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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Rosa and the Rice Road Show.

ImageFeed the Children’s  Guatemala City HQ reached out and tagged Rosa and Patantic’s A-team Chefs to roll out a training and sampling session for the Guatemalan equivalent of the USDA.  This was a “big deal” that FTC´s Country Coordinator, Altagracia Hernandez, cooked up with MAGA (Ministry of Agriculture.)  If this class goes well, then, MAGA´s Solola groups will participate with the Oklahoma based NGO in their next distribution campaign:  VitaMeal.  Such alliances are key to an NGO’s functioning.
Back up in pueblo, Rosa readied the show.  And, even though it would have been easier for her to do it herself, Rosa took the opportunity to promote Juanita.   Thorough as ever, she made doubly sure the ladies would “nail” the presentation by holding a few practice sessions.   The outfit for the day would be totally “Toto”  meaning that we would wear the red, black and white brindled traje from Totonicapan and navy blue or black skirts.  Belting was freestyle.  And, I wore my thin red “training” belt while the others snorted at because they were wrapped in much wider and more decorative items.  Despite the difference in the width of the belts, I like to think that I blended into to the crew, as we waded into the market and set about examining onions, divining degrees of freshness, palpating chicken feet.  Unlike pesky New Yorkers, the Mayans haggle sweetly with their silky manners in a very fun, pleasant way.  These ladies would never-ever ever display the reptilian demeanor of, say, a Filine´s sale rack shopper – like myself.
We took a truck to Solola and eventually the nine women from MAGA’s far-flung community programs in Los Encuentros and San Antonio Palpolo  were collected.  All fourteen of us to got wedged into MAGA pick’em up truck and headed towards Dona Rosa Maria’s studio in a town that happens to have been home to Rosa’s aunt.  Interestingly, the town has a section called “Totonicapan.”  But, Rosa said, in so many words, that the place was not as “aligned” or as densely packed with people from the old District as was Patanatic.  She assured me that we would be the only ones dressed in our colors in the steep village.
The road got so extreme and we proved too heavy for the truck even in 4×4 mode, that we could not make it up that road.   So, we set out on foot across a cow path that made the prior road look like salt flats, in comparison.  We had divided the produce into everybody’s bags before making the ascent.  Rosa Maria, who was hosting the event for MAGA, met us at an unbelievably) narrowing branch – with room for only one of my feet at a time.   She coaxed us around barbed wire on the left, and cautioned about the precipice yawning on the right.  Her compound had an outdoor sink, an ample shady front porch and a 10´x8´room with a wood-stove at one end. It also had turkeys, puppies and bunnies wandering around.

Introductions were made, prayers said and the meeting commenced.  Everyone pitched in with the washing and chopping the vegetables — Don Samuel and I amused ourselves by discussing the virtues of rabbits vs. chickens.  Rabbits mature in about half the time that chickens do but do not lay eggs, he would tell me.  This factoid was offered after I told the agricultural engineer that I thought that rabbits laid eggs… and…he had believed me.
The group worked and visited and at the end seemed to enjoy the chicken soup and vegetarian rice dishes.  On the way home, in the spirit of John Lennon, Rosa said (again in so many words) “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
Of course, she did.

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Fish Fry in San Antonio Palpolo

Luisa's daughter Carolina works the shuttle
Luisa’s daughter Carolina works the shuttle

Luisa’s son-in –law, a fisherman, had had a very good night.  So, she called Rosa, who invited Marco and me up to San Antonio Palpolo.  She told Rosa that we should set aside some serious time for her intimate fish fry.  It would be a very bony and slow going but a good time to chat.   Rosa changed into her red guipil quickly and urged us into a truck.  We rode high above the lake into the perilous land of the ladies in blue.  Cerulean guipils hung on clotheslines everywhere in the landslide prone  village.  For a sapphire flash, I wondered what crisp white wine would be good to sip with lunch?

Then Marco popped out of the tienda with 2 liters of Coke and  I remembered,

“We’re not in SOHO.  Puchica. “

Up some snag-ly steps is Luisa’s narrow balcony where, like Rosa, she runs a FTC feeding center.    A bunch of children were calmly lined up by the serving area set up on the landing.  We tucked around the woman, who was doling out atoll, tortillias and beans at an astonishing speed and squeezed past a  waist-high blue queue holding plates.   Luisas’ studio is a small room packed with a single bed,  two cabinets and mostly  occupied by the frame of a large format loom -about the size of a four poster.

We sat on the bed and looked out on the quiet crowd that now and then peeked  through the door.  Mostly they kept their eye on what was being served.

“Luisa’s feeding center is so small that she provides take-away and seats everybody else in turns.  Sometimes, it takes two hours to do the hand out,” Rosa observed.

Luisa returned with glasses for the soda and invited us to see the working loom —

“Both of the looms are gifts from Feed The Children.”  As we left her room she allowed,    “This one needs  a harness assembly to go into production.”

In order to see the cloth in progress we needed to wind beyond the lunch area and skirt the open fire, get past two ladies patting tortillas, down a narrow path that opened into a sink area; then, down high, skinny stairs.

They were producing a batch of place mats.  And, they can get twenty individual piecesif they weave the long cloth into 10”hx15”w rectangles leaving a couple of inches of fringe space in between.  The finished mats are cut like sausage.

I asked if there was a lot of demand to use the looms and, when she answered in the negative,  I asked her if it was because they were complicated to operate.

“No.  It’s not that – many people know how to use it…  It is that the investment in thread is very expensive – because you have to string such an expanse.  So, unless you have a client ready to buy your finished product, it is a big risk to assume.”

A table had been set up between the bed and the loom.  Luisa set out a kettle of  prehistoric looking smelts swimming in Mayan Marinara …

“By August, the fish will be a half a pound, but, now (in March) they are delicacies to be consumed with utmost care.  Provecho.” 

We dug in and ceremoniously stripped each vertebrae of meat and talked about ways to bring embroidered textiles to market and what was need for an exhibition.

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Yolanda: An Action of Grace

Marco and Rosa - she is wearing her wedding Guipel and head dress
Meet the Mayans

My two K’iche students bridge me into their Mayan community.

From my gringa’s distance, I have fairly gawked at how the Mayan women show up in their fancy suits (traje) to pedal their wears or just to work in the fields. No matter where they are, they appear utterly stately in their long hand loomed skirts, ornate belts, embroidered guipels and, with a head dressing added, the effect is strictly couture. And, these ladies dart in and out of the pick-up trucks gingerly hauling bundles and kids in this costume.

As for the men, their traditional dress might be hot colored woven pants and (in Solola) they wrap a knee length brown and cream wool sarong cum kidney belt over these. On market days, they top off this ensemble with an equally loud cowboy shirt and a crispy ten gallon hat. But in comparison to the majority of women in traje, seeing the men’s outfit is rare. Of the few guys that I have seen attired this way, none have been younger than fifty.

So, why do men eschew regional costumes and favor a western look? My student’s answer that only the women are about preserving tradition or that the men shucked out of their folk-wear so as not to be identified when they went out of their areas during the civil war. In any case, on the chicken bus the girls are suited up like their moms and the boys and dads are in t-shirts and jeans.

I enjoy going to Yolanda’s — Her house is situated way down a dirt road and up a path to a high tier overlooking stepped fields. One of the things I love about going there is that the Mayans travel in tight puppy piles – by choice. They will squish themselves – all friendly-like – into the first few seats and leave the rest of the bus vacant. This is oh so different from the US, where people prize “the privacy” of vacant seats. Since I do not drive, my travel is via the stereotypic, black plume spewing, old school busses or by minibus shuttles. Yesterday, the shuttle had twenty-four adults beside the driver and the wing man, who collects fares and acts as an usher/stuffer. I had a spare baby on my lap on the way to los Encuentros. Many Mayans can stand up right in a mini-van bracing themselves as it lurches and heaves around the turns but, when I get in one with no seats, I try to share a lower footing with “the stuffer” on the van’s doorstep and, even with that, I am still hunched over.

Yolanda, my more distant student wisely suggested that our lessons be on Thursdays – market day – because the pick-up trucks run 2-4 times an hour from her village, Quijel, direct to the turn-off or further on to Chichicastenango. I arrive about 10:00 AM and they are all working on Hooked Rugs for the upcoming show in Minnesota – “Mary Anne Wise and Friends.”

The schedule out here is that the family of sisters and their mom concentrate on the Oxlajuj B’atz’ project all morning and just before the kids get home, lunch is prepared up at Yolanda’s. Everyone comes home for this meal and they are way too generous with their guest. Last week my plate held a giant thigh and drum stick carefully hidden under a stack of tortillas. This week Yolanda tried (unsuccessfully) to give me half of the breast. Yolanda’s husband and the boys (cousins) ordinarily take seats at the table and the women sit on the floor. Yolanda’a mother has a dry sense of humor and pointed out between bites that even though Fire was a “Chinese invention” they use it here, anyway.

This week Yolanda’s husband, Estaban, is a baker (last week he was doing construction) and he came home with a bag of pan dulce and a fresh pressed video of an “Accion d’Gracia” held last week at the church. Since Estaban plays base in the church band, we all wanted to watch it. So, with soup bowls in hand, seven of us lunched on Mariella’s bed.

The plinking of the guitars and the singing sounded more mournful than celebratory to me and I asked what the occasion was. It was an “action of gratitude” because three brothers from the village had found work in the United States and they had left the village for a year.

As the video panned the thirty or so neighbors praying, focus fell on the three men’s father standing next to two of their wives. The lens would revisit this group and their positions and faces never changed. The two women were breathing high in their chests and held their babies tightly and stood close to their father-in-law — all three of them stiff and solemn. I asked if the men’s employment was “legitimate” or not. It is not. The brothers are currently traveling across borders with a “coyote” and everyone is waiting for news of their safe arrival.

The video went on, Estaban played while Zoila sang and the camera incidentally focused on the Calgua women in turn. At last, the orations began and the father and wives got down on their knees in front of the gushing array of flowers. From above, the camera paused and held to on to a single framed photo of one of the brothers; it was the only one they had. The camera held still over the stoic trio as they began to keen. While the two wives listened in silence, the men’s father put a hand over his eyes .

This video was stark confirmation that despite their talents and hard work, these proud K’iche Mayans live in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in South America. And, up in Quijel, when a family does not have enough land to support itself, someone has to go north.

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See Rosa and Yolanda Part 1

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Yolanda and Rosa – Part 1

Yolanda Calgua and Rosa F. Garcia are K’iche speaking Mayans. They have been selected to appear in a show called “Mary Anne Wise and Friends” opening in Minnesota’s Anderson Center.

I had volunteered with Oxlajuj B’atz’ (an educational foundation) and was delighted to learn that one of my jobs would be to teach these ladies the basics of N. American cocktail chatter.

But, wait, wait, first, they must learn to say “Hello.”

With lessons spread over 2-3 months, for Yo-Ro “success” would be if they are able to navigate public spaces, greet people and minimally discuss their work and families… Much of this instruction is done through ROTE memorization and DRILLING phrases from musicals like: “Hi my name is Rosa, what’s yours?” and “This rug is ‘Lovely absolutely Lovely.'”

The good news is: Rosa lives close to me in Patanatic – just a 20 minute uphill tuk-tuk ride. But, Yolanda lives way-way out in Quijel – just this side of Chichicastenanga and deep in the mountains. It takes four transfers to get to her: Panajachel to Solola to los Encuentros to the turn off and from there, it is a 15 minute pick up truck ride to their compound. If I make every connection perfectly, it takes me about an hour and one half. Quijel is further out than Flatbush.

Last Thrusday, while trying to reduce the “friction of distance” to Yolanda’s and get beyond Quijel to my tailor in the state of Quiche, I had a NY moment. This is not a good thing to have in Guatemala.

I had to do small but unavoidable errands (like getting cash and buying food for my hosts) before catching the first chicken bus that morning,. I had the ambitious (but, do-able) plan of getting up to Santa Cruz D’Quiche (45 minutes above Chichi) that day. My goal was to get Yolanda tutored, snag a pick up to Chichi; the bus to the tailor in Sta Cruz and double back to Chichi in time to catch a nonstop shuttle to Pana. The Bonus would be to get back, with my custom made Tipica zoot suit before 6:00PM.

I was about hustling to the bank at 8AM, when I saw a taxi parked across from the church. This was a “real” TAXI (with the little light on the top) and I thought it was one beat up mirage.

I had to ask:

Will he take me all the way to Santa Cruz d’Quiche?
“Yes,” he says.

Make a few stops on the way?
“Yes,” he says.

In a flash I ask him how much if I hire him until 6PM if I pay gas?
“About 50 bucks,” he says (A little more than the round trip shuttle to Chichi and I was going beyond that…)

We agree on $45 and with cash in hand, I jump in directing him to go three blocks to PanaSuper for the goodies. Soon enough we are off to Solola, the first stop is to pop in and deliver Adonna’s gift to the Asociacion Maya. After this is accomplished in less than 20 minutes, I am liking my plan more and promise to buy the drive lunch in Santa Cruz D’Quiche at the Mansion d’ Chef. But, first we will go to Yolanda.

And would he mind filming the class for me??
“No Problemo,” he says
I begin telling him about pans, zooms, pulling focus, cutting on movement and form, etc. Expecting the best, I am carefully reciting “The Art of the Film” in broken Spanish.

And, since he told me he knew the way, I am hardly looking for the turn-off to Yolanda’s.

Suddenly, I notice that we have crossed into Chichi.
Is he is blowing though to Sta. Cruz, first?
That was not the plan.

I ask him what is going on and he says that it will cost me 100’s of extra Q’s to go to Sta Cruz and we are going now.
That was not the plan
…the Mansion d’ Chef doesn’t even open until lunch.

He then tells me that he doesn’t want to wait for the English class to be over. He wants to return to Panjachel immediately.

After a few minutes of this annoying patter, I am on the verge of flaming. And,when he told me he did not understand the plan, I took to screeching.

“How can you have misunderstood “Santa Cruz D’ Quiche” it is the Capital city of Quiche; a destination? You sure understood the lunch part,”

I am seething and it is time to be at Yolanda’s if the plan is going to work. I tell him there will absolutely be no extra money and to turn around, now, forget lunch and take me to Yolanda’s, pronto.

This time around I am keenly scouting the turnoff and direct him to go there. By now, he is muttering that he needs to go to church and I second that emotion by calling him a “liar and a cheat” in my best Spanish. (Yes, yes I know he could just as easily leave me on the road or chop me up in little pieces with a machete but I am having a NYC moment.)

As you can see by the photo, I retrieved my zoot suit. And believe it or leave it, I made it back to Pana via flying chicken by 6:30PM.

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