Our guest blogger is Michael Averill, a sophomore student at Siena College. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations, a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, and a certificate in Community Development. Michael is a member of the Bonner Service Leadership Program at Siena, as well as a Resident Assistant (RA) on campus. This semester he is also an intern with Mayan Hands.
“I came of age in a country ravaged by civil war,” recounts Brenda Rosenbaum, who, with her husband Fredy Rosenbaum, founded Mayan Hands in 1990. Brenda fled her home country of Guatemala with her husband and children during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), a violent conflict that devastated the country and targeted a large number Mayan communities. Many of Brenda’s friends and neighbors were not as fortunate as she and gave their lives in the struggle.
Brenda had worked as an anthropologist in Mayan communities for several years. “I witnessed the daily struggles of people to feed their families, their despair at the death of their children from common illnesses and their lack of opportunities, especially for the women.” Brenda started Mayan Hands as a way to give back to the people who had welcomed her into their homes and shared their lives with her. The goal was to provide an income to Mayan women, the poorest and most discriminated sector in Guatemalan society. She looked to connect with cooperatives of Mayan women who could develop quality items that would be attractive to people in the United States. Brenda knew that Mayan women are among the best weavers in the world. With a vision in mind and a passion for social justice, Mayan Hands was born.
Perseverance is not only a trait that describes Brenda, but it is an integral part of Mayan Hands, woven into the very fabric of the organization’s history. Brenda and Fredy started Mayan Hands to provide an income for very poor women in areas deeply impacted by the war. However, not all of the women jumped on board right away. Widespread skepticism lingers amongst Mayan communities that have become accustomed to the broken promises of outsiders who pledge to purchase or sell their handcrafted products and then fail to follow through. But Brenda’s connection to Mayan communities, as well as her unwavering perseverance, fostered trusting relationships between Mayan Hands and the original groups of Mayan women that the organization worked with. Once those relationships developed, the operation was truly able to take off.
The perseverance of Mayan women is not only what solidified the organization, but what has led it to grow and progress over the years. The artisans have displayed a dedicated commitment to their craft, always willing to improve, learn new skills, and adapt in order to fit the needs of the American market that they are selling to. Brenda attributes her own perseverance to the example of the women who are at the center of Mayan Hands mission. “Mayan women work very hard to improve their families’ living conditions as well as to develop their communities,” she says. It is their steadfast perseverance which has pushed the small organization to new heights over the course of three decades.
Celebrating 30 years as an organization is a monumental achievement for Mayan Hands. This year marks a time to reflect upon the organization’s trajectory and appreciate how far it has come. Mayan Hands has grown from the early days when Brenda first began selling Mayan products in a very modest way, through consignment sales and church fairs, until today when Mayan Hands has an established office and warehouse in Albany, NY as well as a staff in Guatemala that works directly with the weavers. The organization has developed connections across the United States over the years, expanding the market for quality Mayan products and providing a fair income to two hundred indigenous women artisans.
Along the way, there have been many important milestones for the organization. Brenda remarks that one such moment was when Mayan Hands officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2010. Mayan Hands had never aspired to make profits, but rather always maintained the goal of providing a fair income and consistent work to all its artisan partners. However, as a nonprofit, Mayan Hands has been able to receive donations which have provided the resources for workshops for the women, scholarships for their daughters, and many other opportunities for the artisans and their families.
Over the course of the past thirty years of the Mayan Hands organization, the one thing that has remained constant is the devoted perseverance of founder Brenda Rosenbaum. It is her vision and her work that continues to further expand the Mayan Hands mission; “to support Mayan women in their quest to bring their families out of extreme poverty, as they continue to live within the culture they cherish.”