This Cambridge Life

The unschooled anthropologist working with Q'eqchi' weavers

Callie Vandewiele

Callie Vandewiele by Nick Saffell

Callie Vandewiele by Nick Saffell

Living for ten months with Q’eqchi’ weavers in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala, PhD student Callie Vandewiele watched and listened as the women crafted their intricate picb’'l textiles. Her unconventional upbringing helped her to let go of the questions she’d originally set out to answer and follow her research, wherever it took her.

I never viewed my childhood as anything other than ordinary until after the fact. I was unschooled which means my mom let us learn about whatever we were interested in. We were your average kids – with just an extraordinary amount of freedom.

Mom’s educational philosophy grew along with us. She did a really good job of making sure we had access to music, art and sport. We hung out with other people our age all the time and went to a lot of after-school activities.

My mom is one of the smartest people I've ever met. She's also one of the most frustrating. That's in large part because she doesn't adhere to systems. She is also okay with being uncomfortable and going against the status quo, if it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve inherited this inability to accept things the way they are. Take for example stand-up comedy. I’d been performing improv since 2010, but when I came to Cambridge, I couldn’t find a space that felt like home in the improv community. A good friend of mine suggested I give stand-up a try. 

In the fall of 2013, I did a five-minute stand-up set at Queens’ College and just fell in love with it. But then pretty quickly I got annoyed because I realised that every time I showed up at a gig, I was the only woman.

At the time the Cambridge comedy scene was really white, really male and really young. I founded the Newnham Smoker with the support of a few friends (Chris Waugh and James Wilkinson) to create a space for women, non-binary people and queer men to get into stand-up. I’ve been running it with Charlie Stokes since 2015.

Today things are much more diverse, open and interesting. There's been a lot of people pushing for change in comedy here over the last five years, but I would like to think that the Newnham Smoker has played a pretty significant role in how the scene is evolving.

Callie Vandewiele in gardens at Newnham College

Callie Vandewiele in the gardens at Newnham College

Callie Vandewiele in the gardens at Newnham College

Giving a platform to people whose voices are often not heard is something I’m passionate about. Pursuing my MPhil in Gender Studies as I explored stand-up for the first time was an incredible experience. It made me really thoughtful about how I think of myself as a stand-up and about the connections between comedy and oppression and the world. I’m a more political comedian because of my academic work.

My PhD field of research was with indigenous weavers in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala, who create clothing using a textile called picb’'l. Q’eqchi’ weavers can spend up to six and eight hours a day weaving for around six to eight weeks – just to create a single blouse.

The history of picb’'l is interwoven with the fates and fortunes of the indigenous people of Guatemala. In the 1980s Guatemala experienced a genocide in the middle of a civil war where around 250,000 Maya were killed. Different textiles can represent where a person is from and what language they speak. During the genocide, clothing was sometimes used as a tool of repression—people could be identified as indigenous and targeted just by the clothes on their back.

Indigenous people began wearing more Western clothing in order to protect their identities. This compounded a loss in textile production that started in the 1940s when fabric began to be imported from Taiwan, making local textiles really expensive to produce. 

There's still a deep spiritual and heritage connection to textiles. For the Q’eqchi’ people, the weaving and wearing of picb’'l textiles, not only strengthens their identity today, but also stitches their own story into the tapestry of previous Q’eqchi’ weavers, which stretches back into forgotten times.

Callie Vandewiele holding picb’'l blouse.

Callie Vandewiele holding a picb’'l blouse.  

Callie Vandewiele holding a picb’'l blouse.  

The communities I visited were dotted about the Chamá mountains. The geography of the region is like somebody has taken a blanket on a bed and just scrunched it together, which creates these folds of steep mountains stretching in every direction. It’s really difficult to get around; communities can be a couple of miles apart and be an eight hour walk away. Roads are often washed out by heavy rains. If a single pickup truck breaks down in the middle of the road it can really impact access.

I never walked into a community cold. I worked with people I knew to establish connections in different communities before I went in. It would normally take around eight visits to build up enough trust to conduct interviews.

To be trusted, I had to be present. I would stay in the villages for two weeks at a time and I’d join in with everyday life. There’s only so long you can hang around someone's house before they start giving you chores – if you're going to eat you will help with the tortillas.

To assist with the interviews, I’d take along a bunch of photographs of textiles held at museums like the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) here in Cambridge. The photographs reconnected the Q’eqchi’ weavers with weavers from the past. The women spoke about relearning rather than copying the patterns.

The questions I’d set out to answer soon changed. I ended up looking at the way indigenous weavers interact with museum textiles via photographs. I began investigating how intangible heritage interacts with material objects, specifically those held at museums (although interestingly, not the actual objects themselves).

I think there's a lot to be gained in terms of thinking about what knowledge actually is and recognising that there are different kinds of knowledge. I didn't introduce new knowledge to these communities, instead I created an avenue for them to access knowledge that they already had.

Growing up without an agenda or a prescribed view of what education should look like certainly helped with my field research. It meant I was much more open to ideas of what is and isn't knowledge, what is and isn't justifiable, and what is and isn't worthwhile. Plus, it gave me the patience and confidence to go where my research took me.

picb’'l blouse

picb’'l blouse

picb’'l blouse

Callie Vandewiele is a Gates Cambridge Scholar, funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust. Callie’s research is on display as part of the Spotlight Gallery exhibition Looms of our Grandmothers, picb’il textiles from Guatemala at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. The exhibition runs until 6 October and entry is free.

Watch a screening of the indigenous language Guatemalan film 'Ixcanul', followed by a panel discussion on Thursday 17 October 6:00pm - 8:30pm as part of the Festival of Ideas 2019.

'Ixcanul' is named for the active volcano on which teenaged María (María Mercedes Coroy) lives with her parents (María Telón and Manuel Antún) in a small Q’eqchi’ village. They grow coffee and live on the volcano's slopes, mostly isolated from an increasingly globalised world. The film was entirely produced in Guatemala with a largely non-professional cast and crew or Q’eqchi’ people.

The panel discussion, hosted by Callie, will focus on the portrayal of indigenous Guatemalans and the issues the film raises: the relationship between the United States and Latin America, current immigration and globalisation.

Book your free tickets online

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.

Photography Nick Saffell. Words Charis Goodyear.