Greg Halvorsen Schreck Photography
Diega Ortega

Las Señoras

The indigenous women depicted in these portraits work for Education and Hope, a small, non-profit foundation based in the western highlands of Guatemala. Education and Hope increases access to education among impoverished children and young adults. They provide students with scholarships and tutor them after school. They are located in the city of Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala’s second largest city, an important cultural center. Roughly two-thirds of Xela’s population is indigenous, distinguishing the city as the largest urban center with a Mayan majority. (educationandhope.org)

The mountainous terrain in Xela is often rocky, steep and not easily farmed, a contributing factor to the extreme poverty in the area. At least 65% of Guatemalans are illiterate; only three of ten children graduate from the sixth grade. Poverty causes poor health, high infant mortality, malnutrition, and reduced life expectancy. It will continue to endanger the lives of Guatemalans until more of them are educated.

These women feed and nurture the many children who attend the school. Many of them are mothers. They keep it functioning, cheerful, and clean. It is a happy place.

I was interested in the sacred meaning of their clothing, as symbolic of creation. They seem to risk a lot by wearing the guilpiles (blouses) and trajes (dresses) that embody a long, and sometimes tragic past. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s long civil war, started with a CIA sponsored coup that toppled Guatemala’s democratically elected government in 1954. 83% of those killed in the genocide were indigenous people. 

Julie Coyne, the founder of Education and Hope, invited me to use a room in the school as my studio while I was in Xela. I made a lot of portraits during my time there; I photographed most the women who worked there. I tried, in my halting Spanish, to encourage them to present themselvesas they felt comfortable, so that each woman, in her individual way, might portray herself. On thewhole, this was a relaxed and comfortable endeavor. When I asked them to tell me about theirclothing, however, it got a bit awkward. Many turned shy. One woman said, “I just think it’s pretty.” One said, “My son bought it for me.” I wondered if there was more.

The next time I came with my camera, many of the women had on their ceremonial guipiles, their response to my inquiries. They were much more ornate and symbolic, different than their working clothes that I photographed before.

Lorena Sac explained their meaning to me:

The guipiles (blouses) of the indigenous trajes (dresses) from the area of Quetzaltenango are very colorful and embody a long history. The weaving and colors always represent something, for instance, nature, flora and fauna.

The neck represents nature with many types of flowers of many colors, leaves and birds like birds and chickens and many times, sheep. 

The colors of the borders in the traditional guipiles (blouses) and in the cortes (skirts) are red, purple and yellow.

Red represents the blood of the ancestors and of the family.

Purple represents the suffering and pain of the indigenous peoples.

Yellow represents corn, the food, the sun, and happiness.

The “trajes” have changed according to time, community and price as well. A traditional “traje” was used during festive days and celebrations. For times of mourning different colors were used like black, blue or purple.

Diega Ortega

Diega Ortega

Rosario Ixtazuy

Rosario Ixtazuy

María Magdalena Tzoc

María Magdalena Tzoc

Madre e Hijo: María Concepción Solís, Whitman Vincente García Solís

Madre e Hijo: María Concepción Solís, Whitman Vincente García Solís

Julia María Cotom Cruz

Julia María Cotom Cruz

Margarita Cruz

Margarita Cruz

Reginalda Méndez

Reginalda Méndez

Carmen Álvarez

Carmen Álvarez

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María Magdalena Tzoc

María Magdalena Tzoc

Madre e Hijo: María Concepción Solís, Whitman Vincente García Solís

Madre e Hijo: María Concepción Solís, Whitman Vincente García Solís

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