by Marta Julia Ixtuc Cuc
“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”– Winston Churchill
From the docks of San Juan La Laguna, a quaint community on the shores of Lake Atitlán, the sun beats down as one trudges at a snail’s pace into town. After a ten-minute hill, one enters the weaving cooperative, Ixoq Aj Keem (Ish-ohck Ah Kem). A cool breeze runs through the airy workshop and awe takes hold as visitors gaze around at the hundreds of bright textiles draping the walls and hanging from the ceiling.
Here, 20 indigenous women of Maya descent marry the old with the new as they create scarves, bags, table runners, ponchos, makeup bags, and numerous other products from age-old weaving traditions. Elena, the cooperative’s founder, grew up in San Juan and learned how to weave at the age of 8. This practice holds a special cultural place among Guatemala’s 20+ indigenous communities. It often gets passed down from mother to daughter through the generations, and the textiles feature colors, animals, patterns, and scenes harkening back to Maya religious beliefs. While honoring these sacred traditions, Elena and her peers strive for new economic opportunities in global markets.
Elena, now 42 years old, was born the 4th of 9 children. Her father worked as a day laborer and her mother ran the home, and money could sometimes be tight. Elena went to school from the ages of 9 to 12, at which point her family could no longer afford it. Instead, Elena had to work to help support her family. At 20, she married and had four children. Her entrepreneurial spark ignited, however. Her husband, a schoolteacher, supported Elena’s professional ambitions and with his reassurance, she sought out microloan to start her first business. A friend had told her about Friendship Bridge and praised its Trust Bank model of financing (based on Mohammed Yunus’s Grameen Bank) and the low interest rates. Elena joined a Trust Bank in San Juan and 10 years ago, received her first loan.
Weaving wasn’t Elena’s first thought, though. She invested her money initially to start a prepared foods business. She’d sell snacks at her children’s school and around the community. Eventually, she figured that weaving could be another source of income and put her microloan to buying threads.
At first, Elena sold her products to an intermediary who would resell her table runners and other products in Guatemala’s markets. “At first, it was a great opportunity for me to get started, but then I wondered why I couldn’t sell my own products directly to consumers,” Elena explains. She found five other women in a similar situation and together, they founded Ixoq Aj Keem, which means “woman weaver” in the Maya Tzutuhil language. The collaborative gives weavers a workshop and exhibition space to display their products, directly attracting shoppers to learn more about their natural dyes, traditional weaving methods, and high-quality products. Ixoq Aj Keem now has expanded its showrooms and boasts 20 members.
In 2016, after demonstrating this leadership and maintaining her stellar credit record with Friendship Bridge, Elena got a call inviting her to join Friendship Bridge’s new Artisan Program. Recognizing the vast ambitions of artisans like Elena, the program hopes to train them with all the skills they need to access international markets. Since she joined, Elena has received various intense workshops, teaching her everything from ensuring the quality of her materials and products, to budgets, pricing, colors for different seasons, designs, standard measurements, and customer service. “Friendship Bridge is the only organization that gives us this chance to develop as business owners and women without requiring anything of us in return,” Elena says.
With the help of the Artisan Program, Elena has exported products to the United States and as far away as France. She smiles from ear to ear, hardly believing that she’s an international businesswoman. The best part, Elena has all the skills she needs to independently grow her client base. Friendship Bridge offers resources and support, but the women in the Artisan Program are responsible for each step of the product development and exportation process. Elena has evolved on a personal level too. With the confidence she’s gained from the program, Elena has ditched her fear of public speaking. Now she regularly gives presentations on the natural dyeing process and backstrap weaving for visitors at Ixoq Aj Keem.
With unwavering grit, Elena has created a life for herself and her family that once upon a time seemed all but impossible. With the success of her weaving collective, Elena can fund her children’s educations. One of her daughters has even gone on to university and another daughter starts next year. “It’s deeply satisfying to see your kids grow and give them opportunities that you didn’t have,” Elena beams. “Thanks to Friendship Bridge, I can make a living doing work that I enjoy, and so can the other women at Ixoq Aj Keem.”