Cooperatives and Highland Mayan Artisans

Many Indigenous women belong to co-operatives. These are both political and trade associations – each one is a different balance of these two themes. The more successful of these “unions” are visible enough to receive micro-financing and educational support from NGO’s targeting craftswomen and “self-sustainable ventures.” Cooperatives are very helpful in getting bulk rates, pricing goods for market and for providing the group the means to insist on fair value for their work. In a country known for the” sport of bargaining,” this notion is odd Yet, in cooperative storefronts, the marked price is the selling price. It appears “fixed price tiendas” agglomerate. In San Antonio Palopo, for example, many are grouped in a row.

Cooperatives also offer (an often overlooked) opportunity for branding. For an example of a very successful for-profit group started by NYC MBA, Yenifer Lam, see Kem Ajachel cooperative. In this model, the outside leadership declares the direction and materials, provides the styling and colors and is even growing silk worms in Guatemala to provide enriched fibers locally. And, management promotes and adjusts the line with an eye on customer’s demands and current trends.
Obviously, other highlands communities could use such direction. The issue is that the women design and produce what they are good at ….without researching the end market. The products they create are most often chosen because the materials cost very little. For example, found Pine Needles go into baskets and they only require a little bright thread to bind them. Using pop-tops extends their crochette threads, as does making small items such as baby shoes or coin purses. They would like to use large format looms are expensive to operate because the “up-front cost” of stringing them is prohibitive. The women cannot begin to make bolts of cloth, if they do not have a commitment from a buyer. For this reason, the “back-strap” (+/-1/8”-12” wide) is still favored over the ease and speed of producing on a 24”-36” loom. The products of the back-strap (often adaptions of Victorian needlepoint) are sewn together and adorned with embroidery to make the Guipils that everyone wears. (The skirts are made on a foot looms — mostly operated by men.) The traditional outfit is not complete without a Falda or belt. This 1”-4” piece is also woven on the “back-strap” and can include elaborate beadwork.

Donors who provide sewing machines will offer training to an artisan like Rosa Garcia-Garcia and, she, in turn gives instruction to her group so they can share the gift. A few years ago, the women were shown how to make rag-rugs by an expert from the states and these were very lucrative for them. The husbands, were immediately against them leaving their looms but, soon enough were scouring the second hand stores for materials for their wives.

Basically, the women face a constant logistical problem with marketing heavy, bulky and fragile items — shipping. And, they need more representatives, who will feature and popularize Mayan made goods. We are currently working on free downloadable coloring book and a line of multi-cultural ”mother-daughter” doll clothes on the model of American Girl Place. It is hoped that the former will develop awareness of the regional dress and the latter will create demand in young girls.

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Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

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