By Jennifer Brookland
The vertiginous drive to the villages of the Guatemalan highlands starts with a mountain climb, followed by trails of gnawed and pocked dirt roads that become barely passable in the rain. In one indigenous community tucked into the hillside, a flight of steep stairs drops to a house that gets electricity just a few hours a day.
In one of the poorest areas of Guatemala, most of the women who make handicrafts here have never left their communities. They use the natural resources of their villages — pine needles and palm fronds, for example — to create the same beautiful and functional products that their grandmothers did. They used to sell these hand-made crafts, such as intricately woven traditional shirts called huipils and little dolls with smiling thread mouths, on the roadside.
But this year, their crafts, and a few of the women who helped make them, are going a lot farther. Past the Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua and some 3,000 miles away to one of the trend capitals of the world: New York City.
“They love the idea and just to think that their stuff is going to New York. It’s like ‘whoa.’ They can’t believe it,” says Siggy Bataille Holbik, the owner of craft shop Casa de los Gigantes in Antigua, Guatemala. (Click here to a watch a short video about these artisans)
Holbik was manning one of two tables laden with the women’s handmade items at New York’s International Gift Fair, trying to interest buyers that could take the crafts from roadside to Rodeo Drive. She hoped the crafts would pull in at least a few orders.
“Let’s go steady and make sure we got two happy customers and next year two more,” she says, the pop of her red drop earrings contrasting with a woven necklace of black and white flowers. “Little by little. It’s handmade. It’s one product at a time.”
A lot of artisans, a little profit
Guatemala as a whole has been upping its exports, which in 2011 brought in more than $10 billion. But traditional handicrafts from the highlands have remained largely sequestered in the little towns they’re made in, sometimes hitching rides out in the backpacks of college students on spring break or backpacking nature-lovers who came to visit Lake Atitlan.
Tourists to Guatemala rarely bought the time-intensive huipils, and local customers were not appreciative of the rich traditions and history woven into crafts that were sometimes so unique they revealed which village the artisan who made them was born in.
When Counterpart International took stock of the sector in 2006, the international development organization realized these local artisans were at the mercy of competition based on price, not quality. Women might sell two blouses at the local market and come home with just one dollar. Few of them were benefitting from Guatemala’s rise in the international export market, or the increased tourism to the region.
There are over a million handicraft producers in Guatemala, more than 75 percent of whom are women.
By improving and distinguishing their crafts and linking them up with bigger markets, Counterpart could help the women increase their income, and improve their lives.
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