Sunday, June 15, 2008
Mayan Hands: Working in Guatemala and in the US to Support Indigenous Women
The history of Weave A Real Peace, or WARP, is closely tied to Mayan Hands, an organization working with Guatemalan textile artisans. One of WARP’s founders, Deborah Chandler, is the in-country director. And Mary Joan Ferrara-Marsland, Mayan Hands’ US director of marketing and distribution, is a long-time WARP member, as is Brenda Rosenbaum, founder of Mayan Hands (MH). Both Deborah and Mary Joan have served as WARP board members. Those who attended WARP’s 2007 Annual Meeting in Guatemala visited several cooperatives and met weavers who work with MH.
This article was written for WARP's Summer 2008 newsletter and both organizations have requested to have it reprinted here on Fiber Focus. WARP is a must read for those of you who are interested in connecting with other weavers committed to social justice
Part 1 - The Guatemalan Side by Deborah Chandler
I am writing from my desk in our warehouse on the edge of Guatemala City. I work here with Julio Cardona, my administrative assistant. Our designer, Joanne de Rybar, works in her home studio in the city. Mayan Hands also shares the rent of a small house in Panajachel, where the group leaders we work with go monthly to meet with Teresa Gomez, our field worker, to deliver their work and pick up their new yarn and orders. The 200+ weavers/crocheters/ embroiderers/basket makers live in ten communities scattered across the western and northern highlands; it takes a very long day to get from one end to the other (two days is better). Teresa also visits nearly every community every month. Some days I think that describing Mayan Hands realistically would just be a listing of problems to be solved: acquiring quality yarn, way more difficult than you would imagine; transporting people/goods through mega-highway construction that adds hours to any trip, on buses that too often get drivers or passengers robbed or killed; suppliers who say every day they will send what we need but don’t do it; coping with shipping fees that jump by 100%; the government suddenly requiring verification of paperwork done years earlier that takes a day or two of standing in lines; the phones going out for three weeks; the bank changing their policy of freeing funds on US checks from same day to 10 days to 15 days to 21 days and calling that a privilege; discovering that instructions were given to the women incompletely and most of a month’s work is unacceptable. Etc.
We regularly must decide how to respond to challenges in the women’s lives such as: an attack of African bees during a group meeting that wounded humans and killed livestock; husbands and sons who disappeared en route to the US to find work; family members murdered while in Guatemala City; women or their children living with debilitating health problems; robbery of the entire month’s income for a whole group held up by ten (yes 10!) masked gunmen. And don’t forget flooding, earthquakes, mudslides, and other natural disasters, all part of the Guatemalan landscape. In every case, what do we do to help, if anything?
But other days I remember: last year we paid the women over one million quetzales (almost $150,000). We spent approximately Q. 250,000 on yarn. After those two biggest expenses, in the five years I have been with Mayan Hands we have reduced our operating expenses from unknown to 12% to 8%, and as a result last year actually broke even, i.e., covered our expenses for the first time. (That does not include the salaries of the four of us working here in Guatemala, which are donated.) Through constant encouragement and provision of school supplies, we can now say that all the women’s children are going to school, including their daughters. In addition, we have developed our sister education project, Oxlajuj B’atz’, which provides the women with workshops in four areas: artisan techniques, small business skills, democracy and organization, and women’s health.
The women all say that being able to count on having an income every month is even more important than the amount they earn, because it allows them to plan ahead. By providing steady work we are making a significant difference in the lives of the women, but the real changes will be for the next generation, for their daughters and sons who will have options the women never had. And for that, the struggle is worth it.
Part 2 - the US Side by Mary Joan Ferrara-Marsland
The US distribution seems pretty mundane in comparison to the Guatemala side of things, but this part is absolutely necessary, too. Without a market, all the work in Guatemala would be for nothing. We certainly do not have many issues to deal with, compared to the obstacles that confront the Guatemala side daily. After nine years of working out of my house, last year I moved the operation into a warehouse space of about 1800 sq ft. in the rolling countryside of Ijamsville, Maryland. The space can be very cold in winter and very hot in summer—the downside— but is still much better than lack of space and having products all over my house and in sheds out back. We also worked out of my one-car garage, which was even more uncomfortable than the warehouse. Our work team now consists of me, the US director of marketing and distribution, and two part-time employees, my assistants and the main packers, Dana Dallas and Laura Mayer. As was my house, the new space is shared with another Guatemalan crafts organization that helps women, one with which many of you are familiar, UPAVIM Crafts.
A separate, smaller division of Mayan Hands is located in Albany, NY. The founder of Mayan Hands, Brenda Rosenbaum, works out of her home, doing retail sales and organizing consignments for people who want to help MH. Brenda also gives talks when asked, and is very much our “ambassador.” Much as she loves the contact with customers through sales and presentations, her favorite activity is developing new products, always looking for something new and exciting for our customers.
We receive orders from our print catalog via e-mail, fax, or phone. We hope to go to a wholesale website in the near future. Our regular customers are in the US, Canada, the UK, and occasionally other parts of the world. They are mainly shops, many of which are fair trade, and also church groups, website based companies, non-profit organizations, and individuals who do shows and fairs. Presently very little is sold retail from the warehouse but there may be more sales here when we get a retail website going. We usually process and ship orders within a day or two. Customers have 30 days to pay once they have established an account. The early part of the year is slow—it picks up as the year goes on until we are non-stop super busy in October and November, our two busiest months and when half of our sales for the year take place.
Although I am also in charge of marketing, we really are unable to do much. There is no advertising budget so I try to come up with ingenious low budget ways of letting people know about things—special mailings and e-mails mostly. Most people find our site on the web or hear of us by word of mouth. Even without advertising, we have managed to increase sales every year, perhaps a result of consistently high quality products and the attentive service given to our customers. Even now, while a lot of businesses are suffering, Mayan Hands sales are up for the year.
Shipments leave Guatemala once every six weeks or so, and arrive at Dulles Airport in Virginia. A customs broker does the necessary import paperwork and clears the shipments for us. Then a trucker brings the shipments to our warehouse. There is usually about a one week turnaround time from pickup in the Guatemalan warehouse to delivery to our warehouse. It takes a couple of days to unpack and process the shipments. It is hard work, but it is always fun to see what comes, both products we are expecting and any new products recently developed.
At my end, the first of the two main frustrations is having to backorder products because we do not have what people want. When I first started it was impossible to get much at all. Once Deborah started overseeing production (five years ago), backorders decreased significantly. After reading the Guatemala side of the story you can fully understand why we do not have certain products at times. Unfortunately a lot of customers do not understand the challenges at that end, and they get very frustrated, too. It can take up to a year to get some items when there are problems with material procurement or groups.
The second biggest frustration is people that do not pay on time (or at all!) and need constant reminders. For the most part, though, I say we have the best customers in the world. They are very supportive of what we do and really want to help people better their lives through fair trade. Because they are committed to fair trade they seem to be more conscientious. Overall, it is great work and we are all really happy to be able to do something meaningful and fun that benefits so many women every year. Who could ask for more than being surrounded by beautiful textiles day in and day out? I think the answer to that is really easy….
Note: Some of Mayan Hands products are available online through A Greater Gift, a program of SERRV International. Looks like Mayan Hands could use some volunteers! Contact them if you have time or expertise that would help them deal with the logistics of production and marketing.