By Ashley Harrell, Annie Waterman and Rebecca Aguilar | Specials to The Tico Times
On the afternoon of Aug. 22, a pick-up truck bounced up a dirt road, headed for one of the indigenous villages of the Boruca tribe, on the southern Pacific coast. In the driver’s seat, a Gringa woman wearing a pink dress and a side ponytail gripped the wheel. She had been waiting a long time for this day.
For 18 years, Susie Atkinson had been working with the Borucas, selling and promoting their woven products and hand-carved masks out of her eco-lodge, two hours north of the reservation in Dominicalito. An enthusiast of indigenous culture and art, she had traveled over the years to the villages along Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán. There, she noticed that the Mayans used very different looms than those of the Boruca.
The Borucan looms were relatively small and supported by a back strap, which causes tension and pain in the women’s arms, necks and backs. The Mayans’ looms supported themselves on the floor, are were operated mainly by foot pedals. They were also considerably larger, enabling the creation of more elaborate products like fine bedspreads and intricate table runners. Atkinson became obsessed with the idea of introducing the bigger, better loom – the floor loom – to the Boruca people.
On this day, in the back of Atkinson’s truck, lay a brand new, collapsible floor loom. She built it with her own hands. “It’s like introducing the tractor to a farmer who has only used horse-drawn plows,” she said. “The potential is enormous, what they will now be able to weave. This will help the prosperity of the Borucan village.”
Growing up in southern California, Atkinson became interested in arts and crafts at a young age. She worked in her mother’s flower shop for a while, and ran a silk screen-printing business. At 28, she got the travel itch and moved to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and then to Singapore, where she began working on private yachts. She eventually became a yacht captain and sailed the world for 10 years, visiting countries all over Asia and Africa and crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
During her travels, she fell hard for indigenous art, and began collecting it. But until November of last year, she had no experience with weaving or looms of any kind. So the initial plan was to simply buy the Borucas a floor loom.
Atkinson Googled the name of one of the weaving organizations she had come across in Guatemala, and got in touch to ask how much a floor loom would cost her. The answer: $2,000. “So I kept researching,” she said. “And then I realized there was no reason I couldn’t build it myself.”
She purchased a book written in 1910 on Amazon that explained how to build a floor loom, and called over Marina Lázaro, a leader in the Borucan community whom Atkinson considers “like a sister.” Lázaro liked what she saw, only the loom seemed huge. Was there a small one, perhaps, that could be easily transported to the village?
Atkinson went back to her research, and found the website of a German engineer with instructions on how to build a collapsible, medium-sized floor loom. When Lázaro saw that one, she gave the go-ahead, and Atkinson purchased the supplies.
Beginning in Jaunary, she worked three to four hours a day, oftentimes finding the directions tough to follow, and in one instance, simply wrong. She even had to start from scratch a few times, mainly because she was determined to build that thing exactly right. “I knew nothing,” she said. “It was definitely a puzzle.” Atkinson completed the loom in April, and then it was time to teach the Borucas to use it.
Sometimes a storm comes, and the Boruca women can’t leave their village. Other times, there’s simply not enough hours in the day. A taxi driver must also agree to make the five-hour round trip, which isn’t cheap. But eventually, one way or another, the Borucas make it to Dominicalito for their weaving lessons.
On a Sunday afternoon in early June, two of Lázaro’s daughters show up in a taxi. Cindy, 26, and Cuca, 33, have come without their mother, they explain, because she is not feeling well. They greet Atkinson with kisses on the cheek, and begin unloading the contents – unique, new Borucan masks – out of several cloth bags and onto a table.
Most of these are for sale, and Atkinson will buy then resell them out of her hotel. But one of the masks is a gift. “This is beautiful,” Atkinson said.
After the exchange, the women retreat to the hotel office, where the loom stands in the middle of the floor. The first lesson will be for Cuca, who has come with her mother before and has a basic idea of how the thing works. Last week’s lesson concerned placing the yarn on the loom. This week, the women will learn how to weave patterns.
“Este rojo es número uno,” Atkinson explained. This red is number one. She points at a floor pedal on the loom, which controls some of the 200 strings threaded through the loom. Cuca looks down at the pedal then at the book Atkinson has presented her with, which shows a sequence of colors that correspond with the pedals. She holds the shuttle in her hand, which she will weave by hand through the strung-up yarn. If it sounds complicated, it is.
When Cuca notices that the ends of the pattern are coming out a bit sloppy, she realizes she must start over. That’s okay for today – after all, it’s only practice. After Cuca gets the hang of things, Cindy takes a turn, and seems to pick up the skill pretty fast. “Es una machina bonita,” she says. It’s a pretty machine.
The women work together for the better part of an hour, examining the book, pushing down on the pedals, and passing the shuttle through the yarn. When Atkinson is satisfied that they have mastered today’s lesson (which Atkinson herself only mastered days before, she admits), she tells them she has a surprise.
Atkinson has been planning a trip to Guatemala for herself, a few American friends and two Borucan women, so that they can learn weaving directly from the
Mayans. As it turns out, one of the friends had to drop out.
“Hay espacio para una más Boruca,” Atkinson says. There is space for one more Boruca.
The women don’t react immediately, perhaps because they don’t understand that one of them has just scored a free trip to Guatemala. Or maybe a big reaction just isn’t their way.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Atkinson. She knows that over time, gratefulness comes in many forms.
In July, eight women traveled to Guatemala, a country with a rich Mayan textile heritage. The point was to empower the Borucas in an idea exchange with Mayans, and to connect them with weaving lessons from experts in San Juan, a small town on Lake Atitlán. Atkinson wanted to expose them to other indigenous groups with skills they could bring back to their own village. Here, they would learn to weave faster, create wider fabrics and produce more quickly.
Atkinson, three U.S. expats, a reporter, plus master weaver Lázaro and her two daughters, Adriana and Cuca, all took part in the adventure. As they headed for Lake Atitlan, butterflies filled the Borucas’ stomachs. They were terrified from the plane flight, nervous for the unexpected, yet excited for the opportunities to come. It wasn’t until the group reached Artesanos de San Juan, in beautiful San Juan de la Laguna, that their anxiety began to diminish. Easy smiles emerged, as they felt at home with yarn in their hands, and were relieved in knowing that they had reached their destination.
The group stayed in San Juan for three days and the women worked long hours, taking full advantage of the time they had with their Guatemalan teachers. They familiarized themselves with a counterbalance loom, learned how to dress the loom with the warp, thread the heddles, slay the reed and weave.
After the first day of playing with the treadles and harnesses, they felt more comfortable with the loom, and realized the potential for new and unlimited patterns that could be produced with this modern piece of equipment. By the end of their second day, they had already made two meters of fabric. When the girls finished weaving, they cut it off the loom and presented it to Atkinson, who deeply appreciated the gesture.
“It made me cry,” she said. “Adriana gave me a big hug and it was overwhelming to see my completed dream of uniting the Borucans with the Mayans.”
Aside from spending time at the Artesanos de San Juan workshop, the women squeezed short trips to Santiago, Panajachel and Chichicastenango, which is home to one of Central America’s most colorful markets. The Borucas looked closely at the array of textiles, bought gifts to bring back to their families and spent hours chatting about the herbs, seeds, cottons, leaves, barks, ash, and shells they used to make their dyes. “This was the most exciting and emotional event for us,” Lázaro said.
Atkinson added, “The women were able to talk about the natural dyes, and they simply related to one another. They talked about their grandmothers, and were surprised to see someone else in the world still preparing some natural dyes the same way as they do.”
Within hours of Atkinson’s arrival back home, she was already planning the next step: delivering the floor loom to the village.
In her truck, with the floor loom folded up in the back, Atkinson approaches the village, which runs along the Río Grande de Terraba and contains about 2,100 residents. The roads are unpaved and dusty, but surrounded by lush green fields and trees. There are a few other cars and a couple of convenience stores, and doors of family homes swing wide to reveal children playing and women cooking. The Lázaro household is right at the center of it all.
As Atkinson pulls up, she is greeted by happy shouts from Lázaro and her daughters. With their help, Atkinson unloads the loom and some of its extras, including a yarn winder to simplify making yarn balls.
Lázaro is clearly pumped for the arrival of the loom, but she’s also approaching the situation with cautious optimism. Some of them women have made comments about it being too complicated, and others have said that it seems to be deviating from their tradition. But Lázaro also knows that many women are very interested, her own daughters included.
As the floor loom is being set up, neighbors gather to admire it. “It will be nice to be able to make some different things,” one woman says.
Most Borucas are aware that 80 percent of their income comes from the crafts they produce, so they understand the potential of the gift. If they can expand their product line and increase their sales, the extra money could go toward any number of things. More food. More equipment. A car. Then they could drive around selling their products, without the need for taxis or other outside assistance.
With the upcoming busy season (November through April), Lázaro says the loom has arrived right on time. Tourists will be coming by, and the Borucans will be ready with new bedspreads, table runners and plenty more.
Meanwhile, Atkinson plans to build two more floor looms for the Borucan women in the next few months. She also has been brainstorming new designs and filling out applications to attend next year’s Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in the U.S. state of New Mexico. She wants to get those fine Boruca products to the world.