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Giving Thanks For Open Doors

A Trust Bank meets for their monthly loan repayment in the community of Santa Clara. 

by Julia Barrero

This time of year inspires us to give thanks. This year, in addition to my health, my loved ones, my home, and my job, I’ll be giving thanks for something I realized during my summer volunteering with Friendship Bridge. This something lies at the center of Friendship Bridge’s work and has the potential to change lives. It’s the gift of empowerment.

To explain, I need to tell you a story. The story starts with América Chiyal.

América Chiyal is the Artisan Coordinator for Friendship Bridge’s Artisan Market Access Program, but when she first started in the organization, she was a client facilitator. She guided groups of anywhere from 7 to 25 women in the initiation and repayment of a shared, group micro-loan. (Learn more about how this Grameen-style model of microcredit works at Friendship Bridge.) Every month, she would meet with her group, or “Trust Bank,” leading women in a training session on health, business finances, or personal development, and ensure that each member was on track for her payment.

América (left) introducing two women (center and right) from Friendship Bridge’s Artisan Access Program to a visiting group of students from Indiana University.

One day, at the end of that month’s repayment meeting, América asked one of the women in her group if she would deposit their collection at the bank. The woman took the envelope sheepishly, and América rushed off to visit her next Trust Bank for the afternoon. Two hours later, América came back through town, passing by the bank. Outside the doors stood the same woman, holding the same envelope.

América approached her. “What’s wrong?” she asked, “Why are you standing out here?” The woman explained that she had never been to the bank before, but she was too ashamed to tell América when she gave her the job of depositing the money. She made her way to the bank, but was too scared to take the next step. The doors were unlocked, but the woman couldn’t bring herself to push them open and step inside.

When América told me this tale, I realized something. I had grown up believing that I can be anything I want to be. I’ve walked through open doors without thinking twice. The woman in the story reminded me that I am not the norm, I am lucky. So many others, near and far, do not waltz through thresholds with a sense of confidence and control. They come up against closed doors, and they have to push their way through. From this story, I realized why organizations like Friendship Bridge aren’t just nice, we need them. Masses of people around the world need them.

With América’s help, that woman took a step toward empowerment, toward control, and made her first visit to the bank. Through Friendship Bridge’s work in 2017 alone, almost 27,000 women around Guatemala have been coached in health, business, and personal development lessons, giving them greater authority over their own lives.

As for América? She grew up near Friendship Bridge’s Guatemalan headquarters surrounded by examples of women with limited opportunities. They didn’t get a good education and they stayed confined to their parents’ or husbands’ homes.

América, however, carved out her own path. Now she’s got her dream job as the Artisan Market Access Program Coordinator, helping artists and artisans develop the skills they need to be independent entrepreneurs in global markets. América offers other women a different model of what’s possible.

In this way, Friendship Bridge’s empowerment work comes full circle. A sense of pride and ownership from within the organization begets the same traits in the women and the communities that Friendship Bridge serves.

I’m carrying América’s story with me this holiday season. As I give thanks, I’ll be thinking about Friendship Bridge. I’ll be thinking about the thousands of women who have gained more control over their lives. I’ll be thinking about all the doors that Friendship Bridge has helped open, both for its clients and for me.

 

Julia Barrero was 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 was thrilled to be spend 3 months in Guatemala, her first experience abroad in Central America. 

The Issue of Migration: Friendship Bridge Offering Sustainable Solutions

The Issue of Migration: Friendship Bridge Offering Sustainable Solutions

by Kyra Coates

The issue of immigration has been a heated topic over the past several months in the United States. When President Trump enacted a “zero-tolerance” policy, there was a subsequent outcry from the public over the separation of families with people taking to the streets in protest. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are still 13,000 migrant children in government custody who either arrived at the border alone, or have been separated from their guardians. Despite these extreme government immigration policies, there still has been an increase in people crossing the border illegally in the past few months. According to data from the US Customs and Border Protection, the largest percentage of those people are from Guatemala, with almost 43,000 families being taken into custody in 2018 to date, which is a sharp increase from the almost 25,000 apprehended for the entire year of 2017.

Contrary to common belief, it is not a result of rising violence that is driving people to emigrate. Violence in Guatemala is actually at a 17-year low. It is the decades-long issue of extreme poverty that is forcing people to leave their homes in search of a better life. With a population of 17.25 million, a staggering 60% of the country lives in poverty, with the majority of those being the indigenous population of Mayan descent. 79% of the Maya population lives below the poverty line, with a child malnutrition rate of 80%, which is the highest in the Western hemisphere.

Guatemala is a country with a painful past, that now lives with a wounded present. The country has suffered a long history of poverty and war, with the most recent being a bloody civil war from 1960-1996 that included a genocide of over 200,000 indigenous civilians being killed or “disappeared” at the hands of the government. Once the war ended, life for indigenous Guatemalans only improved minimally. Extreme discrimination continues to exist for the Mayan population. The corrupt government offers substandard public services and unreliable infrastructure, including road, water and air quality. And the country began to feel the effects of climate change, having now slumped into an unending cycle of hurricanes, drought, and other extreme weather. For a country where much of the population survives on local subsistence farming, and lives in the rural areas of the country, their future is bleak.

The province of Huehuetenango, in the northern part of the country bordering Mexico, has been hit especially hard. Agriculture is the main economic activity in this region, especially coffee. Yet with a destitute economy, high unemployment, prevalent gang violence, and a highly damaged ecosystem, this western province of Guatemala has the largest number of people migrating to the United States. It also has the youngest population, with 58% of the province being under the age of 19. There are few jobs, and the ones that do exist pay little. An average daily wage in Huehuetenango for agriculture or construction work is 40 quetzales, which is equivalent to $5.19. With that wage a family can afford to eat meat once a week, but cannot afford to send children to school, or pay for a home with indoor plumbing.

Meanwhile, a treacherous high-risk journey to cross the border is appealing when there is the promise of wages that are 10 to 15 times higher in the United States. On the local radio stations you can hear advertisements from smugglers, known as “coyotes”, proclaiming that children and pregnant women are guaranteed entrance at the US border. The trip costs anywhere from $10,000 – $12,000, with no promise they will even make it. Most individuals borrow the money from local lenders at an outrageous 120% annual interest rate. This puts them at high risk for extreme poverty and even homelessness if they don’t make it across the border. But the opportunity to make enough money to send home to their family is too big of a draw, so people continue to gamble and make the journey.

Maria Ramoz is 28 years old with two children, ages six and nine. Her husband worked for several years for a local fast food chain, Pollo Campero. He had taken out a loan with the company a few years ago to help cover some family expenses. Then his mother fell gravely ill and they could not afford to pay her medical bills. Because he is an only child it was his responsibility to take care of her. After contemplating the journey to the US for several years, he was offered a job in the United States and travelled there legally, but decided to stay after his three month visa expired to continue paying for his mother’s treatment and pay down his travel loan to the United States. He now works in a nail factory in Illinois and sends money home monthly. He plans to stay there for another three years.

In the meantime, Maria is left alone with their children. She suffers emotionally since he left, and says that some people try to take advantage of a woman whose husband has left. If she goes out with a friend or does her hair, gossip spreads that she has moved on, or has a new boyfriend. Although the worst part for her is that her young children are growing up without a father. “You cannot recuperate their childhood,” she says.

With poverty at such an epidemic level in Guatemala, what options are there?

Friendship Bridge is working in Guatemala to give opportunities to these same families so they can make a better life in their own country. Our organization has identified key factors that can help alleviate the burden of poverty. First, we offer Guatemalan women financial opportunities through microcredit. We have recognized that women, on average, invest 90% of their income in their families and community. In Guatemala women see high rates of domestic violence and discrimination. According to the United Nations, two women per day suffer a violent death there, as Guatemala is considered one of the top-ten most dangerous countries for women in the world. The illiteracy rate for women has hovered around 65% for years. By offering women opportunities to improve their lives and have financial independence we know we are not only investing in them, but in their families and their communities as well.

After her husband left, Maria joined Friendship Bridge and took out a loan to start a business selling jewelry. “I have two babies, I’m 28 years old, but I want to go to university, I want to be a dentist. It’s very expensive, but it’s not impossible. It takes you ten years studying, but it’s not impossible!” Maria says. After her third loan cycle she is happy to say she now has financial stability, and is even studying to get her High School diploma as her first step to earn a dental degree down the road.

A Friendship Bridge monthly Trust Bank education session

Every Friendship Bridge client also receives education. When a woman takes out a microloan, instead of needing collateral to guarantee her loan, she forms what is called a Trust Bank, which are groups of 7-25 women in her local community that come together to co-guarantee each other’s loans. These Trust Banks meet monthly with loan facilitators who offer them training on a range of topics, from business management, health, family issues, and domestic abuse. On average our clients have only three years of education, so this gives them the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge they wouldn’t receive anywhere else and apply them in their businesses, their families, and their community.

Once a woman reaches a certain level in the microcredit program she is eligible to receive advanced education through three different programs. Our New Skills Training Program gives women opportunities to diversify their income by learning new trades. The Artisan Market Access Program gives artisans training on how to access new markets, develop products, and eventually reach an international market. And the Women’s Credit and Agriculture Training Program teaches farmers modern agricultural practices in order to increase yields and mitigate risk of extreme climate disasters such as drought and flooding.

Ana and her family.

Ana married her husband when she was 16 years old, and had their son one year later. Their young family struggled to make ends meet. Seeking more opportunity in the United States, Ana’s husband tried to emigrate. Doing so required taking out a loan, one that he knew he could pay off with a job in the States. However, after an arduous journey he never made it across the border, and the loan quickly turned into a financial nightmare. As if matters couldn’t get any worse, their son got into a serious accident, and they couldn’t afford medical attention.

After weeks of rest and many nights keeping vigil by his bedside, Ana’s son made a full recovery. That gave Ana the strength she needed to carry on for her and her family. She looked at the ten acres of land they had and knew she could make something of it. In 2016, she joined Friendship Bridge, attracted to its Women’s Agriculture & Credit Training program. Today, Ana works with the on-staff agronomists in a demonstration plot on her land, while she maintains her own traditional techniques on another plot.

“With one pound of my seeds, I can only cultivate one acre,” she says. “With their new techniques, I can cultivate three acres. These different techniques matter. By the acre, we used to harvest 18 sacks of medium-sized onions and now, we’re harvesting 22 sacks of high-quality onions and getting a better price at the market.”

Friendship Bridge has been in Guatemala since 1998. We are happy to say that though the national poverty level continues to climb, our clients increasingly see a decrease in poverty. Huehuetenango is a newer area for us to work in. We began offering our services there two years ago, and are in the process of expanding. We expect to see similar positive results and, now especially, create opportunities for families to stay in Guatemala and not feel the need to leave for the US to find a better life.

We do recognize the problem of migration is complex and influenced by numerous factors, and what we offer is not the solution for everyone. However, as we see an increase in need we will focus our attention on addressing these issues by offering opportunities for women and their families to build financially sustainable and healthy lives, and hopefully, have the resources to stay together.

 

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.

 

References:

https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/04/04/598803531/how-a-guatemalan-villages-fortunes-rose-and-fell-with-u-s-migration-and-deportat

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/hunger-not-violence-fuels-guatemalan-migration-surge-us-says/2018/09/21/65c6a546-bdb3-11e8-be70-52bd11fe18af_story.html?utm_term=.401f716f1b71

https://www.npr.org/2018/09/19/649300559/a-guatemalan-village-tells-the-story-of-immigration-to-the-u-s

https://www.npr.org/2018/09/18/648903895/despite-dangers-intimidation-guatemalans-still-seek-a-better-life-in-u-s

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/30/us/migrant-children-tent-city-texas.html

https://www.stripes.com/news/us/faced-with-migration-crisis-us-border-chief-finds-no-easy-fix-in-central-america-1.549811

While Facing the Challenge of Her Life, Rebecca Gives Back!

Rebecca climbing Mt. Yale in 2017

 

Rebecca Cueto is a long-time supporter of Friendship Bridge, former employee, and campaigner for this year’s Health for Life Challenge!  What makes Rebecca’s campaign so inspiring is that she knows first-hand the importance of having healthcare access. In November of 2017 she was diagnosed with cancer, which then began the fight for her life. She had to quit her job with Friendship Bridge and devote every waking moment to beating her cancer. Now, less than a year later and nearly cancer-free Rebecca is challenging herself to support the Health for Life program for women in Guatemala! We asked Rebecca to share her story with us.

Friendship Bridge:  Rebecca, you are battling your own health issues right now. Why have you decided to support the Health for Life program with everything you are dealing with yourself?

Rebecca Cueto: In November 2017, I was diagnosed with acinar cell pancreatic cancer, caught early thanks to a visit to my Primary Care Physician (a.k.a., my Preventive Care Physician). I have been through chemo, radiation, surgery, and more chemo. I’ve had tremendous success (i.e., few or, hopefully, no cancer cells left in my body) thanks to the early diagnosis, plus the dedication, talent, and availability of my healthcare team. I am supporting Friendship Bridge and their Health for Life program because I can’t imagine what my condition would be had I not had access to health services early in the journey. My health goals this month are to be diligent in taking care of myself every day and to do what I can at this stage of the journey, so I’m helping myself while helping Friendship Bridge, too.

FB: How has your view of health changed since facing your own health crisis?

Rebecca with her Health for Life Challenge team in 2017

RC:  One can do everything they can to be healthy; however, there is no guarantee illness won’t strike. When I was diagnosed, I was in complete disbelief that this could happen. I’d always tried to take good care of myself. I climbed a 14er for last year’s Health for Life campaign! And now this year I’m doing simple physical therapy exercises. It’s quite humbling and can happen to anyone. Therefore, it’s extremely important not to take your health for granted. Yes, do everything you can to stay healthy, but enjoy life too.

FB:   What does women’s empowerment mean to you?

RC: I believe it’s vital for both women and men to be able to make their own decisions or at least have a say in what happens in the major areas of their lives, such as healthcare. Men typically have this power; however, women often do not. An empowered women is able to take control of what is going on in her life and have the confidence and authority to make decisions. It is a responsibility that requires education, dedication, and also support from significant others within the family and community who must recognize that women are capable and actually in the best position to make such decisions.

FB:  What message would you like to tell other campaigners and supporters of this Health for Life program?

Rebecca with Karen Larson, President and CEO of Friendship Bridge

RC: I worked for Friendship Bridge for five years and I know first hand how hard the entire staff works in order to create opportunities that empower the clients. The Health for Life program is highly successful and the clients love it! It helps the women take control of their healthcare through education on health topics and annual visits with a healthcare professional who comes to their village and speaks their language (overcoming two big hurdles for clients trying to access the Guatemalan health system). I am confident the funds raised through this campaign will be effectively spent to expand this highly impactful program to benefit more clients, which in turn helps their families as well. I feel great about donating to the program myself and have not been shy to ask others to do the same.

 

 

We want to thank Rebecca for all her incredible dedication to supporting Friendship Bridge and the women in Guatemala, even in the face of such difficult challenges. We wish her the best and many years of happiness and health!

If you would like to donate to Rebecca’s Health for Life campaign you can follow the link below.

Donate to Rebecca’s Campaign  

Giving Back: An Interview with our Guatemalan Intern Navith Caban

Navith Caban is a native of Guatemala, currently living in Miami, FL. She reached out to Friendship Bridge several months ago asking to join our team, and has since come on as our newest Social Media Intern! She is the first native Guatemalan to intern with us here in the United States. We recently sat down with her to get her story and learn about why she has chosen to work with Friendship Bridge.

(Friendship Bridge) “How old were you when you came to live in the US from Guatemala and how long have you lived here?”

(Navith Caban) “I had been visiting Miami since I was 7 years old after my father passed away, but we finally moved when I was 16 years old. I have been living in US for almost 13 years.”

(FB) “What was your first impression of the US compared to life in Guatemala?”

(NC) “Security was my first impression when I moved to US. In Guatemala it wasn’t so safe to travel around if you don’t have a car, and even then it’s a little dangerous. You would avoid wearing anything flashy when you would go to certain places. Don’t get me wrong Guatemala is a beautiful country and they have cleaned up a lot of the areas! The tourist areas are very important for the locals to increase their business traffic. The other thing that I remember and that I try to forget, is about the men being so disrespectful towards women. It is not surprising because we are still fighting for our rights around the world.” 

(FB) “What opportunities do you have here that you didn’t in Guatemala?”

(NC) “Freedom to do anything without looking over your shoulder. It took me a while to feel this empowered and to take more chances in life. Back in Guatemala it was more like following culture rules. I really believe that if I hadn’t moved to US my grandmother would have married me and my sister off at early age, because in her mind men provided. My grandmother was from Retalhuleu with no education because her mother put her to work at an early age.”

(FB) “What do you miss about Guatemala?”

(NC) “Even though I’m vegan now, I would definitely say I miss all the traditional foods (the ones I liked such as  ‘Pepian’ or ‘Jokon’) and my favorite fruit Green mango ‘mango verde’. The ‘mango verde’ is not like we see in every tree down here in Miami because the Guatemala mango is small and bitter. You can add anything to it from chilli, lemon, salt and Pepita (a grayish powder) made out of the pumpkin seeds.”

(FB) “How did you find out about Friendship Bridge?”

(NC) “I was looking for organizations about helping women grow emotionally and financially. I never thought I would find something close to my heart, my country, and about empowering women!” 

(FB) “What made you decide to work with Friendship Bridge?”

(NC) “The clients and their stories. I want to help them see that with a little bit of education greater goals can be reached. Any dream can be accomplished by working hard and smart. Women can be very strong and independent too.”

(FB) “What do you hope to see happen in Guatemala to give women more opportunities?”

(NC) “A safer way of transportation for women and children to help them reach their destinations. They need to be able to see more of Guatemala, not only their birth place. I was never able to really see Guatemala. The only place I remember to visit is Esquipulas, Antigua and San Lucas. My life was home to school, school to home. I would like to see more sexual health education too. Guatemala is a very religious country and sometimes this becomes a big problem in every teenager girl. I was raised by my grandmother because my mother had to work more after my father passed away. In my grandmother’s mind you couldn’t talk about the topic and you have to wait to have sexual relationships until marriage. I don’t blame her but I’m glad my private school offered a one time class for those who parents allowed them to attend it. I think is very important for every young girl to learn about their bodies and to be safe without being scared to talk about it.”

(FB) “What do you hope to gain personally working with Friendship Bridge as an intern?”

(NC) “I want to get in touch with my roots because writing about Guatemala brings back memories some good others not so much.”

(FB) “How will this help your personal and career goals?”

(NC) “My personal and career goals work together because I want to be able to get out of my comfort zone. I want to take more chances in life and learn from all theses women that started their businesses from nothing. I want to grow mentally and professionally.”

(FB) “Is there anything you would like US supporters of Friendship Bridge to know about us?”

(NC) “A little help can make a big difference in Guatemala! It’s a beautiful country and Friendship Bridge shows what they are capable of. The Guatemalan women are very hard workers and humble. Friendship Bridge wants to build more bridges between every women, together we are stronger than ever.”

We want to thank Navith for all her hard work and dedication, not only to Friendship Bridge, but to her country of Guatemala. It’s because of interns and volunteers like her Friendship Bridge is able to do the important work we do of creating opportunities that empower Guatemalan women to build a better life. If you are interested in becoming an intern or volunteer with us, please call us at (303) 674-0717, or email info@friendshipbridge.org.

Friendship Bridge Hosts It’s First Artisan Trunk Show

Elena has been a client with Friendship Bridge for 10 years. She is a Leader in Friendship Bridge’s Client Continuum and in the Advanced level of the Artisan Market Access Program. She has started to export her products to the US, and shares “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.”

Twenty three Friendship Bridge clients, such as Elena showcased their beautiful products on Wednesday, July 11 at the Ütz’Ipetïk Trunk Show hosted by Friendship Bridge in our central office in Panajachel, Guatemala. The show attracted 13 wholesale and retail companies. Nearly $2,000 (Q14,057) in products were sold during the event, with a possibility of another $1,352 (Q10,000) in orders. The event attracted several national and local press, including an article published in the country’s largest newspaper, Prensa Libre.  

Friendship Bridge currently serves over 4,000 artist and artisan clients. Through surveys and client research, many of these women have expressed the need to access new markets to sell their products and bolster their income. However, many of these artisans are isolated by language and geogra­phy, and many lack the business skills to thrive in the modern marketplace.

Started in 2015, Friendship Bridge’s Artisan Market Access Program provides our artist and artisan clients with trainings designed to ready them to access new markets –local, national, and international. Trainings focus on topics such as quality of raw materials, buyer expectations, and trends and preferences of the North American market. Clients are also trained about product pricing to ensure they receive a fair wage for their work.

Approximately 40 clients participate in the Artisan Market Access trainings each year as part of our Microcredit Plus program. Loan officers identify potential clients who have been segmented into Entrepreneur or Leader categories according to Friendship Bridge’s Client Continuum strategy. Intermediate, Advanced and Post-advanced clients of the Artisan Market Access program had the opportunity to display their items at Wednesday’s show. This event was organized as part of the Artisan Market Access training. We hope to make this an annual opportunity for clients who are eligible to participate in the annual trainings.

 

Addressing Climate Change Through Microcredit

by Kyra Coates and Marta Julia Ixtuc Cuc

 

In Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, the topic of climate change is on the lips of everyone. In recent years there has been a large increase in natural disasters, from excessive drought in the high regions of the country to excessive flooding and increase in average temperatures. In the rural areas many communities largely grow their own food through traditional farming methods passed down from generation to generation, yet in recent years many of these techniques no longer work and malnutrition and starvation are on the rise. While 88% of agricultural land in Guatemala is in large-scale farms typically growing food for export, 92% of all farms in Guatemala are small community or family farms. Crop losses have been between 50% – 90% across the board in the “dry corridor” region due to drought and irregular rainfall. According to a report from the United Nations, as of June 2016, 3.5 million people in the this region of Guatemala needed humanitarian assistance.

Coffee Rust, photo by Lauren Markham, The World Post

Coffee farms have been the backbone of much of the exports in the Agriculture industry, but in a recent years, a prolific fungus called coffee “rust” spread further and further into the highlands due to increasing heat. Between 2010 and 2014 alone coffee rust caused an estimated $500 million in damages to coffee harvests in Central America.

Guatemala only contributes 0.5% of carbon emissions on the planet, yet due to its landscape and location, is in the top ten countries most affected by climate change. Agriculture makes up 12% of the national economy. And for Friendship Bridge, approximately 25% of our clients are in agriculture of some kind.

Marco Monroy, Friendship Bridge’s Agriculture Program Manager, has said,  “As a result of the ecological imbalance, it is necessary (for our clients) to invest more in agricultural technology such as coverage greenhouses, drip irrigation systems, plant protection products, use of improved seeds, etc. This increases the cost of production.”

As Agriculture in Guatemala grows more volatile Friendship Bridge has developed training for our clients in our Women’s Agriculture Credit & Training program to address these increasing challenges to the industry. These training specifically address topics such as water and soil conservation, rational use of fertilizers and pesticides, cost of production, saving for unforeseen disasters, and general risk-mitigation. We employ several clients who have gone through advanced levels of training to create demonstration plots in their own farms. These women then give training to newer clients on how to use more modern technology and methods to create more sustainable crops.

Ana and her family

Ana is one such client. In 2016, she joined Friendship Bridge, attracted to its Women’s Agriculture & Credit Training program. Although Ana grew up on farms, she knew that there were new soil and crop management technologies that she needed to learn. About a quarter of farming families depend entirely on their crops as their livelihood, so adopting the latest techniques and improving yields could make a big difference. “No other organization cares this much about farmers because agriculture can be a risky business,” Ana explains. “Nevertheless, Friendship Bridge has chosen to support us.”

On Ana’s acres, agronomists have reserved one onion field for their growing techniques, while Ana follows her traditional know-how on another field. “With 1 pound of my seeds, I can only cultivate 1 acre,” she says. “With their new techniques, I can cultivate 3 acres.”

The Women’s Agriculture Credit & Training program just launched in November 2016, and so far the results are really positive. Between the implementation of the program and in April 2018, we have seen 70% of our Agriculture clients increase their growth activity and crop yield, and 45% of our clients have increased their business assets.

Friendship Bridge is also in the process of setting up an insurance program for our Agriculture clients that will protect them in the event of a natural disaster, such as earthquakes, drought, and excess rain and flooding. This type of insurance is called “Esfuerzo Seguro” and is a micro-insurance that pays out to clients based on the scale of the disaster. Almost no farmers in Guatemala have insurance for their business in the event of natural disasters, but once implemented, nearly 75% of Friendship Bridge’s Agriculture clients will be covered. Our goal is to implement this in the next few months.

As the planet continues to change, so too we must adapt. The technology exists to create a more sustainable world. We at Friendship Bridge have dedicated ourselves to give our clients the best tools for success available. And we couldn’t do it without our supporters like you!

For the months of June and July, our partner W4 (Women’s WorldWide Web) is running a campaign that will match dollar-for-dollar donations up to $25,000 to support our Advanced Training programs like our Women’s Agriculture Credit & Training program. This is a great opportunity to double your impact! Please follow the link below to donate, and thank you from us here at Friendship Bridge and our clients!

 

Donate to W4 Campaign References:  1. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/climate-change-coffee-guatemala_us_589dd223e4b094a129ea4ea2

2. https://www.giz.de/en/worldwide/28409.html

3. http://www.entremundos.org/revista/environment/climate-change/climate-change-in-guatemala/?lang=en

4. https://phys.org/news/2017-05-dying-guatemala-lake-underlines-climate.html

5. https://www.usaid.gov/guatemala/economic-growth

 

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.  

 

 

Marta Julia Ixtuc is the Communications Coordinator in Guatemala. Based in Sololá, she continues seeking to support the development of Guatemalan women in search of their own ways out of poverty.

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.”

An Update on the Volcanic Eruption In Guatemala

Dear Supporters,

On Sunday June 3rd, Volcano Fuego, located 25 miles Southwest of Guatemala City, had a massive eruption that has caused untold damage and taken many lives. This eruption has affected more than 1,700,000 people in the departments of Escuintla, Suchitepéquez and Chimaltenango.

Friendship Bridge serves over 2,400 clients in the regions that were affected by the eruption, and 477 clients in the municipalities of Yepocapa and Alotenango that were directly hit. We are relieved to announce that all of our staff, clients, and their families are safe and accounted for. Due to current heavy rains that are forecasted to last through the weekend, as well as continuous ash fall, there is a high health risk in these regions for respiratory issues, flash floods, and further eruptions. We have supplied our field staff with proper respiratory equipment for their safety as they continue to assess the damage and serve our clients.

Our clients in Yepocapa and Alotenango are experiencing major losses in their businesses. We are currently working to see how we can support these clients further to alleviate this financial hardship.

As many of you know, the people of Guatemala are an inspiration in how they treat community members as family through support and friendship. Their society is deeply rooted in this communal mindset. Therefore, it’s not surprising that our staff in Guatemala immediately mobilized to create relief efforts on the ground.  With their personal resources, they are purchasing supplies and delivering them to local shelters that are housing victims of the eruption. Many local staff will be volunteering their time at these shelters, as well. However, because Friendship Bridge is not a relief organization we encourage donations be sent to aid organizations with solid reputations that get the necessary funds and supplies into the hands that need them most. If you would like to donate to the relief efforts, please read this article by PBS which lists several options of well-vetted organizations. We will continue to vet aid organizations. Please follow us on social media to stay up-to-date.

PBS Article  

Thank you so much for the countless emails and calls we have received in concern of our staff and clients. In difficult times like these, I never fail to be inspired from the outpouring of support by our international community. We will continue to keep you updated on the relief efforts.

Karen Larson,

President and CEO

Before and after photos of the damage from the eruption

Before and after photos of the damage from the eruption

Marcela: From Poverty to International Entrepreneur

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.

Do you want to support Marcela directly? You can purchase her hand-woven dish towels as part of our 2018 Summer Collection!

Marcela’s Hand-Woven dish towels

 

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. 

You Try to Imagine

Indigenous Friendship Bridge Client
by Carolyn Chilton Casas
Dedicated to the indigenous women of Guatemala
You try to imagine, surviving thirty-six years,
the place you know as home
knife-rent with war, terror and fear.To conceive, from your comfy, cozy worldGuatemalan mother
having no rights as a woman,
birthing one child after another,
property used, abused by a man,
complying to survive, the constant
press of family, religion and tradition.

To grasp in your mind
no opportunity or hope for the future,
a dirt-floored shelter
where some days you can’t afford
more than beans and tortillas
to cook on the wood fire,
where you work tied to a loom
tethered to a tree or
in a cornfield with your child
bundled to the back of you
for a few quetzales each day.

You cannot –
take in how she struggles –
you cannot.

Empowered Indigenous Woman EntrepreneurAnd yet with just a tiny
hand up, so much can change –
skipping some morning stops for coffee
can provide a needed health exam or
foregoing a nice dinner out could offer
an elegant, ebony-haired woman,
in finely-woven, brightly-colored traje,
a sister, mother, grandmother really,
the support to initiate a livelihood, so she
can know her worth, be empowered,
use her intelligence and creativity
to weave a life she can take pride in.

With special thanks to Friendship Bridge and all who support the possibility of microloans

Carolyn Chilton Casas co-founded the Friendship Bridge Las Perlas del Mar circle on the CentralCoast of California, along with her friend, Lonna Crane in 2012.  With her husband, she operates a family agricultural business on the Central Coast of California as well as being a writer, a poet, an artist and a Reiki practitioner. She also raises funds for an organization in Nicaragua that supports children for their education. For a number of years, she volunteered for Flying Samaritan clinics in Mexico as an interpreter. 

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.  

Celebrating the Month of Microfinance

Women of Solola circle pay installments on their loans.

by Kyra Coates

April has been named “The Month of Microfinance” around the world, and seeing that Friendship Bridge’s core program is Microcredit Plus, we celebrate this month as a way to join  this grassroots movement to bring awareness to the global necessity and benefits of microfinance programs.

Worldwide microfinance products have a huge impact. In 2016 there were 132 million low income clients with microfinance loans, totaling approximately 102 billion dollars. The microfinance industry averages an almost 9.6% growth annually with the number of borrowers, and 9.4% growth annually with the lending portfolio.*

There are several different delivery models of microfinance. One lends directly to an individual, and typically charges high-interest rates and also requires some form of collateral to insure the loan. This is similar to if one went to a bank to get a car loan, however offered on a smaller scale.

Another type of microfinance is the ROSCA model, which stands for Rotating Savings and Credit Associations. In this model a group may come together to make monthly contributions to a common fund which is then given to another group member in one lump sum in cyclic rotations to each member throughout the group. After receiving the lump sum the member then pays back the amount with further monthly contributions to the lump sum with interest.

And then there is the Village Bank, or Trust Bank model, which is the model we offer our clients  here at Friendship Bridge. A community group of women come together to form a Trust Bank of 7 – 25 members, in which they essentially co-guarantee each individual member’s loans. If one member falls behind on payments the other members cover them until they can recover themselves financially and reimburse the group. This model also allows us to bring the groups together for informal education and health education sessions, allowing the group to grow together as professionals, strengthening not only individual knowledge but their joint community growth.

In many ways, Microfinance can be synonymous with Women’s Empowerment. As women around the world see a disproportionate level of poverty compared to men, the majority of recipients of microfinance loans are in fact women, with almost 98 percent of borrowers in Asia and some two thirds of clients in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. At Friendship Bridge we invest only in women as we have seen that statistically, women make larger contributions of financial gain back to their families and communities.

Further, we believe that giving women the opportunity to empower themselves also creates stronger social bonds within their communities and a brighter future for their children.

* Source:  Convergence, a Global Finance Network Group

Kyra Coates is the new 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.