Embroidery in Progress

I work with incredibly talented and resilient women – like Natalia, one of best embroiderers. She lives in Chuk Muk – a government subsidized town built after many indigenous people were forced to leave their ancestral lands in the neighborhood of Panabaj due to Hurricane Stan and the mudslide in 2005. The neighborhood, Chuk Muk, is quite a distance from our town’s center, and consists of row upon row of concrete block houses, most of them without electricity and scarcely any furniture. Natalia lives in one of these houses with six siblings and her father. Her embroidery work helps to support this large family. She generally works in a small room at the front of house, chatting and laughing with one of her sisters while she embroiders by daylight, sitting in a plastic lawn chair – the only piece of furniture in the room.

Natalia works quickly and with remarkable detail – mastering the most complicated and intricate of designs easily. She has a quick mind, easily grasping the many details that go into producing custom embroidery work – the thread colors for each line of the design, the exact dimensions, how to orient it on the fabric. But she also works well when given a bit of creative freedom – having the opportunity to create her own designs and choose her own colors.

Recently, we had a custom order that was perfect for Natalia – a mixture of intricate detail with creative liberty. Another local here in Santiago Atitlan who has studied Mayan glyphs in depth requested embroidery work for a few scarves. He had drawn the designs, which tell stories of Mayan deities, and selected a color palette. All he needed was a skilled embroiderer who could use her eye for design to select the specific colors for each image and/or glyph, and Natalia is just the person.

This piece is still in progress, but the work already completed here was done by Natalia in just a few days’ time. I can only imagine how stunning the finished item will be!



Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at my co-worker Dolores’ house at 3pm for a meeting we had called with the women in the artisan collective – Just Apparel. Now that I’ve visited Dolores’ house 3 times, I am able to find my way there through the winding streets on my own, without her having to escort me. Houses here are often tucked away behind clusters of other houses, down dirt trails that sometimes dead-end into someone’s doorway, or around corners that would otherwise go unnoticed. To get to Dolores’ house, I turn left down a dirt path next to a large pile of rocks, pass the front yard of a squat pink house where a man is outside chopping wood, go around a corner and down a path that is open to two other houses, pass an outdoor kitchen and bathroom, and finally arrive at Dolores’ stairs.  I ring the bell and climb to the second story where Dolores lives with her husband, Juan, and two young sons. The house is a beautiful shade of blue with a lovely view of the lake out its two windows; but each time I’m there, I can’t help but notice how small a space it is for four people to share – it is one large room with a small entryway, one queen sized bed where the whole family sleeps, two small desks pushed against a wall, a dresser with a TV, one bathroom.

Dolores and Juan have been together 14 years, since Dolores was 16, and they’ve been married for 8. Dolores, of course, works with Natik and also runs a laundry business. Juan has a job as a waiter at a local restaurant (owned by extranjeros) and also helps Dolores with her work on his days off. The two of them raise their sons together, with the help of both of their families. Juan’s mother lives below them and Dolores’s family lives in town closeby.

I was greeted by Juan with a kiss on the cheek as I entered the apartment. Dolores had gone to the market to buy more colored thread for the custom order we were working on with the women of Just Apparel. Juan and I passed the time talking, learning a bit about each other as we waited for Dolores and the Just Apparel women to arrive. Twenty minutes or so later, Dolores came in with three bags of beautifully colored thread. The man in the market didn’t have the thread organized or boxed by color, so she had to wait for him to find each color, one by one, which took much longer than she had expected. On top of that, he did not have available 6 of the 24 colors we needed for the order, which presented a challenge.

Although we had told the women to arrive around 3pm that afternoon, by 4pm, still none had shown up. This week is Santiago’s annual feria, a town festival similar to a county fair, and the big parade had taken place that morning, from 7am until noon. Many of the women had children marching in the parade, the town was bustling with spectators, and for most people, the day is considered somewhat of a holiday. In addition to the bad timing in that regard, most of the women live in a distant community called ChukMuk and have to wait for a flete (pick-up truck that functions as public transportation system with people piling into the back) to bring them into town. I was beginning to get worried at their tardiness, but Dolores took it in stride, which calmed my nerves a bit. I trusted they would show up when they could.

And they did. Soon, three of the women arrived, followed eventually by 6 more, and we went up to Dolores’ rooftop to discuss the order with them. The purpose of the meeting was to explain everything involved in the work ahead for the order – the quantity of each design that was needed, which colors to use for each part of the embroidery, how to orient it on the fabric, the exact dimensions for each piece. Dolores would communicate all of this to the women in their native tongue – Tzu’tujil – checking in with me in Spanish to ensure that everything was correct, based on my knowledge of the order that was placed in English. A lot of coordination goes into facilitating fair trade custom orders between other parts of the world and the Tzu’tujil women of Just Apparel in Guatemala, and this was the moment we had been working toward – when the women would be given their assigned work and equitable wages.

As we waited for the women to slowly arrive, and as the meeting went on, I was able to observe how these women I will be working with for the next year interact with one another. Although we don’t speak a common language so I can’t communicate with them directly or understand the conversations they have amongst themselves, simply being in their presence and being exposed to their personalities a bit gave me a great feeling of warmth, purpose, and admiration. These women are incredible. They live hard lives, often as the only caretakers for their children, earning very little money, doing back-breaking work for very little pay, if any work is available. They carry the work of maintaining a household in a developing country where electronic luxuries are either unavailable or unaffordable. They have experienced great traumas, many of them having lost loved ones or their homes in the 2005 mudslide, grown up in extreme poverty, or lost children to preventable diseases. They have experienced oppression in their native land because of the racial, ethnic, and class divisions that persist between the indigenous communities and the general Guatemalan population.

Despite all of this that I held in the back of my mind as I sat with them on the rooftop, they never seem to stop smiling. They tell funny stories and jokes to each other as they work. They ask a lot of questions and work things out amongst themselves. They help, support, and guide one another. They show respect for each other. And they accepted me. They marveled at and inquired about my tattoos and my “Monroe” piercing – a very rare sight in Santiago Atitlan, especially on a woman. They attempted to communicate with me, through gestures and facial expressions. They all had a good laugh at me (and with me) when I tried to bundle thread into smaller quantities the way they do, and failed miserably with each attempt. They make it look so easy, but somehow, I couldn’t tie it in quite the right way – and while we all found this pretty humorous, when I failed, they were quick to help me, to show me, to let me try again. (I still failed – they really do it much better, and one of these days, I’ll figure it out.)

Being with them was a humbling experience in a welcome way. I know that there is much I can learn from these women, and perhaps a little they can learn from me as well. Although our lives up to this point have been so very different, and the privileges I possess as a white and U.S.-born woman certainly separate us, we are able to find connection. We are able to share with one another.

As I interacted with these women in what limited ways I could, observed their group dynamics, and reflected on all of this, there was a distinct moment when I thought to myself: this is why I’m here, this is where I want to be, this is what I choose to do.


An example of the custom embroidery work the women of Just Apparel will be completing over the next couple of days.


Juana is a widow who lives in the impoverished community of San Antonio Chakaya, here in Santiago. She is one of 25 women in the Ropa Justa (Just Apparel) fair-trade cooperative. It takes Juana about one hour to complete each of the pictorial designs on the textile she is working on here. In total, this piece will equate to at least 60 hours, or about two weeks, of work. An item like this can normally be sold locally for 40 Quetzales, which is just $5. When these handmade textiles are able to be sold for fair trade prices in U.S. markets, the profits are much greater, allowing women like Juana to earn more livable wages for their tedious work and long hours. Juana does this work to support her family, which includes two sons and two orphaned children.