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Supporting Indigenous Artisans in Guatemala

Rachel Bloombaum, Artisan Project Consultant for our partner Friendship Bridge, shares Jacinta's story in our newest blog. 

August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. About 40 percent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, and the vast majority belong to one of 23 Mayan groups. From 1960-1996 these indigenous groups suffered under Guatemala’s brutal civil war, and since the signing of the peace accord in 1996, they have experienced little economic, social, or political progress. Indigenous women in particular continue to face discrimination and violence both within the home and outside of it, which severely limits their educational and economic opportunities. By empowering indigenous Mayan women, Friendship Bridge is helping them create their own solutions to poverty - for themselves, their children, and their communities.


Friendship Bridge works to empower indigenous women through microfinance, education, and health services. We serve over 22,000 clients, of which over 4,000 are artisans. Many of these artisans 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. Friendship Bridge’s Artisan Market Access Program provides artisans with trainings designed to ready them to access new markets. Training focuses on topics such as quality of raw materials, buyer expectations, and tastes and preferences of the North American market. Artisans are also trained about product pricing to ensure they receive a fair wage for their work.

Traditional Mayan huipiles

Huipiles (pronounced we-PEEL-ays), the traditional blouses still made and worn by Mayan women in parts of Guatemala and Mexico, are a 600-year- old tradition. Today, the women of the highlands of Guatemala and parts of Central Mexico continue to keep these traditions alive in their daily dress. Typically woven on a backstrap loom, each locality has its own traditional huipil design. As you travel from village to village, the differences in colors, patterns, and decorative techniques are striking. Garment construction can also vary: some huipiles have a central seam and others have a central panel flanked by 2 side panels; in a few areas with colder climates, huipiles have inset sleeves; and you find differences in neck-hole size, shape, and finishes.

Many traditional design elements reflect Mayan beliefs and their relationship with Mother Earth, nature, and the cosmos. Other elements reflect the influence of the colonial period, and some include more modern features. Depending on the village, designs are incorporated into the fabric using weaving techniques such as brocading, hand embroidery, appliqué, and even machine embroidery. The individual artisan’s tastes are also reflected in her huipiles. While the huipil art form continues to evolve, it remains strongly rooted in traditional techniques and designs.

To make huipiles is a labor-intensive process. It can take 3-4 months to complete just one huipil, as a woman fits in her weaving among her other obligations of managing her family and home. The backstrap loom is easily carried along to set up wherever and whenever the weaver has some time to devote to her craft, whether in the home, a neighbor’s yard, or the market. While fewer young girls are learning these traditional techniques, there is a growing understanding of the cultural significance of these traditions and a renewed emphasis on passing down these skills.

After years of wear, these huipiles are no longer useful as blouses, so they are carefully cut to highlight the beautiful patterns, then combined with zippers, linings, leather, and hardware and sewn into bags and purses. This repurposing of huipiles brings new life to old garments, and brings us products we can use in our daily lives, continuously reminding us of the centuries of tradition and history they represent.

Jacinta’s story

In 2009, Jacinta became a Friendship Bridge client. Jacinta, the maker and co-
creator of the Maria Clutch, is from the Chimaltenango area. During Guatemala’s civil war, Jacinta found refuge in the capital but longed to move back to her home in Guatemala’s western plateau. When the war ended, Jacinta and her husband were able to return to her home village, but they could not find sustainable work. Driven to create a good life for themselves and their five children, Jacinta and her husband purchased a sewing machine and both learned to sew. They began to make purses out of huipiles and colorful material woven on the floor loom, and their business grew as they received requests for more types of products.



When she first became a Friendship Bridge client, Jacinta and her husband had two sewing machines. She used their first loan of almost US$200 to finance the raw materials for a large order they had secured. With the proceeds of that order, they were able to buy another sewing machine, expanding their production capacity by 50 percent! Today, Jacinta and her husband have six sewing machines and employ five people in their business. Empowered through her Friendship Bridge loans and trainings, Jacinta exports her products to Friendship Bridge and to other customers in the U.S. and Europe, and she is the President of her 8-member Trust Bank.

We hope you enjoy carrying a touch of Guatemala with you, knowing that your purchase really does make a difference in the lives of Jacinta, her family, and her employees, as well as supports the training of other artisan clients of Friendship Bridge.

Learn more about Friendship Bridge and Shop the Maria Clutch below!

 



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