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!
My coworker, Dolores, and I are speaking to two Mayan midwives, as Dolores’ two sons, Juan Martin and Gaspar, take in the sights and scents of a medicinal herb garden with her husband, Juan. “You’ll notice that there are not many pharmacies in this town,” one of the midwives tells us, “This is because people here are more accustomed to using natural healing methods. They come here to our garden, or go to the midwife’s house, describe their ailment or illness, and ask for a natural remedy.”
These midwives are two women who make up the Qomaneel collective in San Juan La Laguna, and they are talking to us in their demonstration garden at the top of a hill. There are 18 other midwives in their collective, and each has her own medicinal herb garden at her home. They grow many different plants that they brew into teas, crush into powders, make into soaps and salves and oils. In the tienda attached to the garden, each item is labeled with a description of its health benefits, the types of pains and problems it can relieve, and directions for preparation and dosage. They have concoctions to treat everything from indigestion and sore throats to headaches and difficulties with lactation.
The midwives show us around the demonstration garden, encouraging us to smell and touch the traditional plants they are growing, allowing us to chew sweet stevia leaves that taste just like sugar, and breaking off for us a floriposa flower that helps you sleep when placed under your pillow. They are delighted to share their experiences and wisdom with us, and Dolores and I are glad to find that they are open to our idea of offering a training workshop to the 25 women in our fair-trade artisan collective.
Those 25 women are the reason we traveled across the lake to San Juan today – to seek inspiration and ideas for professional development and expanded economic opportunity for our collective. And San Juan was the right place to visit. In addition to the Qomaneel medicinal garden, we came with the purpose of talking to the women who make up San Juan’s many artisan collectives, which are distinguished from others around the lake by their unique colors made from traditional natural dyes, and their high level of organization as independent and collectively-owned and operated groups.
As we walk down the street out of the Qomaneel Center, we do notice a striking lack of pharmacies as compared to other towns around the lake. We stop to take in some of the town’s striking murals, and linger by the charming town square. But mostly, we cannot take our eyes off of the beautifully colored textiles hanging in store windows. We go in to many of these stores for a closer look, marveling at the soft, pastel colors, only achievable by the delicate and ancient process of dying one’s own thread. We have many conversations with the store attendants, usually one of the women who make up the collective – each one proud to tell us about her collective, its mission and purpose, how it was founded. We ask about their hand-dying process and are shown some examples of the natural materials used, we inquire about workshops or trainings and find some promising leads.
All in all, we spent only a few hours in this charming town, wandering the streets with Dolores’ beautiful family – her young sons’ laughter and playfulness making the day even brighter – but we left full of inspiration and ideas, happy to have spent the day together experiencing a new place, and ready to plan our next venture!
Interested in learning more about the social, psychological, and economic impacts of fair trade? Read this article!