By David Snyder
Creating traditional handicrafts has been a way of life for generations of rural Guatemalan women. But it was a history with an unprofitable future. Women in the largely indigenous highland communities of Guatemala mostly worked as farmers, sewing what they could in the evenings for the pittance they received from local buyers.
“We used to sell two shirts” and make about $1, says Olegaria Xic, a member of the Luz de lo Alto artisan group. “Now we make a small figure that costs [$1.55]. So now we understand the relationship between the work we do and the need to find the buyers.”
That small figure, perhaps the blue “Journey” doll that serves as a promotional product for international fashion icon Ralph Lauren, is just one of the new products the 15 women in the Luz de lo Alto group have been trained to produce under Counterpart International’s Community Tourism Alliance program.
The program links rural Guatemalans to the country’s profitable tourism and export industries. It trains the artisans, about 75 percent of whom are women, in business planning, management, and improved production techniques that make them more efficient, and smarter about which crafts to create.
At first, the women were challenged by new products like computer and iPhone cases, and by the unfamiliar concepts of marketing and mass production. They were also surprised at what would be successful overseas.
“We never imagined that we could sell these products because for us they were toys,” Xic says. “It’s quite unbelievable for us to think that the things we are making are traveling to Europe and the United States.”
Now creating 11 specific craft designs marketed under the brand umbrella Wakami, the group sells directly to 20 international buyers, including brand names like Ralph Lauren and the Mexican telecommunications company Telcel.
By organizing and training the group and then linking it with international buyers in need of large-scale orders for traditional crafts, Counterpart has transformed the way the women see their business and their lives.
Xic says the group members have learned the importance of marketing their work on a broader scale. More tangibly, they have also seen their household income increase dramatically since their training in 2011.
“We invested our money into buying basic technology for our homes,” Xic says as she takes visitors on a tour of hers. “Each of us is buying eco-filters to make the water in our houses cleaner. We’re also buying more efficient stoves and solar panels to bring electricity into our houses.”
The money helps Xic and her colleagues buy food so they don’t have to spend as long working in the fields, and helps their children get more nutritious food. The women are also able to afford education and health care. She says she and the other group members have dramatically improved their standard of living and that of the dozens of children they care for.
This small group of women is even seeing how bringing in an income can change how much respect and autonomy they have in their own homes.
“Before, when we were working individually, we were at home working in the field with our husbands, so the money went to them,” Xic says. “Now, because we work in this association, we learned that women can earn money and we are able to contribute to the household.”
That age-old craftsmanship has become an important link to the outside world, and a way for these women to pull themselves towards better lives.
“We have developed an affection for the products we make,” Xic says. “Every woman who makes these now does it with love.”