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Ixil: A Maya Language, Culture and Region in Guatemala

Ixil [ee-sheel] is one of the 21 Maya languages, spoken today in Guatemala. The 200,000 native speakers live in just three of Guatemala's 340 municipalities, shown in red green and yellow on the map to the left, with many thousands now in the United States; principally in Virginia and Ohio.

These three municipalities share a distinct culture, history and language. However, the slight variation in Geography in the region has caused the language to diverge over time into three unique dialects; one per municipality.

Parts of the region's textile tradition are shared, yet techniques also vary by municipality.

Colonialism; Recent Genocide

The Ixil culture, like other indigenous cultures in the Americas, has been irreparably impacted by colonial subjugation since 1500 a.d.
In an attempt to break from the feudal labor systems forcibly introduced by the Spaniards, democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán implemented land reforms in the early 1950s, resulting in an armed conflict (largely funded by the United States) which raged throughout Guatemala from 1960 to 1996.
The Armed Conflict hit the Ixil region harder than others; Between 70% and 90% of Ixil villages were razed and 60% of the population in the highland region were forced to flee. By 1996, it was estimated that some 7,000 Maya Ixil had been killed and at least 29,000 had been forcibly displaced. In all of Guatemala, the conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 indigenous peoples. Since the armed conflict, the violence against the Ixil people has been tried in national courts and recognized as genocide.

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A sign reading "we demand justice for the Ixil genocide" outside the courthouse in Nebaj; A photo from an exhibition outside the coutyard showing the uncovering of a mass grave; Women sitting in solidarity outside of the courthouse during the most recent re-trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, 

The Ixil Region Today

Model villages forcibly formed by the Guatemalan military during the armed conflict created new urban centers in the ixil region. However, the region's economy remains largely agricultural, with small businesses newly present in the region's larger cities. Climate change and lack of opportunities in the region have led to the recent widespread migration of Ixil people primarily to the United States.

Ixil Textiles

Textiles are the most visible part of Maya culture to survive colonialism. While men typically no longer use traditional clothing (except on special occasions), most Ixil women still use at least the traditional woven blouse (huipil), woven wrap-around skirt (corte) and corresponding woven belt (faja) daily. For the most part, huipils and fajas are still handwoven on a backstrap loom within families. However, in the past three years, buying screen-printed alternatives has become increasingly popular in the region.

Close up of a hand-embroidered necklince of a brocaded huipil from San Juan Cotzal.
(in yellow on map above)

A huipil from San Gaspar Chajul with the largest motifs of the region.
(in red on map above)

A huipil just off the loom from Santa Maria Nebaj.
(in green on map above)