Traje, the brightly colored traditional dress of the highland Maya, is the principal visual expression of indigenous identity in Guatemala today. Whether worn in beauty pageants, made for religious celebrations, or sold in tourist markets, traje is more than "mere cloth"—it plays an active role in the construction and expression of ethnicity, gender, education, politics, wealth, and nationality for Maya and non-Maya alike.
Carol Hendrickson presents an ethnography of clothing focused on the traje—particularly women's traje—of Tecpán, Guatemala, a bi-ethnic community in the central highlands. She covers the period from 1980, when the recent round of violence began, to the early 1990s, when Maya revitalization efforts emerged.
Using a symbolic analysis informed by political concerns, Hendrickson seeks to increase the value accorded to a subject like weaving, which is sometimes disparaged as "craft" or "women's work." She examines traje in three dimensions—as part of the enduring images of the "Indian," as an indicator of change in the human life cycle and cloth production, and as a medium for innovation and creative expression.
From this study emerges a picture of highland life in which traje and the people who wear it are bound to tradition and place, yet are also actively changing and reflecting the wider world. The book will be important reading for all those interested in the contemporary Maya, the cultural analysis of material culture, and the role of women in culture preservation and change.
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"An exceptionally fine ethnography that focuses on the integral role that traje or Maya dress and cloth production plays in the lives of the people of Tecpán, Guatemala.... offers rich insights into the power of traje: as decorative clothing reflecting both individual tastes and the collective power of the Maya community, who regard cloth as more than clothing. For them, traje is the memory of their proud past and an integral part of their future." (American Anthropologist)
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