Of the same cloth


The Spurlock Museum’s “Artists of the Loom: Maya Weavers of Guatemala” exhibit, running until Jan. 25, displays the backstories of some members of the Mayan community. Three main people and communities were essential to the creation of the exhibits’ features.

Capturing the Maya faces

Spending his days now stooped in his Brooklyn home, ethnographic photographer Jeffrey Jay Foxx has time to reminisce about the faces and stories embedded on his collection of now obsolete filmstrips. Sporting a peppered beard, Foxx uses a cane with the same experienced hands he used to push down the shutter of his Nikon camera. 

The world-renowned photographer, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, LIFE Magazine and National Geographic Society, has taken photographs of the Maya of Mexico and Guatemala for over 40 years. Foxx’s work is featured at the Spurlock Museum’s “Artists of the Loom: Maya Weavers of Guatemala” exhibit.

In the late 1970s, Foxx and Christiana Dittmann, a young German photojournalist, embarked on a decade-long journey together to Guatemala that would lead them through winding highland villages, ancient Maya markets and finally to the doorsteps of the living Maya.

“She has a hand in virtually any good thing that has happened in my life,” Foxx said of his lifelong friend, Dittmann. “I couldn’t be me if it wasn’t for her.” 

Foxx’s vehicle to explore the world became his camera. Sometimes, as a “gringo” snapping pictures, the camera got him into trouble, he said. However, it easily got him out of trouble too. He recalls being arrested on one occasion by religious officials for taking pictures in a highland town; however, a Polaroid picture would turn out to be his get-out-of-jail-free card.

Foxx said the camera steered both him and Dittmann into the lives of the indigenous Maya people who, over the course of 10 years, would forever change the landscape of his life.

“That exposure to those people could not possibly have not affected me, and I don’t know if it’s my nature or their nature but I have a great respect for them and their ways,” Foxx said. 

He photographed the modest and changing lives of the living Maya and all of the protagonists carry significance to him now. Some of the people in his photographs are now deceased. Others have grown up, but what remains is a collection of photographs that narrates the story of a group of people at a crossroads, he said.

With ancient traditions dying, the art of weaving is something that has followed and seen gradual change since and during Foxx’s time in Guatemala, he said. 

Collecting the textiles 

Almost simultaneously in 1977, an anthropologist and U.S. Diplomat were putting down roots in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Gerard Lopez, who had just been assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, met Margaret ‘Peg’ Kieffer, an established American anthropologist researching and working with the Tz’utujil Mayas of Santiago Atitlán.

Lopez remembers making weekend trips with Peg up to the highland towns surrounding Santiago Atitlán to buy textiles and provide business to the weaving communities. Over the years, they collected thousands of textiles, most of which have been donated to the Spurlock Museum.

There was one occurrence when Lopez was interacting with a young indigenous woman carrying a bundle of flowers heading to the market when large, government tanks pulled up to the agrarian Maya village and interrupted them. The government commonly used methods like this to keep the indigenous people in check during the civil war.

Many aspects of traditional life were maimed during this 36-year period from 1960 to 1996, including the weaving culture. Along with the scare tactics, there was a genocide of an estimated 140,000, mostly indigenous people, thought to be rebel sympathizers. 

As a result, these communities no longer weave some of the textiles that can be found in the Lopez-Kieffer collection at the Spurlock Museum. According to the museum exhibit, “With no cofradía there was no need to weave cofradía garments and the weaving of huipils such as the one on exhibit died out in Sacapulas.”

“The Maya also have a similar belief in fatalism (as I) and the ability of the human spirit to weather adversity and survive in the long term,” Lopez said.

In 2006, before Peg Kieffer had lost her yearlong fight with terminal cancer, she remained, just as she always had, positive the whole way.

That was harder for Lopez to do.

“(I miss) her warm generosity of spirit,” Lopez said. “(Her) exceptional ‘genius’ mind, creative and adventurous spirit, warm smile, and that she was always there to support me regardless of the situation I was facing.”

When Lopez is at his Napa, Calif., home he is surrounded by thousands of artifacts collected through decades of traveling with his partner and lifelong companion, including the thousands of textiles and garments they collected together in Guatemala.

His two children each took around 500 pieces. The Spurlock Museum itself claimed over 2,000, and guest curator Margot Blum Schevill selected the textiles on display in “Artists of the Loom: Maya Weavers of Guatemala” exhibit. 

Connecting with the local community 

Even though a temporary exhibit, Spurlock Museum’s “Artists of the Loom: Maya Weavers of Guatemala” is connecting with the local Maya community. 

April will mark 12 years since Mateo Diego, a local Maya choral group music leader, made the 2,500-mile trek as an 18-year-old carpenter from the indigenous town of Santa Eulalia, Guatemala to Champaign.

The country he left behind is a more stable one than the 20th-century version ridden with war and inequality issues, he said. Diego, unlike some of the first immigrants to settle in Champaign-Urbana from his region, did not leave for war reasons. Diego left his family’s ancestral maize fields to find work; he now works at Fiesta Café, a local Mexican restaurant in Champaign. 

As a native speaker of Q’anjob’al, one of the 20 Maya languages of Guatemala, Diego had no English or Spanish speaking community to support him. Instead, he lived a solitary life away from his family with the minimal support of a small concentration of Q’anjob’al speaking Guatemalans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s as part of the sanctuary movement. 

“After a year, two years, the loneliness started to go away,” he said.

Now, a community thought to be as big as 300 strong and counting, the Q’anjob’al movement in Champaign-Urbana is growing and diversifying, he said.

However, traditions of the homeland are being compromised for the North American amenities, Diego said. Many of the children of this Maya community are first generation Americans who no longer like wearing the traditional dress of “huipiles” and “cortes,” traditional blouses of the Maya. 

“We want the children to get a good education and better themselves, but we also don’t want to lose our traditions and customs,” Diego said.

Diego, 29, has become an important figure within the Champaign-Urbana Q’anjob’al community. The Maya choral group that he helped start, Coro Universal, was instrumental in bringing a Q’anjob’al mass to St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign, a place that hosted some of the first Sanctuary Movement refugees back in the 1980s.

“In the beginning, there were only about 15 people at mass,” he said. “Now, the entire church fills up.”

With the Spurlock Museum reaching out to the Q’anjob’al community through its exhibit and hosting events gauged toward the community’s attendance, the spotlight is now shifting. 

“I think that there were more people from different places and different countries that came to the exhibit than Guatemalans,” Diego said after an event earlier in November where his choral group performed. “It means that these people from different countries and cultures are interested in Guatemalan culture.”

Diego, who now sends money back home frequently, says he has found a community where there was once a void, but he doesn’t know where “home” is anymore.

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected].