How many national flags in the world? It depends on whom you ask. Maybe 194, or 197, and it can change at any moment as national governments and boundaries rearrange themselves. Add to that state and regional flags, organizational flags, holiday flags—the list is endless. In every case, a flag is just a rectangle of cloth, but it can carry so much emotion, identity, symbolism, loyalty, and inspiration.
I remember visiting Cusco, Peru, some years ago with a gay friend. On seeing the Cusco District flag, which is striped with the seven colors of the rainbow, she lit up! It didn’t mean the same thing to the locals, but it was inspirational, nevertheless. So much meaning can be attributed to a piece of cloth.
When we were working on Traditional Weavers of Guatemala with Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón, we visited many districts in the highlands. Each had its own official flag, bearing emblems of its history, agriculture, geography (many portray volcanoes). But I don’t remember them at all, even though they were flying aloft in every community. What I remember is the huipils, the cortes. Those were the true flags of the people. Those were the symbols of shared identity and community loyalty.
The same holds true for many countries with significant indigenous populations. Think of the village attire of the Peruvian highlands. You know at first glance if a person hails from Chahuaytire, or Accha Alta, or Chinchero. Their mantas and ponchos, even their hats, are their flags of history and common cause. These garments have survived ridicule and abuse, and today are worn with pride. You can see a fine gallery of these “flags” in Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez.
As we celebrate our own country’s 244th birthday with much focus on our own flag, take a little side trip and see how our weaving neighbors to the south proclaim their identities.