The weavers of Candelaria

The weavers of Candelaria

Isabel is 26 years old. She’s been weaving for 10 years and now has the skill to make the most exquisite pieces on her crude loom – just a couple of strong vertical poles of wood notched to support two horizontal ones. Isabel’s mother died when she was very young so she has lived most of her life with her grandmother who taught her to weave. She weaves for five hours every day while the daylight is good and she’s free from other work. When we met her she was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a small, bare room working at her loom. Shy at first, she gradually acknowledges us with a welcoming smile. Isabel speaks Spanish to us; she is quite possibly the first generation of this community to be taught Spanish in the small community school. She speaks Quechua to her grandmother and her neighbours in the cluster of 4 or 5 small buildings, rough single-storey brick and mortar houses, where she lives.

One of those neighbours, a married woman judging by the type of hat she wore (different hats denote the status of females in this culture) with an animated, face already lined with age and weather, perhaps about the same age as me, welcomed me to sit beside her on the floor and work with her on her loom. We had no language but that of our familiarity with the feel of fibres in our hands and a love of weaving. She seemed to delight in this exchange as much as I did given the laughter we shared, her warm smile, her patience and the way she gently put her arm around my shoulder when we had finished. Maybe I’d been able to communicate wordlessly my admiration for her skill and my fascination with her craft and this connected us for a moment in spite of all that separates us.

The weavers of Candelaria weave in the Tarabuco style. This means they narrate the world around them, the animals, plants, trees and people, the festivals and events of their daily lives. They capture these in a range of colours, red/orange/yellow or blue/black/purple woven against a white background. They weave from the top to the bottom of the piece meaning that they create these immaculate renderings of nature upside-down. The weavers learn from the generations that went before them; nothing is written down except in the weaves themselves. Sometimes they also weave their own story; the piece I bought from Isabel had an image of her at her loom woven into the design. Had I paid her 5, even 10 times what she asked I would not have compensated her effort. To weave an average-sized piece, say about 60 cm by 20 cm based on 5 hours a day at the loom would take a skilled weaver a couple of months such is the complexity of structure and fineness of fibre.

It’s difficult to convey the impact of this one afternoon among the weavers of Candelaria. It was an unforgettable experience, captivating, touching but also deeply perplexing. This is such a different world with an apparently simple rhythm, perhaps some kind of magic, maybe you’d call it authenticity. An afternoon is not even the blink of an eye but somehow it was enough to have a set of contradictory impressions. What a world – rich in history and tradition, a stunning landscape full of colour and shade, a community attuned to seasons and bound to customs, a society of incredible inequality, poverty of resources and opportunity.

Bolivia is a deeply unequal society ranked 9th most unequal in the world and here, among the campesinos, working the land in primitive conditions, you see this inequality fully exposed. For the women it’s worse. They have unutterably hard lives, taking on the lion’s share of work in the fields, in the home, with the children, at the loom, whilst being subjected routinely to levels of domestic violence that we would find unthinkable but that are part of the culture. Government-sponsored slogans on the walls of buildings in these rural communities urge men to desist from such violence; who knows to what effect.

So, being thrilled by an experience such as we had that day is complicated. It would be easy to mythologise this place, to be beguiled by the remoteness, the traditional way of life, the ‘authenticity’, and interpret it as an idyll where time stands still. But it never was an idyll and time has not stood still; it has shifted dramatically and these communities with their subsistence living, their deep-seated inequality, these communities are unsustainable now that the world has intruded and discovered their plight, seduced many of their young people into leaving to go to the city, to get an education, to escape the poverty of opportunity.

The intrusion of the world takes me back to Isabel. When we arrived she was sitting at her loom on the bare stone floor in her primitive home where she conjures intricate magic, and beside her lay her mobile phone. This world is surely doomed and for all that some wondrous things may wither away, I can’t help believing that individual lives will be better.