If you were to visit Guatemala as a tourist, your most likely souvenir purchases would include handwoven scarves and bags or a carved wooden mask, made by artisans in rural villages who supply these products to boutiques or travel to tourist centers to sell them directly. Perhaps on your way out of the country, you would purchase a bottle of Guatemala’s internationally-renowned rum, Ron Zacapa Centenario, at the airport duty-free shop. What you may or may not notice about this bottle is the 1½-inch handwoven, palm-fiber strap placed just above the label. This strap is produced in one of several Maya Ch’orti villages outside the town of Jocotán in the eastern highlands of Guatemala. The women who weave them earn 33 cents for each strap, averaging $100 per month, an amount that has made a substantial difference in their lives.

    For over a decade, a Guatemalan company named Kiej de la Bosques has linked artisan communities throughout Guatemala with national and international consumers to provide a steady source of income in rural communities. They began working in 2002 with Ch’orti artisans in Jocotán to develop marketable products from locally-grown palm and yucca fibers. However, these products are not very durable or versatile and have limited applicability in tourist and international markets. On a trip to Guatemala in November 2005, Jonas Hauptman, a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (TCAUP), learned about Kiej’s project and came up with a new idea. If a material such as stainless steel were incorporated into the designs produced in these communities, the range and value of the products could be significantly increased. As a further step, Jonas wanted to involve TCAUP students in the development and production of these designs.

    The International Institute is now helping this idea become a reality, in addition to supporting a second project in Guatemala led by Hauptman.[1] Interweave is an initiative in Jocotán that aims to provide employment within the Ch’orti community and design opportunities for U-M students by developing a series of prototype products that can reach international markets. Hauptman is also leading a group of TCAUP students working on a design-build project that will add a critical visual identity to a non-profit organization operating in an impoverished community on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

    Work on this second project started in August 2006, when nine U-M students began building a small open-air theater in El Pueblito, an underserved community outside Guatemala City. Hauptman’s Winter 2006 graduate architecture studio worked with a group of architecture students at Universidad Francisco Marroquín led by TCAUP alumnus Rafael Yee. Both sets of students collaboratively designed and critiqued each other’s work to arrive at the current theater proposal. The principal users of the theater will be local youth enrolled in Contexto, an afternoon arts program that has operated in the community since 2001. Third-year architecture student Simon Gore commented on the process, “There is such a rich involvement of the architect within both the culture and construction practices of Guatemala that it’s hard not to get excited about this opportunity.” The work will be completed over the next few months by Guatemalan students.

    Interweave is a more experimental project with regard to whom it serves and its intended output. This summer, Hauptman and a team of designers (including TCAUP students Gore and Elizabeth Rothwell) established a metal shop in Jocotán and began training a group of men from the community in metalworking techniques that can be used in combination with local weaving practices to produce furniture and other larger scale pieces. A fall semester TCAUP course will teach the same techniques to a group of students in Michigan with a view towards designing objects that can be fabricated in Jocotán. During the semester, these students will travel to Guatemala for an intensive cultural immersion experience and a three-day design charette in Jocotán. Hauptman hopes this is only the first stage in a lasting relationship between the Mayan artisans and TCAUP design students. There are many possibilities for future projects, including the design of a permanent workshop space with lodging for visiting designers, or experimentation with compositing palm fibers with polymer resins to create a more durable material for furniture applications.

    Both projects are moving forward, although not without obstacles. Since the theater site is on a steep hillside, engineering consultations and obtaining a building permit have been challenging. In Jocotán, there are difficulties in communication across three languages—English, Spanish, and Chorti, a local Mayan dialect that is the first language of many local people. There have been at least as many different sets of cultural attitudes and assumptions about design, craft, and labor. Initial shop setup was also delayed by the complicated process of getting tools and supplies from Ann Arbor to Jocotán via international customs offices and rewiring the workshop with 220V electrical supply.

    In the meantime, the team has been observing and documenting the weaving process in La Ceiba, a Chorti community of about 150 people in the hills near Jocotán where many of the woven products are fabricated. At present, the principal consumer of this work is Zacapa Centenario, the rum producer based in nearby Zacapa mentioned earlier. It has been interesting to observe the day-to-day functioning of a cottage industry in La Ceiba that is integrated into the global marketplace and to discuss the impact of this industry with the local population. Preliminary design proposals for objects to be fabricated in the metal shop have focused on products that can be made quickly and marketed to similar clients so that newly learned metal fabrication skills gain a foothold in the economy. The men of La Ceiba had previously worked solely in seasonal harvesting (coffee) and subsistence farming on steep hillsides. Thanks to Interweave, they are learning metal fabrication skills that can provide alternative forms of livelihood and empowerment, especially important in a region known for drought and famine. The project’s ultimate goal is for this to happen alongside a viable academic agenda. Within the next year, Hauptman hopes to exhibit the products of this collaboration at an international design venue in New York or London, thus giving greater exposure to participating individuals and communities.

    Simon Gore and Elizabeth Rothwell are graduate students in architecture and Jonas Hauptman is a lecturer in architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.

      1. Hauptman’s projects were supported by an award from the II’s International Experiential Learning Fund for Graduate and Professional School Students.return to text