Monday, February 21, 2011

Fair trade and indigenous women: Oxlajuj Batz

Everywhere one turns, it seems, there are NGOs and volunteer organizations and fair trade groups and cooperatives, many of them focused on women, especially indigenous women. In recent years there has been a spike in fair trade and foreign non-profit organizations working with indigenous women artisans. It makes sense, as Guatemala is well known for its hand woven textiles; "Maya weaving" is one of the "brands" that the national tourist agency, Inguat, uses to promote Guatemala. I write this not to in any way belittle the efforts of these groups or to minimize the crying need to address women's issues; the fact that only a tiny fraction of the violent crimes against women are ever prosecuted is just one index of the grave problems that women, and particularly rural women, face.  I myself am involved in some such efforts, although deeply aware of some of the contradictions. 

I will leave a fuller analysis or reflection upon the politics of handicrafts and fair trade for another time.  Some months ago, in the early phases of establishing a Mayan women's handicrafts association in New Bedford, I came across an organization based in Panajachel, Sololá, called Oxlajuj B'atz (thirteen threads).  When we were starting to brainstorm possible names for our group, one of the first names my Maya colleagues came up with was Oxlajuj B'atz (oxlajuj means thirteen in K'iche', but it is also used to refer to a large group or collective). So I started to search to see if the name was "available". I didn't find any corporation under that name registered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but I searched a bit farther and found a non-profit based in Guatemala that worked with a number of  women's handicrafts cooperatives in different parts of the highlands. We chose another name for our group (Oxib' B'atz: three threads) but I decided to write to Oxlajuj B'atz anyhow. I explained how I had come across their organization and also told them about our group, and mentioned that I would be in Guatemala in 2011.  A few months later I received a very friendly (and somewhat apologetic) reply from someone on their staff named Andrea, who invited me to contact them when I was in Guatemala. I started trying to call and email her shortly before I arrived, and after a few abortive attempts we finally spoke by phone and agreed that I would come down to visit them on Thursday, February 10.  

So, last week, after my usual Thursday morning yoga class in Antigua and some errands, I set off for Panajachel. This was my first trip to Lake Atitlán; previously I'd only seen it from a distance -- there is a "scenic view" spot along the Panamericana, called the Mirador de las Nubes (lookout point of the clouds) and I stopped there once on my first trip to Guatemala but I had never been to the lake itself.

The directions had me taking the highway to Los Encuentros -- a pretty ugly crossroads along the highway. There is actually a town and perhaps the town center is lovely but my only encounter with Los Encuentros is as the junction where there is a big green and white sign informing drivers that if you take the right fork, it will take you to Santa Cruz del Quiché and other points in Quiché; the left fork (which is really the continuation of the road) will take you to Quetzaltenango (also called Xela). The junction itself is crowded with buses and camionetas and trucks; passengers walk in the middle of the road, dispatchers or inspectors (not sure who they are but there are usually some people who seem to have clipboards or pads of paper walking around between the vehicles) circulate, some food vendors perambulate, and the whole thing is a bit of a mess.  I had always taken the turnoff for Quiché, but this time I stayed to the left and then looked for the turnoff to Sololá (the town right before Pana) and then for Panajachel. 

The road was narrow but only gentle curves and slopes until I reached Sololá and then it started to really wind down towards the lake. Sharp hairpin curves along cliffs, with the lake surface peeking through the trees to my right, a dizzying sight. No false moves here; a sloppy turn and you wind up doing something that looks like Thelma and Louise or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So I didn't really look at the lake much and certainly didn't stop to take pictures along the way (I did take photos -- just a few -- down in the town, along the lakefront).

I found my way through the town and turned onto Calle Santander, lined with stalls selling handicrafts, jewelry, and also storefront boutiques. There looked to be a few businesses that would be of interest to locals, but a lot of cafés, restaurants, and also, a number of shops designed to appeal to tourists of good conscience, promising that the proceeds of the tour or the sales would go to benefit women or children or families. The pedestrians walking along the street were a mixed lot: mostly foreigners, split pretty evenly between three groups: young people (with their fair share of tattoos, piercings, dreads, gauzy skirts); and then two groups of not-so-young. One seemed to be more well-heeled vacationers or retirees, and the other, solidarity tourists or volunteers (distinguished by their clothing, body language, hair styles). I overshot the corner where Andrea had said she would be but since we both had cell phones we quickly found each other and she guided me through the one way streets around the block to the building that Oxlajuj B'atz occupies.

Andrea explained that they had fairly recently moved into this building which is very centrally located. The building, which is over 100 years old, was purchased by a Dutch expatriate who is renovating it for varied uses. There will be two rental apartments; a restaurant; some other areas that have not been defined. Oxlajuj B'atz has a storefront, where they sell the good produced by the various cooperatives with which they work, and office and meeting space upstairs. Andrea explained that the store serves as a training site as much as a revenue-generating enterprise; they don't really expect the store to generate a steady revenue stream but women can gain experience in sales that can perhaps lead to jobs in the future.  I didn't really look at the store closely until after I had gone upstairs to meet and then outside to walk around, so I will more or less write this "in order". 

After giving me a tour, including the patio out back where they will be doing weaving demonstrations, Andrea took me to the conference room and heated some water for tea and explained the history of the organization. This non-profit was founded by some folks from the states, who worked with other non-profits that did work in Maya communities, and then it became autonomous, although it still uses the Maya Educational Foundation as its fiscal sponsor.  The cooperatives with which it works are in over a dozen communities, spread throughout 7 departments. Some of the cooperatives are quite seasoned; the one member cooperative that is located in Quiché has been in existence for 25 years, and many of the current members are daughters of the original founders.

There is a staff person who visits the cooperatives regularly, and the women come into Panajachel (I'm not sure with what frequency; probably depends upon the cooperative and how far it is from Pana) to bring the finished goods to place at the store. In addition, there are workshops and training sessions: for example, on women's rights, conflict resolution, leadership, organizational structure. The central office tries to provide support for the cooperatives (that is, helping them figure out effective ways of running themselves) and markets their goods while trying to keep them from being dependent on the central office (i.e. "you tell us what to do and we'll do it.").  

She gave me a few brochures, apologizing that they were in Spanish; I explained that they would be useful since I could give them to the women in Oxib' B'atz' in Guatemala and in New Bedford. She also printed out a copy of their strategic plan for the next five years, which I have to admit I haven't had time to read (I have several hours in airports and on planes next week, so plenty of time for reading).

I mentioned that I wanted to find a way for the women in Tapesquillo -- the Guatemalan contingent of Oxib' B'atz' -- to meet some of the more established cooperatives. While Adrian, my colleague back in New Bedford, is very concerned about the group, both in New Bedford and in Guatemala, maintaining its autonomy and "doing its own thing", the women in Tapesquillo have almost no organizational experience. Maybe the "almost" is being generous. I'm not interested in having them follow someone else's blueprint, but I think it would help them to see another group that is up and running, and to be able to talk to some other women who are in circumstances similar to theirs -- living in isolated rural communities with little in the way of jobs or education -- and perhaps gain some confidence (as well as pick up some useful tips). Otherwise I fear that I'd have to help jump start them (and I still might decide to do some workshops on organization for them), or they would just sit around and wait for Adrian or someone to tell them what to do next.

Andrea told me that there was an international women's day activity planned on the Saturday prior to March 8 -- the women from the different cooperatives would be coming to Panajachel and doing weaving demonstrations in the courtyard. The women from Tapesquillo were welcome to come, and this way they could meet a lot of the groups and also see the entire set up. I said I'd speak with them, and also expressed an interest in having them meet directly with one of the longer-running cooperatives since I imagined that at a public event with a lot of people there might not be a chance to really have a focused conversation. So we agreed that I would stop in some Tuesday when they have a staff meeting and then get put in contact with the group in Quiché.

Andrea told me that there was a lot of pretty overt racism in the town. Most of the population of the town center is Ladino and foreigners (tourists and expats), and the indigenous people live in the surrounding areas. They of course come into the town center to take advantage of the presence of tourists.  fair amount of resentment in the town 

I wanted to take a look at the lake and the view, so I made my way back to Santander and walked away from the center, down towards the water, past more stores and vendors and tourists. Many of the vendors -- it was nearly 5 -- looked as though they had just about run out of steam; some were clustered on the ground near their stands talking, but were unwilling to pack up in case they got some sales. 

Once I got to the lake, I noticed that there were as many Guatemalan tourists as there were foreign visitors (Andrea, who lives in Pana, had told me that it was a popular site with Guatemalans and my limited experience bore that out). A few young couples embracing; a few groups of young men looking at the view and taking photographs of it and themselves.  The sky changed every few minutes, clouds and mist circling around the mountains. I would have stayed longer but I was anxious about reaching Los Encuentros before dark (it gets dark very quickly in the mountains: long twilight and then poof! black sky). I thought I could probably maneuver the road from Los Encuentros to Chinique in the dark if necessary (and yes, I did, although it was very slow going with all the hairpin turns and lack of lighting or reflectors).

Back at the shop, I tried to resist the temptation to buy out half the stock. Each item had a small tag (they are all identical in size and basic design) that opens to a bilingual (Spanish and English) description of the cooperative from which item had come (the individual artisan was not always named).   Here, for example, is the text on the tag for a maroon cotton scarf I bought (the scarf has a slit so that you can slip one side through, depending upon how you want to arrange it).  
Waqxaqi Kan means "the 8th Weaving Day" in our language, Kaqchikel. The group was formed in 1985 by 6 women widowed from the Guatemalan civil war remaining alone to raise our children. We got organized and started looking for opportunities to be available to help our families through our ability to weave. Now we are 20 women working with a variety of handicrafts.

There was a space to write the name (but it was blank on this particular scarf). In addition to handwoven scarves, table runners, place mats, and bedspreads, there were also small purses and wallets, and some notebooks that were bound in handwoven cloth.  There were some sewn handbags, and also some other items: fair trade coffee (but no dark roast, so I didn't buy it); chocolate balls for making hot chocolate; some ceramics; some artisanal-made shampoos, and a few DVDs and calendars.

When I was able to tell the women in Tapesquillo about this, they were excited about the idea of taking a trip to Panajachel. Because of poverty and lack of transportation, they don't get to go to many places, and they are envious of my mobility. Since none of the three women who have been most interested in the project has a partner at the moment (two are single mothers, the other is just single) they joked about looking for novios (boyfriends) in Panajachel.  Their mother/mother in law -- two of the women are sisters and one is their sister in law -- joined in the merriment and said she wanted to come too,  and look for a new husband (her husband was in the room but not paying much attention to our conversation).

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