Mayan Hands works with 14 cooperatives, about 200 women, living in different areas of the Guatemalan highlands. The women speak one of these four Mayan languages: K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, or Achí. The number of women in each group ranges from 7 to 21. Some of the groups have been working with us for as long as Mayan Hands has existed, more than 30 years, some only for a few years. Some have been referred to us by other organizations, some have come to us in their quest to find opportunities to market their products. From our beginning in textiles, Mayan Hands now has expanded to work with other kinds of materials and created different lines of products, including felted wool items, pine needle baskets and, more recently, jewelry.
Since our inception, Mayan Hands has worked with women. It is well known that the income of a woman goes to sustain her family and support her local community. However Mayan women have even fewer opportunities to earn a living than their male counterparts due to the discrimination they experience because they are women. For a long time, Mayan girls did not go to school or went only for a few years and, as a result, are limited by their illiteracy and their inability to speak Spanish, the official language of Guatemala.
The back-strap loom, the most ancient and sophisticated weaving tradition in Guatemala, is exclusively used by women. The back-strap loom has been critical to the survival of Mayan culture through the centuries. Since our earliest days, Mayan Hands wanted to support this cultural treasure.
A necessary condition to work with Mayan Hands is that the women be part of a group or cooperative. Working with a democratically organized group, rather than with individuals, is the best way to ensure that income is fairly distributed among all artisans and allows members to participate in decisions about their work. Coop members share skills and expertise, encourage one another and enjoy the mutual support. Each coop elects a junta (a board of directors) and also selects a group leader who coordinates the group’s operation and helps the women with questions or concerns.
While each Mayan Hands artisan partner group has its own story and personality, there are some things that their members all share. They live in rural areas, mostly in small villages, in adobe houses with outhouses, running water in the pila (outdoor concrete sink used for everything), and electricity. The groups consist of women of all ages, from their early twenties to their fifties and sixties, and they are single, married, or widowed. The women fit their work for Mayan Hands into their daily routines of cooking for their families, caring for children, and tending their milpas (corn, beans and squash crops) and animals. Most adult men in their households work in agriculture, often away from home, as well as in construction, commerce, and transportation.
In the thirty years of partnering with Mayan Hands, the women never have shied away from giving their all to improve their work and expand their opportunities in the market. They have shown creativity, diligence and perseverance as they learn new techniques, create new possibilities and embark in the painstaking processes of their craft. They have taken on leadership roles, learned business skills, and supported one another along the way. They have worked hard to accomplish their goal: the dignity of making a living and supporting their family.