by Julia Barrero
On a Tuesday at 3pm, the skies gray in preparation for the daily summer storm customary during Guatemala’s rainy season. Inside, Marcela carefully presents her samples at Friendship Bridge’s headquarters in Panajachel. She pulls turquoise and periwinkle textiles out for inspection, outstretching placemats and napkins one by one. With scissors, she scans for any loose threads and snips them precisely, folding them again into a neat pile at the corner of the desk. América, Friendship Bridge’s artisan coordinator, meanwhile cranes over a calculator, discussing pricing and shipping logistics in the women’s native Kakchiquel tongue. Marcela’s products will soon head to dinner tables in the United States, a world apart. But no journey has been tougher than the one she’s taken to become an international entrepreneur.
As 1 of 9 children in a poor family, Marcela believed a better life awaited her as someone’s wife. “When I was a girl, I thought having a husband would offer the resources and security I didn’t have at home,” Marcela explains. At 15, she had stopped going to school and got married. She came from a hamlet on the outskirts of Sololá, but her husband’s family resided in town and thought themselves superior. When Marcela moved in with her groom and new mother-in-law, she found herself behind enemy lines. Her husband’s mother spat daily insults at Marcela, calling her a “barbaric” woman to her face.
Matters worsened when her husband began drinking. First, there wasn’t enough money to feed their young and growing family, pushing Marcela to find jobs nannying and cleaning houses. Then, Marcela came home to find things missing from the house, like sugar, or the glass from their windows. Pretty soon, every door had been scrapped for cash save their front entry.
Marcela was at the brink, and then, after 15 years of marriage, her husband passed away from alcoholism. Now alone with 5 children, there was no one left to decide the family’s fate except Marcela–and that was just the motivation she needed. “Everyone who tried to stand in my way only gave me more strength and courage to prove them wrong,” she says.
From then on, Marcela took an active stance in creating the life she wanted. She joined a weaving collective, and soon she was traveling throughout Guatemala to sell her textiles. In her collective, she also found Friendship Bridge. Marcela has routinely sought loans over the years, which has allowed her to go from her individual production to a fully-fledged business with 5 employees. Now, Marcela manages three Friendship Bridge microloans amounting to 13,000Q, signaling her fiscal responsibility and sophistication.
However, things really changed for Marcela in 2016, when América invited her to be one of Friendship Bridge’s first Artisan Program participants. This program empowers artists like Marcela with the business savvy they need to manage the end-to-end process of exporting their products to the U.S. Marcela gobbles up each of the advanced trainings, constantly looking for ways to improve her craft. “I appreciate the opportunity to learn new skills,” she explains. “Before, I didn’t know what a ‘finished product’ really meant, but I’ve learned what it takes to get interested buyers to say yes to placing an order.” Marcela has sold dozens of products abroad, but she’s not about to rest on her laurels. “I still need to produce more, design other styles,” Marcela insists.
Before, her home was a prison and a place where Marcela seemingly had no control. Now, when she looks around, she smiles, recognizing that she has remade everything in her home with her own money, independently. Once, Marcela and a fellow weaver were selling their textiles at a market when a husband, wife, and child walked up. The husband offered to buy the wife anything she wanted from the stand. Later, Marcela’s colleague gushed, “How wonderful would it be to have a husband who would buy us anything we wanted?” Marcela, with a knowing glance though, replied, “I’d rather be free and with my textiles than trapped with a husband.” With support from Friendship Bridge, and through a lot of sheer grit, that old life feels farther away than her napkins and placemats flying somewhere over Colorado.
Also please help us with programs like our Artisan Program Marcela has been trained through and contribute to the W4 matching campaign. Our partner, W4 (Women WorldWide Web) is matching donations through June and July up to $25,000! Double your impact and give today! You can donate here.
Julia Barrero is Friendship Bridge’s Field Writer and Kiva Intern, traveling throughout Guatemala collecting testimonials from the inspiring women in the microcredit, artisan, agriculture, and health programs. For as long as she can remember, Julia’s favorite line has been, “Tell me a story.” She’s been chasing stories ever since. Julia graduated with a B.A. in History from Stanford University and also discovered her love of journalism on The Farm. After graduating, she combined her passion for people and stories with a knack for business as a marketer in the San Francisco startup scene. As a native Spanish-speaker with Colombian and Cuban heritage, she’s thrilled to be spending 3 months in Guatemala, her first experience abroad in Central America.