OAKLAND — Thump. Thwock. Martina Jimenez leans forward from the waist as she pulls a polished wooden board through a maze of strings. Each thump is another line completed in the weaving project she works on nearly every afternoon. One end of the loom is secured around her backside with a woven strap, the other end affixed to a metal hook above her closet door. The warp stretches the length of her bedroom.
This day Jimenez is weaving a black and purple skirt for her mother, who regularly sends her brightly colored wool and other supplies in the mail from Guatemala. Though she is thousands of miles from home, the 24-year-old Jimenez weaves traditional clothing to keep a tie to her Mayan culture, she said in Spanish. When she immigrated to the United States three years ago, she settled in Oakland, where her two sisters live, finding the city more affordable than San Francisco, which had, until recently, attracted more Guatemalans.
Jimenez has struggled, like many other immigrants, to learn English and find work. But she faces an additional hurdle, one shared with the growing number of indigenous Mayans trying to find their place in the Bay Area's Latino community. She's not only trying to master English, but she's still working on her Spanish, having grown up speaking Mam, one of Guatemala's 22 Mayan dialects.
In addition, Jimenez faces pressure to don Western clothing to blend in with other Latinos. Her sisters and many friends tell her, "'we're here (so get rid of those clothes),'" she said in Spanish, then added with a smile, "I wear my skirt to church, to Wal-Mart. I wear it when I walk down the sidewalk, wherever."
The East Bay's Guatemalan population grew by at least 60 percent between 2000 and 2006, and may have even tripled or quadrupled, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Though the bureau's numbers include a wide margin of error, Alameda County is now home to an estimated 9,000 Guatemalans, more than a quarter of the Guatemalan population for the Bay Area as a whole, census figures show. A large proportion of them are indigenous Mayans, scholars say.
Susanne Jonas, lecturer of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that her students who do research at day labor centers, "have encountered way more Guatemalan Mayans than what they have been told," by Guatemalan officials. "There is a more recognizable number, precisely in the East Bay."
Immigrants from Guatemala, like those from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, have fled their homeland due to civil war, lack of economic opportunity and environmental disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, said many Latin American experts. The peace treaties that ended the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador did not improve economic conditions in those countries, Jonas said.
In studying Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area, Jonas found that the fear of political persecution was no longer what was keeping these exiles from home. Rather, they were unwilling to return to their countries because the economic prospects there are so bleak.
After graduating from high school in 2004 with credentials as a bilingual teacher for kindergarten through second grade, Jimenez was unable to find a job that would provide a living wage or help her continue her education.
"I didn't have money to go to the university, that is why I decided to come here," she said. Her homesickness, on arriving in California, was heightened by the fact that, while she had learned basic Spanish in school in Guatemala, she was much more comfortable speaking her native Mam.
"When I first arrived here, my first day, I wanted to go back. My parents weren't here; I didn't speak Spanish very well." In addition to the language barriers, Jimenez was reluctant to blend in with the other Latinos — she said there were arguments in her group of friends about whether to wear traditional clothing.
But Jimenez eventually found help through the Oakland Worker Center, a collection of Fruitvale nonprofits serving recent immigrants, and things began to brighten.
She took a few English classes through Grupo Maya, began to teach weaving to day laborers after their Wednesday lunches at the Street Level Health Center and found secretarial work at Centro Legal de la Raza. Jimenez said she now wants to become a lawyer.
Last summer, with help from Centro Legal, Jimenez won a $10,000 grant to produce five traditional weavings, host a community forum displaying her work and continue teaching the weaving method. A two-color skirt, like the one she is currently weaving for her mother, can take about three weeks, working a few hours each day. More intricate designs with embroidered figures of animals can take as long as six weeks, she said.
Faced with the doubly-difficult challenge of assimilating to life in the United States, many of her fellow Mayan immigrants find themselves stuck in survival mode. Making long-term plans, like learning English to get a better job can be daunting.
"We often just think how much money can I make to send back to my family?" said Jimenez. Staying connected to her Mayan roots by continuing her weaving is essential for maintaining a positive outlook, even as she navigates U.S.-Latino culture and the larger English-speaking society.
"This (tradition) I don't want to lose. So I continue (weaving) like this and then I sew it on the machine," she said, as she pointed to the Singer covered in a clear plastic case on her desk nearby.
Even back home, in her native city of Santiago Chimaltenango, in the northern state of Huehuetenango, Jimenez said, many Mayan women are abandoning the back strap loom, finding it is easier and cheaper to buy imported Western-style clothes in the market.
"Already the culture is changing. They don't want to wear these blouses," she said, motioning to her intricately-woven and embroidered red shirt.
In a perfect world, she would live in both places, Jimenez said, laughing. She would like to study to become a lawyer in the United States. But she said she would also like to make enough money to return to Huehuetenango to build a house on her father's land, and even build an orphanage for local children.
"I want two things," she said, "a better life for me and for my people."