New Exhibit Centers the Experiences of Maya Women Living in Los Angeles

Zully Juarez, age 25, and Maria Gaspar Juan, age 96, holding hands. Maria is Zully’s great-grandmother. Photo by Emaly Escobar, age 17

In the 1990s, thousands of Mayas like Vivian Macario fled a post-war Guatemala, where in the previous two decades state policies of genocide, forced displacement, and scorched earth attacks ravaged Indigenous communities during the Central American country’s civil war. Hoping to start a new life, Macario left her hometown of Quetzaltenango and migrated north with her mother before settling down in Los Angeles, a common destination for Maya immigrants.

Despite the pressures of assimilation into dominant US culture, Macario maintains her Maya culture alive, as seen in a photograph of her and her 12-year-old daughter, Jackelyn. In this portrait, currently on view in Maya Womxn in L.A. at Las Fotos Project, Macario and Jackelyn sit on the footsteps of their home, dressed in a woven huipil blouse and corte skirt, traditional K’iche’ Maya garments that Macario’s grandmother inspired her to wear.

Vivian Macario, age 30, pictured with her daughter Jackelyn, age 12. “The women in the Macario family except for my daughter Jackelyn were all born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My mother and I came to Los Angeles in the ’90s and have never left. We are K’iche’ Maya people and my great-grandmother Candelaria Chaj was ‘The Person’ that passed down the customs and traditions that our family still shares and practices. I knew my great-grandmother very briefly. I got my inspiration from my grandmother Lucia Alejandro. I would see her wear the corte and huipil and I would be mesmerized by it. I loved coming home and smelling the incense in the air or the different smells of the condiments being toasted for pepian. My mother saw my interest in learning about our people and traditions and shared stories and experiences with me. As I became a mother, my daughter Jacky, started to follow my steps. She wears with profound honor her ropa tipica. She loves showing off the beautiful colors of her huipil and wears it with much honor to our people. I can say that my daughter, now that her great-grandmother (Lucia Alejandro) is no longer with us, continues these customs to honor her great-grandmother.” Photo by Mayan Alvarado-Goldberg, age 16
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Maya Womxn in L.A., a multimedia exhibit of photographs, oral histories, and an interactive diaspora mapping activity, features more than 40 Maya-American women, who carry on the traditions and values of Indigenous Guatemalans in Los Angeles. The exhibit is unique in its inclusion of only Maya or Guatemalan women as photographers and mentors in the documentation process; for 12 weeks, six Maya- or Guatemalan-identified teenage girls researched, photographed, and interviewed their subjects with the guidance of teaching assistants at Las Fotos Project, a photography program for young Latinas.

For teaching artist Floridalma Boj Lopez, the success of the exhibit relied on providing Maya girls and women the opportunity to portray themselves as they want to be seen. Boj Lopez first envisioned the project in reaction to a racist magazine cover she saw in 2017. For its July issue, Look Magazine photographed a white, Guatemalan-American fashion designer standing in front of a small crowd of Maya women. Boj Lopez immediately recognized the white supremacist undertones of the photograph that are common in Western portrayals of Indigenous women.

“For me, it was something that I had seen multiple times before: In this mainstream perspective, Mayan women are still just a backdrop, the ones that can produce the pretty textiles, but who don’t have to speak or be accredited as the intellectual designers,” Boj Lopez says. “I wanted to create an opportunity for Mayan women to be in charge of the pictures that are created about them.”

Sinnai Avila, age 23, pictured. “As is true for any place en Las Americas, we want to remember that we are on Indigenous Territory. Los Angeles is Tongva territory, it always has been and it always will be,” Boj Lopez says. “As we build our own families and communities, we have to ask ourselves how we can support their ongoing struggle for sovereignty in all its meanings. Los Angeles was a city planned by and for settlers, we as Indigenous migrants should remain committed to disrupting those plans.” Photo by Jasleen Reyes, age 17
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The series of more than 30 images encompasses a wide range of Maya experiences; the women featured include 4-year-old children to 96-year-old great-grandmothers, first-generation and second-generation immigrants, Guatemalan-Mexicans, university students, social workers, and actresses. Yet, despite their differences, many Maya women encounter much of the same pressures to adapt to Latino spaces by giving up their language, traditional dress, and customs, says Boj Lopez. Maya immigrants, in particular, may fear wearing their traditional clothes, which can mark these women as recent arrivals to the United States and therefore, targets for immigration enforcement officers.

In the portraits, each woman decides on how to represent their Indigenous heritage, selecting their wardrobe, pose, and setting. Some women wear the entire traditional dress – a huipil, corte, and sandals – while others mix it up, donning a huipil with jeans and large hoops. Some prefer not to wear the traditional clothes at all. In other photographs, the location of the photo shoot, such as the family home – teeming with plants and nature – reveals an important aspect of their Maya spirituality. In another photograph, a pose, such as one of three generations of women embracing each other may stand out in the frame and show a prevalence of family and community common in Maya life.

Still, the huipil and the corte are a common thread in the photographs. And for many subjects, the significance behind wearing the traditional garments goes beyond representation and identity and offers a powerful, political statement on Indigenous resistance.

“My ancestors, my grandparents, my parents have lived through colonization, wars, and genocide, yet here I stand wearing the one corte that I own, the one corte that my grandmother and I share; that is resilience,” wrote 26-year-old Maricela Lopez in a caption to a photograph of herself holding a vintage photograph of her grandparents as she stood wearing a corte. “By wearing my corte in Los Angeles, I am telling white supremacy, ‘Look at me. You tried to erase my existence, but here I am. My resilient ancestors prevailed.’”

Maya Womxn in L.A. is on view until June 9, 2018. Learn more here.  

Update, May 25 at 8:17 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Vivian Macario’s last name and Floridalma Boj Lopez’s title. It has been corrected.