Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

Tag : artisan

Merging the Old with the New: Elena

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.

Jaspe Poncho Golden Beige

Elena currently has several of her pieces, the Jaspe Ponchos, in our online Tipica Market Summer Collection. Purchase one today to support Elena, her family, and ethical fashion!

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.”

Honoring the Mother Goddess Through Ethical Fashion

Textile Weaving Artists in Guatemala

by Kyra Coates

In the United States we are blessed with an abundance of fashion and accessory choices from all over the world. Pants from India, dresses from France, cotton from Egypt, the product choices go on and on. As part of our Artisan Market Access Program here at Friendship Bridge,  we give our clients tools to bring their products not only further out to their communities in Guatemala but to the international marketplace as well. We offer our artisan clients this training as a way to give them further opportunities to uplift themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty and open the door for a better life. And while we are offering them this education, we too are continuously learning and changing as an organization.

The Mayans have a long and powerful spiritual history of weaving which stretches back over 2,000 years. Weaving is considered a sacred art form that is tied directly to their spiritual cosmology. Recently it has come to our awareness that the preferred term is “Artist” for clients who create traditional Maya weavings, and not “Artisan.” As I have shared this with many co-workers here at Friendship Bridge most everyone has asked me “what is the difference?” So I set out to discover this exactly. Diving into the “why” behind this has been a beautiful and educational journey. I offer you here a glimpse into the sacred world of Mayan weaving, our roles as consumers within it, and how we can further use this knowledge to uplift and support the Mayan women of Guatemala.

A Friendship Bridge textile Artist clientKatherine Zavala, from the organization Thousand Currents, who work to support grassroots groups including weavers’ rights in Guatemala, shared her perspective with me. “I was taught by indigenous women, there is a difference between the term ‘artist’ and ‘artisan.’” she said. “Naming them artists uplifts indigenous women as creators and owners of their weaving designs, history and traditions, recognizing their indigenous cultural production. ‘Artisan’ tends to have a more folklorization connotation, which does not recognize indigenous women’s art, identity or creativity.”

The Mayans have a long, rich, and powerful spiritual history of weaving which stretches back over 2,000 years. Weaving is considered a sacred art form that is tied directly to their spiritual cosmology. In their tradition, the Universe was created by the Creator God Itzamna, and his consort Ix Chel, the Great Mother Creator. Ix Chel is the Goddess of Healing, Fertility, and Weaving, and is often depicted in three forms which represent the three stages of a woman’s life- Maiden, Mother, and Grandmother.

The goddess Ix Chel in her three formsIn her Maiden form she represents intuitive knowledge and healing as well as great control over earthly forces and is pictured with a spindle and thread as she weaves the cosmos.

In her Mother form she is the Mother Goddess of fertility, the moon and motherhood. As Mother Creator of all Maya people and consort of the Creator God, Itzamna, she decides the face and sex of every person in utero.

Her grandmother form is the Grandmother Earth Goddess of the moon, rain, medicine and death. When her children, the Mayans, die, she takes their bodies into her own physical body, which is the earth.

Women pray to Ix Chel for fertility, and upon birth girls are gifted with weaving tools that they keep for life and are buried with them when they die, honoring Ix Chel and the powerful tradition of the divine feminine that has been passed to them generation through generation. The Mayan women often claim their weaving patterns were dictated to them in a dream as a gift from Ix Chel.

The weavings themselves, which are in the form of traditional Mayan clothing, such as the Huipiles shirts and Corte skirts are rich in meaning and tradition. Each woman weaves in her personal story, philosophy, and cosmology through symbolism into the huipiles, as well as larger cultural symbols based on region and group. The symbols range from the diamond which represents the universe, the orientation of the sun in its daily movement, the four cardinal directions, to representations of mountains, rivers, animals, plants, and people through geometric shapes and patterning. Similar to Scottish Tartans, each region in Guatemala has different patterns representing their communities.

As a group from the National Movement of Maya Weavers recently wrote in a statement to the Guatemalan government:

Guatemalan huipiles, sacred weavings“They (the weavings) are a symbol of our history, of the resistance that we have maintained over 500 years, which has naturally evolved, changed, been transformed. Nevertheless, they contain—and are—the essence of the people. They are the wisdom of men and women, which is translated into what we see. They are more than colors, more than symbols. They are evidence of Mayan survival and they speak of our relationship with the universe and our profound love for life.”

Over the past few years, as tourism has grown in Guatemala, the Mayans have seen many of their sacred textile art patterns stolen by large corporations and used in fashion items for the US and Europe. This is essentially exploiting their knowledge and work for little to no compensation. They have seen a rise in prices for threading, with benefits given to large corporations and export restrictions put in place that hurt the small-scale weavers. These companies are making industrial machine-made huipiles, disregarding this sacred tradition and knowledge that has been passed through generations, all in an effort to increase profit. In October 2017 this weavers group went before the Guatemalan congress and won a bill giving them intellectual property rights to their weavings, though it has yet to be implemented. This is a huge step for Mayan rights within a country where they are very largely discriminated against for their traditions. But the fight is far from over, and changes don’t take place overnight.

Maya women weave huipiles as a sacred storyWe here at Friendship Bridge recognize the complexity of this issue, and the importance of supporting our clients, who are mostly indigenous Maya, and the richness of their culture and tradition. By honoring the sacred history of their art form we are honoring each women, and the inherent power she has. There is a responsibility to recognize the often unintentional neglect of these sacred traditions and philosophies. So, as a way to say Happy Mother’s Day and to show our respect for our clients who embody the divine feminine of the Mother Goddess Ix Chel, we are now calling all our weaver clients “artists,” and will no longer use the term “artisan” in regards to the textile art of weaving. Our clients from our Artisan Market Access Program who are not practicing the art of weaving will still be referred to as “Artisans”. These changes will be made across our programs, website, and communications. 

As supporters of Friendship Bridge and our almost 30,000 clients, you may ask “how can I support these sacred traditions?” One powerful way is to purchase directly from these artist clients, which you can do through the Tipica Marketplace on our website. Each item on the website has the story of each artist and artisan, and each item comes straight from the woman who made it. Every purchase goes back into their hands so you will be supporting them directly. This is the power of ethical fashion! Currently we have an amazing Mother’s Day sale happening, so it’s the perfect time to show these Mother’s your support! Check out the store today before these sale items are gone!

I’m also thrilled to announce that launching Memorial Day Weekend will be our very first Tipica Marketplace Summer Collection, featuring brand new items from some of our most talented artists and artisans. We let you know the moment the line is available!

As consumers there is a responsibility to see our purchases as ethical choices. Our money provides power and momentum to grow industries, so together we can support and uplift instead of contributing to further discrimination and unethical practices. Thank you for supporting our artists, clients, and the tradition of the Mother Goddess Ix Chel.

Kyra Coates is the US Marketing Coordinator at Friendship Bridge. She is a passionate advocate for Women’s Empowerment and has worked for years to promote equality. Outside her Friendship Bridge working hours she is an artist and gallery owner, a mother of two fierce and fabulous daughters, and a typical Colorado outdoorsy athletic girl.  

Giving Provides Opportunities for Grateful Clients

Petrona tablecloth

Petrona is an artisan weaver with five children – she shows a tablecloth she will set at market.

Giving is empowering and so is gratitude. In the case of Friendship Bridge clients, gratitude is the experience of being thankful for the opportunities that develop and resources that help them achieve their dreams.

On December 2, following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday will celebrate generosity on a global scale and encourage giving to benefit others. For assisting our clients in Guatemala, your act of giving could be as simple as contributing on the Donate section of the Friendship Bridge website or donate on the Friendship Bridge crowdfunding site, http://empowerwomen.causevox.com/. You could also set a 24-hour goal for December 2 and create a personal fundraising page (it’s easy – go to Sign Up in the right corner of the page, write why you want people to give, and invite your friends and family to donate)!

Giving Tuesday BannerWhen you give, you are helping clients like Petrona Churunel Noj, a 32-year-old mother of five boys who produces handmade fabrics to sell at market. Her weaving artistry with a backstrap loom creates shawls, tablecloths and blouses as well as other finished products. She lives in Chuacruz in the western highlands of Guatemala.

Petrona was unable to attend formal school, but with her Friendship Bridge loan and involvement in the Trust Bank Girasoles Chuacruz (“Sunflowers of Chuacruz”), she receives non-formal education to improve her business and reach her goals. Now she has a variety of materials to weave and is meeting the demand of her local and national clients.

The quality of her life has improved, and she is passing achievement along to her children by using a “Rapidito Escolar,” or school loan, to support her children’s education. The loan helps Petrona with school fees for three children already attending classes. Petrona can buy new shoes for her kids to walk to school and uniforms. She truly values this product because it provides both necessary and extra items that help her children develop fully and reach for better opportunities. Petrona and her husband, a laborer, plan to provide education to all five children.

Petrona is excited for the year-end holidays as she expects to sell more during this time. This will allow her to make money to prepare for the new school year starting in January, 2015.

Your generosity and support will help Petrona and thousands of other entrepreneurial women in Guatemala care for themselves, their families and communities. Please consider giving on December 2, or before year-end.

 

Petrona weaving

A colorful tapestry woven by Petrona, who has local and national clients in Guatemala.