After a long boat ride on Lake Atitlan, a bus and tuk tuk rides to the top of the mountain, we finally arrived. The three of us, Julio, Mayra and Brenda traveled to visit two groups of women who just began working with Mayan Hands.
We heard celestial music in the air as we approached the leader’s home and as we entered, the women seated in a circle greeted us cheerfully. On the side, two young women continued playing Amazing Grace on the violin and the flute. A moving reception!
There is so much talent and eagerness to work in Mayan rural communities but very few opportunities, especially for women. Juana, for example, has 6 children and a husband who had a stroke recently and can’t work. How could she earn some money to feed her family? She searched for work in the fields during the corn and coffee harvests, but the work was sporadic, just a few days here and there. Rosa, a single mother, embroiders huipiles for sale but these take weeks to make and people pay very little for them. Rosario has a teaching degree but there are no teaching jobs in her community so she washes people’s clothes.
The two young musicians, sisters, both in their early twenties, are desperate to find work that will allow them to continue their music studies and help their family—they used to attend a music academy in Guatemala City but had to stop because they had no money to pay for the transportation and classes.
Martha told us an all-too-familiar story about how she had organized a group of women about 10 years ago to learn to make beaded bracelets and earrings. When they deemed their products ready for the market they went to a tourist town to sell them. There they found that the markets were flooded with beaded items. Nobody was interested in theirs. While there, however, they met a man who offered to buy 100 beaded Christmas ornaments if they could make them. He gave them a sample. The women had never made something like this before. The ornaments looked complicated but they needed the work badly so they went for it. They traveled around looking for the materials and applied themselves with hope and enthusiasm to the task. In a few weeks, they had learned and their ornaments looked good. But, alas, their customer bought only eight of them. A huge disappointment, as they were left with 92 ornaments and debt from their investment in materials. Sadly, such stories are not unusual and through the years we have heard similar ones from most of our artisan partners.
Mayan Hands started working with these women in the fall of 2018. Our felted products were selling well and we needed more artisans to make them. Our staff visited their communities we got to know each other. The women were excited about finding a stable source of work. We talked about fair trade and our system of work, the central importance of democratic governance in the groups we work with, and our strict quality standards.
Felting, however, was a new technique for the women and requires a great deal of skill and practice. We offered a week-long workshop to learn the technique. They practiced diligently for a few months and finally came up with good samples. They then received their first order. A month later they turned in about 50 pieces. Several of these were not up to standard so the women took them back to fix them. They were disappointed but didn’t give up. One of them told us “I know I’m competent. I knew it would just take more effort and practice to get it.” The second time around, much improved, most of their products were received and paid for and the women went back home encouraged.
Taking on new groups requires an investment of time, money and effort for Mayan Hands. We can do it only because of the generosity of our many donors who are aware of the importance of offering Mayan women the possibility of a steady income. We have seen the lives of women and their families dramatically transformed by this opportunity.
As it always happens when we start working with a new group, we are impressed by these twenty women, by their creativity and talent and their willingness to do everything in their power to make it work. We welcome them into the Mayan Hands family, now 200 women strong!