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Learning from the Maya About Diversity, Culture and Ecology~Teacher’s and Parent’s Guide
with Maya Arts and Crafts of Guatemala/Artes y Artesanías Mayas de Guatemala Coloring Book

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Lesson 1 - Appreciating Diversity:
A multicultural lesson based on the traditional clothing of the Maya

Note to teachers or parents: This lesson’s activities and discussion may be done by either:

  • only using the Guide and coloring book drawings
  • or using the Guide and the coloring book drawings and incorporating activities with Maya crafts consisting of one or more huipils and palm hats (see Resources)


Students will discuss and learn

  • about the importance of traditional clothing to the Maya of Guatemala
  • about what diversity in wearing clothing can teach children in the USA and Canada
  • about respecting the rights of people to dress in ways that are different than our own


Empathy and respect for diversity helps people who come from different cultures and backgrounds to live together in harmony and to appreciate the talents that each offers. Empathy and respect also help us to have feelings for others who look different from us, speak different languages or dress differently.

girl of Nabaj
A girl of Nebaj wears her traditional elaborate hair decoration, patterned huipil, sash, skirt and shawl.

How and why others wear distinctive clothing is complicated by the vastly different customs of clothing use throughout the world. In this lesson we are looking at Guatemala, Canada, and the USA, and concentrating on the important place of traditional dress in the lives of the Maya in Guatemala and what this can teach us.

Some areas of Canada and the USA have large multicultural populations who have come from many countries. On smaller scale, Guatemala is a multicultural country of about 12,000,000, including both the Maya people and other groups. As the indigenous (native) inhabitants, the Maya count as their ancestors people who arrived from Asia beginning around 12,000 years ago. Around 500 years ago, they were conquered by the Spanish. Later Africans arrived as a result of the slave trade. Today Guatemala’s population is made up of the Maya, (about 60% of the population), those of Spanish and other European background, many of mixed Maya and European blood, others originally from Africa and a small number from Asia.

woman of Joyabaj
With a ribbon wound around her hair, a young women of Joyabaj wears her huipil while embroidering a second one with a similar pattern.

Maya people in Guatemala retain many of their ancient customs and beliefs, and speak a total of twenty-two languages. They also wear distinctive clothing, called traditional dress, which is used many places and has varied colors and patterns, some of which date back millennia (see pages 1, 2, 5, 6, 7). By keeping this tradition, they gain a sense of belonging and show pride in their culture. Maya children learn about how to wear this clothing from their mothers and fathers (page 21). To make it, thousands of women and men weave cloth using several kinds of looms (see pages 7 and 8).

Weaving, embroidering and sewing their clothing also allow the Maya to develop their craft skills and creativity. Doing this gives individuals a chance to express themselves and show their talent. Many would even say it is a universal human right as well as being an essential human quality to develop one’s creativity. Like the Maya, indigenous people in other parts of the world also use their abilities and imagination to produce their own traditional clothing.

All Maya clothing has cultural significance but the upper garment of women, the handwoven huipil, is so special that it is often considered a work of art. And its designs can have symbolic meaning and identify the origin and group of the wearer. See women and girls wearing the huipil on pages 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, etc along with Coloring Book cover drawing.

In Canada and the USA ads showing “fashion” (ways of dressing that change from year to year) frequently influence what children and adults decide to wear. This differs from the custom of the Maya to wear clothing in keeping with longstanding traditions and which vary from town to town (as seen in many coloring book drawings). Women’s hair decoration alone can show big changes from town to town and even from village to village. The coloring book also shows that the traditional clothing items of the Maya--their huipiles, hats, bags and sandals look very different from the factory-made garments worn by most people in Canada or the USA (or by non-Mayan Guatemalans, too).

boy from Jacaltenango
A boy from Jacaltenango wears a palm hat made by a local artisan.
Maya weaver wit blanket
A Maya weaver wearing a palm hat offers blankets for sale.

Hardly anyone would like to think of everyone in the world dressing just alike. Try imagining millions of people all in the same uniform or in similar jeans and tee shirts! Learning more about why the Maya have another kind of clothing from ours, appreciating its importance to them and why they want to continue wearing help us to understand them. And it can encourage us to think about our own clothing and why we wear it. Many think the world becomes a more wonderful place when people dress in different ways. The beauty of Maya handmade clothing makes a unique addition to that aspect of the world’s diversity.

Looking at our own ways of dressing, we often can see the creativity in how both young people and grownups, use and combine articles of clothing. We also form a part of the multicultural rainbow of possible ways to use clothing everywhere!

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