala is home to 23 volcanoes including the active volcano, Volcán de Fuego, which is just 26.9 km (about 16 miles) from Patzún.
Ancient currency, called cuartilla. The Maya used the barter system, trading Quetzal feathers, salt, precious stones, and cocoa, to get what they needed. Spanish conquest brought in a monetary system based on the Spanish currency, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that cuartilla was finally managed by the national bank in Guatemala. For our current artisan clients—depending on their age—this means that their grandfathers or fathers were among the first generation of Maya who actually were paid money for their work. Before that, the Maya were forced to work without having the consistency of a fair payment system.
Fallen leaves. Guatemalan ancestors thought of a year in terms of agriculture—such as when to plant and when to harvest. Falling leaves are just one cue they took from the natural world that represents change, and the beginning or end of an agricultural cycle.
The colors of the national flag. A thin row of blue and white embroidery pays tribute to Guatemala’s national flag. Blue and white present in the flag symbolize the sky and the sea.
Four-leaf clover-like plants. The landscape of Patzún is covered with a delicate plant that looks similar to a four-leaf clover, but it’s actually a type of fern called marsilea. You’ll see a representation of these ferns prominently embroidered in bright colors near the center of design.
Another row for the national flag. These colorful ferns are followed by another thin row of blue and white for the Guatemalan flag.
Leaves of different flowers and plants. The word, Patzún, meaning Place of Sunflowers, was derived from words in the Kaqchikel language, Pa Su'm. (“Pa” is the prefix for place and Su'm means sunflower.) Residents of Patzún are surrounded by flowers and plants, making it important to include in the design.
Chains of slavery, already broken. The period in history between 1944 and 1954 is known in Guatemala as La Revolución— the Revolution, or the Ten Years of Spring. Between 1898 and 1944, many indigenous people were stripped of their communal lands when an American corporation was allowed to possess them for export purposes. Authoritarian rulers in Guatemala did this in order to strengthen the economy, but it in fact harmed local farmers and drove indigenous populations into poverty. Dictator Jorge Ubico was forced to resign by university students and labor organizations in 1944, beginning a time when indigenous populations saw improvements. New laws, such as the Agrarian Land Reform sought to improve inequality in land ownership.
Jasmine flowers. Commonly grown in Guatemala and cultivated for fragrance as well as medicinal purposes, white jasmine symbolizes honor, respect and the purity of motherhood.
Leaves of majestic trees. Guatemala has a strong culture of protecting its trees. In fact, the name “Guatemala” comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, which translates to “land of many trees.” The Guatemalan fir, the Chucum tree, and the Central American Walnut are just a few majestic trees that are native to the area.
This Patzún huipil, made by our client Florinda, will be part of the Threads of Connection: Weave A Real Peace - WARP Members Show, May 19-July 15, on exhibit at Kent State University. WARP is a global community that values the social, cultural, historic, artistic, and economic importance of textile arts.