By Kira Walker
Almost two months after leaving for Guatemala, it’s a good time to reflect on our short but remarkable time visiting the women and families affected by the various organizations that have received grants from Dining for Women over the past several years: MayaWorks, Starfish One by One, Thirteen Threads, Mercado Global, and Friendship Bridge. We were fortunate to visit so many organizations, which were similar in their focus on rural Mayan women but different in their methods and goals.
Our group of 17 women from all corners of the United States converged in Guatemala City, where we spent an afternoon sightseeing, visiting a textile museum, and learning about the history of the country, which emerged from a lengthy civil war in 1996. Our second and third days were spent with MayaWorks, where we met several cooperatives of weavers and had the opportunity to do some early holiday shopping. The time-intensive and ancient practice of backstrap weaving amazed us, especially those of us, like Cristina Ramey (Atlanta, GA), who tried to imitate the Guatemalan women. We also visited the tutoring center attended by some of the women’s daughters and sang and danced with the girls.
On our third day in Guatemala, we participated in a traditional Mayan ceremony at Iximche, a site of Mayan ruins from the end of the Mayan empire. Our guide Julio translated so we could appreciate the ceremony’s emphasis on balance, the duality of the universe, and offerings to spiritual energies. That evening, we arrived in our home base at Lake Atitlan, an incredibly beautiful place surrounded by volcanoes. We went out to dinner and Sue Garcia (Boulder, CO) convinced us all to channel our inner Shakiras and have a dance party.
Our second DFW organization was Starfish One by One, a truly inspirational program that invests an incredible amount of time and money in Mayan girls who otherwise wouldn’t attend middle and high school. Their Girl Pioneers receive home and school visits from their mentors, tutoring, and the support necessary to help them become the first in their families to graduate from high school and, in some cases, attend college. We were so touched by Starfish that many of us are pursuing additional donations to sponsor their next cohort of girls, thanks to the coordination of Rosemary McGee (Philadelphia, PA).
We returned to weavers with Thirteen Threads/OxlajujB’atz, which is entirely run by Mayan women and is located in a gorgeously renovated cultural center, where they have a nice showroom for their products. We participated in another moving Mayan ceremony and spent the afternoon visiting cooperatives, purchasing scarves and table runners, and learning more about the strength and resilience of these women. One group began weaving together after the civil war claimed their husbands, so their business is a crucial economic ballast for their families and communities. We also learned that thirteen is a lucky number in the Mayan tradition, and essentially it’s the number of threads necessary to make a weaving hold – hence, the group’s name. One of the cooperatives we visited shared some of their community building activities with us, which involved a song about dancing like the palm tree and a partner-swapping dance like musical chairs. Sharing these activities allowed us all to let down our serious faces and laugh together.
Mercado Global also works with women weavers but has a different mission: to change the fashion industry by promoting fair trade production and design. Our fearless trip leader, Kira Walker (Atlanta, GA), worked with Mercado Global a few years ago and many of her friends are still in the Panajachel office, so she was especially excited to visit this group. In addition to designing and purchasing the women’s products, Mercado Global has an education program to give the women information and training on things like nutrition and running their businesses effectively. Mercado Global sells a very upscale version of Mayan textiles. I recently opened a catalog from Red Envelope and was delighted to find their bags for sale and to know the wonderful backstory.
The final organization we met was Friendship Bridge, which is a microcredit program that also has education as a strong component. We traveled to several cooperatives and got to witness both money disbursal and collection. Some of the women were receiving their first loans and could hardly believe the change it was about to bring to their lives. The autonomy and self-respect that owning a successful business can bring to a woman, plus the education it can provide for her children, is profound.
In between visiting the DFW-sponsored programs, we took in more of our surroundings. One day we visited the nearby town of Totonicapan and met Don Miguel (after meeting so many women weavers, we were surprised to meet a man who weaves, but he is the third generation male weaver in his family and his son is learning some of the techniques already), who demonstrated the standing loom and graciously sold us some of his lovely products. We also visited a ceramics maker and an authentic market where we were curiosities to behold.
Another “vacation” day was for yoga or an excursion across the lake, followed by a trip to the nearby nature reserve, where some of our adventurous ladies went ziplining. Meg Mallon Sears (Toledo, OH) was proud to receive a certificate for ziplining so she could prove to her family that she actually did it!
The philanthropic component of our trip wrapped up after a week at Lake Atitlan and moved to Antigua, a historic town that has preserved its colonial buildings. We shared a farewell dinner at a restaurant run entirely by children (well, with a little adult supervision) that was surprisingly delicious and then shared what our experiences in Guatemala had given us. The next day our group split in two, as about half were headed north to Tikal and Semuc Champey to visit more Mayan ruins and some mysterious caves, while the rest of us prepared to return to the States.
Overall, we shared an emotional and invigorating time together. We met as women who only shared the bond of Dining for Women but left as lifelong friends – and some of us are already talking about going back to Guatemala!