Friday, February 19, 2016

Guatemala: Feb 4 and 5: Visiting basket makers, butterfly weaving artesans, and Ixchel Museum

Our trip to visit Guatemalan artisans continues.  Our first stop on Thursday morning was to a group which is under the Mayan Hands umbrella. Mayan Hands was founded about 25 years ago in 1989 by a Jewish woman named Brenda Rosenbaum who grew up in Guatemala.  You can watch an amazing video on YouTube about Mayan Hands and Brenda Rosenbaum by clicking on her name. The group now works with over 200 Mayan women weavers.

Brenda joined us on our van for the visit.  While traveling, she told us how she  had gotten involved with Mayan women artisans.

Brenda's grandfather was one of the founders of the Sephardic synagogue  Templo Israelita Maguen David in the 1920s in downtown Guatemala City.  Brenda grew up in Guatemala and always respected the Mayan women who showed their heritage in their clothing even though they were looked down upon. Brenda was always fascinated by the indigenous textiles, so she studied anthropology in college and did lots of field research in the Mayan towns in Guatemala.  She and her family left Guatemala in the mid 1980s when the violence in Guatemala City during the civil war escalated. They went to Albany, NY, where she got a doctorate in Anthropology.  In 1990 with the support of her husband, she started Mayan Hands to find a way to help the Guatemalan women sell their products at a fair price outside of that country.  She started working with groups who had connections with water or roof projects, and has continued working with some of the groups for the 25 years.  She sells their items on the web and also at handicraft fairs in the Albany area.  Before the December holidays, she goes to 30 different fairs.  She also goes to Fair Trade meetings to display the wonderful products of the Mayan Hands women.

Brenda also showed us matzah covers that another group made.  The one in the picture below was to be a donation from her to the Reform Jewish group in Guatemala City, and Ilana delivered it on Shabbat.  The other one was in vibrant shades of purple and was bought by Marcy for our joint mishpacha!

As we approached the place where the Xeabaj group met, we saw a few people walking on the road, some homes, and some small farms next to them.

The group that we visited has worked with Brenda and Mayan Hands for 25 years.  They used to embroider T Shirts, but the market fell in the early 2000s and the women made very little money.  A friend of Brenda's, Michele Hament, an artist from San Francisco, came to Guatemala for 3 or 4 days about eight years ago and and taught the women the basic art of pine needle basketry. Three months after her visit, the women sent Michele samples and she was astounded to see that they used her teaching as a base and then "Mayanized" the baskets.  They make a very special kind, and they have been very successful in selling them.

Now four different groups make the baskets for Mayan Hands (the fourth group has recently been added), and they are very successful.  Not all women weavers are willing to change, but these were in order to have a better chance of making more money, and they have succeeded in making very specialized baskets.

The group is from Xeabaj.  Their leader is Gloria. She assists the group's board of directors and guides the women about group organization and the responsibilities of the board members.  She also teaches the techniques to the new women.   Gloria went to the United States representing her group and Mayan Hands twice.  The first time she went for a weavers' conference in Colorado.  She gave a presentation of the different that Fair Trade makes in the lives of the Guatemalan artisans and also demonstrated how pine needle baskets are made.    A few years later she was invited to participate in a tour organized by Fair Trade Towns and Fair Trade Colleges and Universities.  She visited universities, fair trade stores, and specific venues, where she gave presentations about Fair Trade and talked about the experiences of artisans in her community.

Gloria told us that she loves to have visitors from outside of Guatemala as it makes the artists feel good about their work.  Nineteen women work with her.  They work at home but get together weekly. Gloria walks 25 minutes and has the farthest to walk to get to the weekly gathering. Everyone knows how to do all the basket designs.

It is hard to estimate what they earn a month from the basket making but it is probably about $170 to $200 a month.  Most work part time (four to six hours a day), as they balance their home and family responsibilities with their work.  Because these women make significant cash contributions to their families, they gain respect in their families and in their communities, and have more leverage. The husband of one of the women even works with her!

Mayan Hands works with eleven different groups.  Four of the groups make baskets; one mainly works with felted wool; one crochets; and five are weavers.

I cannot put the pictures of the beautiful baskets on the blog as the women asked that we not do so. They are concerned that others may copy their designs.  You can see see some of the baskets and purchase them, however, on the Mayan Hands website.
Yolanda works on baskets 7-8 hours a day.
They are extremely grateful to Dona Brenda for selling their baskets outside of the country.  They had not had a visit from Brenda in five years, so this visit by Brenda was a real honor for them.
Brenda on the left, listening to each woman introduce herself
Group officers are elected for a three-year term.  The current president is Maria Baran.  She spoke to us in Kakchekel.

 The women meet weekly on Tuesday to see each others' work  and to dye raffia, They use RIT dye!.
A wood stove to heat water to dye the material
Dyed raffia
They also meet for social events. The president of the group organizes such events and is in charge of the delivery of items to the office.

Nancy, a local staff member of Mayan Hands based in Panajachel, visits the women regularly to see their work and see if they have any needs.  For example, several years ago, several women had eye problems.  They all had eye exams with the help of the Mayan Hands staff (and continue to do so on a regular basis) and several got prescription glasses.    Another time some of the women were having problems with their hands,  Mayan Hands staff consulted with their friend, Dr. Kate Colwell from San Francisco, and she volunteered to come down to visit and diagnose the problem.   She taught the women exercises and different ways to hold the materials to minimize the stress to their tendons and outfitted some of them with braces, all of which was quite helpful.

In the three-month season, the women travel together three-times a week to collect pine needles. They leave at 5 a.m. to arrive at their first site at 6 or 7 a.m. to gather the fallen pine needles.  They rent a truck to go to several places.  They then clean and dry the needles and store them in cardboard boxes. They need to collect a lot of pine needles so they often hire others to go with them, and provide their food and pay them a stipend.   A large square basket takes 1.25 pounds of pine needles, takes 22 hours to make..

The Mayan Hands basket weaving groups have not made any new designs this past year as they barely could keep up with the demand for the designs they did have.  However, Mayan Hands is holding a competition for the groups that are making baskets for new designs.  The group turned in a number of baskets to Brenda and Nancy during this visit, and we are all excited to find out about the winners!!

It was a bit cold this morning, so the little boy below was bundled up warmly!

I bought several baskets from this young woman.  When our group saw some of the tiny ones they were making, we immediately thought they could be used for Havdalah spice boxes.  And the smell from the pine needles would combine with the smell of the spices!  We also realized that they could be used for hold earrings at night, for hearing aids, and, if they were a bit bigger, for the loose change men are always taking out of their pockets. Several of us bought bigger ones to hold the different TV controls, and some of the baskets were purchased to hold challahs.
Betsy bought a large, stunning basket made by the woman below.

The women can recognize which person had made each basket, even if the basket is not labeled.  We were astounded!  Also, they were quite good at math and worked quickly to add up what we owed for our lovely purchases.

Guatemala initiated a 5% tax about three years ago on work by small producers that is exported,  So even though this group is a non-profit, they have had to pay the tax.  Mayan Hands has paid a significant amount in taxes the past three years.

My little stuffed doggie Maya fit perfectly into one of the baskets that I bought.

As we were traveling to our next destination, Ilana talked about how Fair Trade Judaica began.
In 2003, she and her husband David went to Nepal on their honeymoon.  Their guidebook led them to a fair trade store.  When they walked in, they saw flyers on fair trade goals, and were immediately interested.  Ilana saw a beautiful shawl there that she thought could be made into a tallit, but unfortunately it was too big for her.  The store worker offered to have the artisan make it in a smaller size, and it would be ready for her when the two newlyweds returned form their trip.  She got the beautiful item on returning to the store with a lovely note from the maker.

She and her husband saw Nepal Tibetan prayer flags and wondered if a Jewish version could be made.  She got permission from a lama to have them made as long as their symbols were not used.  The Jewish prayer flags became the first product of Fair Trade Judaica.  She first demonstrated them in the San Francisco area, and the Judaica store owners there were excited by the items.

Ilana also wondered what other fair trade Judaica products were sold, so she soon discovered MayaWorks and Mayan Hands.  She created the Fair Trade Judaica website as a clearing house for such products.  When one clicks on a product of MayaWorks of Mayan Hands, the reader is sent directly to that NGO's website. Some other items are sold directly by Fair Trade Judaica including a beautiful wooden Yad made in Bali  and a gorgeous wire and bead yad from South Africa (in a variety of colors) by groups  that does not wholesale products internationally. One rabbi is already giving the wooden Yads to b'nai mitzvah youth in his synagogue.  Fair Trade chocolate that is kosher for Passover also on the website.

Ilana is the unpaid, volunteer staffer for Fair Trade Judaica and works 24/6 for the group, resting  on Shabbat.  Since 2009, the items they sell are stored in part of their home in the Bay Area.  If you are interested in learning more about the group, please sign up for the newsletter on its website by clicking on the name of the group at the top of this paragraph, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for the newsletter.

By the way, Fair Trade Shabbat is the second Shabbat in May.  Maybe your synagogue can find a way to participate!

Israel does not have a Fair Trade organization yet.  It would need to have 15 FT groups to have the umbrella organization.   The only Fair Trade place in Israel that Ilana knows of to date is Sindyanna. I will try to visit it when I am next in Israel and just emailed the group.

On Friday morning we met Cindy Schneider, the founder of Nueva Generation and Soraya, one of the staffers in Guatemala. 
Cindy on the left and Soraya on the right
Cindy is from North Carolina and active in Temple Beth Or in Raleigh.  About ten years ago, she was a chaperone for a trip her daughter took with fellow high school students to Guatemala.  After spending a day meeting Mayan families in rural Guatemala, she had trouble falling asleep in her warm hotel room because she knew that one family of eight was huddled on the dirt floor of their one-room home without any blankets that cold night.  She couldn't pretend that she hadn't seen the way that they lived and knew she had to do something.  

So after several more trips to Guatemala and learning about the Mayan culture, she realized that many children could not go to school.  Though public school is free, there are costs for shoes, uniforms, and supplies, and without them, the children are turned away.  When a large, poor family struggles to survive on $2 a day, there is no money for these extra school costs.  So Cindy started the Nueva Generacion NGO to help poor indigenous Guatemalan families.  She enlisted members of her synagogue to help.  At first forty children were scholarshiped but the number now has grown to 150. Sponsorship of a student in elementary school is $200  a year, and 100% of the money is used on the school needs of each child.  All US administration is voluntary/pro bono.  If money is left at the end of the year, it is carried over to the next year.

Cindy's synagogue recently received the Union for Reform Judaism Consultation on Conscience Award for its involvement with Nueva Generacion and her efforts.  Cindy also brings groups to volunteer during winter break, especially family groups.  She also connects with weavers and helps sell products that they make.  She is yet to be Fair Trade certified as her group is so small, but her goals are in line with basic Fair Trade principles.    

One person from our group immediately gave Cindy a check for $200 to sponsor a child, and four others are also doing so.    Cindy has seen how these sponsorships not only change a child's life but also change that of the family.  She is very proud to see the first few youth who have been sponsored over the years graduate from high school and are able to teach, work in accounting, or have other marketable skills.

Cindy took us to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a town known for having the most talented weavers in Guatemala.  It is about 15 minutes from Antigua.  

We first went to the home of the Lopez sisters.  Four daughters and their mother live together and are well known in town for their quality weaving.    Nueva Generacion is sponsoring four children in that household.  After seeing some of their weaving, they served us watermelon and made tortillas.  Some of us tried to make tortillas too and it was hard, to gently flatten and round them and keep them for tearing!
Pamela and I were working hard

Ziva doggie enjoyed sniffing the tortillas
We next went to visit Carolina, one of the most talented weavers in this town. She has sold items to the national museum in Guatemala City.  Carolina weaves two different designs at the same time, one on top and one on the bottom.  It is stunningly beautiful!

A picture of Cindy with Carolina--Carolina is serving us tea

I bought the huipil above to wear at presentations.  The young woman next to me made it.   Huipiles used to be more geometric but more and more have flowers and birds on them, especially when birds and flowers are common in an area.

Maya liked the huipil and thought it matched her kippah nicely!

Betsy bought a stunning wall hanging with two quetzales, the national bird of Guatemala on it.  Here she is pictured with the woman who made it.

I wish we had more time to spend here and to understand how Carolina can make such beautiful designs.

We then drove to Guatemala City, had a huge kosher lunch with Chabad, and then visited the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Clothing in Guatemala City.   The museum is named for the Mayan goddess of fertility.  The museum has over 700 older Mayan items of clothing from all over Guatemala.  I paid about $3.50 for permission to take pictures inside the museum.  We watched an excellent movie about ten minutes long when we first entered the museum.

Traditional huipiles worn by women generally identify the indigenous group and the community of the wearer as each has its own design for both weaving and embroidery.  The movie we watched explained how certain huipil designs of the Maya got started.  With the Spanish conquest of the Maya, the Spanish soldiers were given groups of Mayans as serfs.  Depending on their rank and service, they were given 100, 200, or 300 and more.  If they were given 300, they had to move to a new area and create a new town.  In order to distinguish the people in a group under a Spaniard, each group had to create a special design for clothing that all the people under a soldier would wear.  At one point (I think prior to the Spanish conquest), women wore long blouses and only the higher class wore huipiles.

There was an amazing chart in the museum. of the different huipiles worn in the different areas of Guatemala.    I am not sure if you can read any of the details of it but it gives you an idea of the extent of the different huipiles!

Here are close ups of some of the panels.
 The word huipil comes from the Nahuatl word huipilli, meaning "my covering."  In several Mayan languages it is also called po't, hence the name of the store in Antigua, Nim Po't. The huipil was a garment of several ethnic groups in Mesoamerica before the arrial of the Spanish.  Each huipil is unique, though similar to others from the same town.  It reflects the tastes and skill of the weaver or embroiderer, some of whom include a personal signature that identifies the artist.

The map above coordinates with the chart showing the pictures of 117 different regional huipiles.
Enjoy the pictures below and brief explanations.

Notice the head covering in the photo above. In Mayan culture, headdresses showed social and religious standing.  They were also shown on figurines.  Complicated styles have slowly disappeared and they have been used less and less, though some are still worn and can be traced back to pre-Hispanic times.

An amazing ribbon used as a hat, wound around the head. 
Pre-Hispanic Maya probably had a wide variety of natural dyes.  The picture below shows some of the sources of the dyes.  In later times, six main natural colors were used and nowadays with modern dyes, over 20 main colors are used.

The museum also showed different styles of weaving that the Mayan used and continue to use today.  I didn't take a picture of a backstrap loom as we saw many women demonstrate them for us.
The su't, a ceremonial or utility cloth, also reveals the culture and origin of its wearers.  It is used a lot today, including when it is shaped to fit on top of a woman's head when she carries a basket on her head.  It can be used to carry or cover goods, a baby, food, other items, or as a shawl or napkin.  It is made from one or two panels, often connected by a decorative seam.

There were many huipiles on display but were hard to photograph because of the glare from the glass and low light.  Here are some for you to enjoy!
 Above:  a ceremonial huipil from around 1920 form Santa Lucia Utatian, Solala.  Two panels are  woven on a foot loom and then sewn together.  Lace was applied to the collar and sleeves.

 A huipil and matching corte (skirt)