Yesterday, I attended a capacitación (capacity-building workshop) with Oxlajuj B’atz’ (translation: Thirteen Threads), the Mayan educational organization I mentioned in my last post. Aside: check out their website! thirteenthreads.org. I’ve been very impressed so far by the work they’re doing. I love and gravitate towards communities of strong women (shoutout sneetches, Widji, women in action, my family, etc….!) and Oxlajuj B’atz’ is that! I’ve enjoyed all the time I’ve spent with the staff and hope to become good friends with all of them.
Boarding a bus at 6:00 am, I left warm Pana behind and traveled for an hour and a half into the mountains. On the bus, I met up with Lucia and Olivia, two wonderful Oxlajuj B’atz’ facilitators. Moments after the bus attendant called out, “Alaska!” Lucia told me it was time to get off. The bus attendant wasn’t kidding– the area’s nickname is fitting for a landscape that’s cold, windswept, and breathtakingly beautiful. We took a microbus up a winding dirt road into the hills, then walked fifteen minutes to the comunidad, called Xeabaj II. The walk was incredible– the rolling green hills and fields of corn around us dropped steeply into a long valley, with very blue mountains rising in the distance.
During the walk, Lucia told Olivia and I more about Oxlajuj B’atz”s work with the Xeapaj II group. As a community, they have faced enormous challenges and struggles: displaced by Hurricane Stan, they relocated from their warm coastal town to this cold, breezy location in the Highlands. The town itself is a small village of new concrete-block houses, with smaller outbuildings constructed out of plastic sheeting stamped all over with the USAID seal. They are a community in which traditional notions of gender remain strong; in which women are expected to remain in the kitchen and the home. At the beginning, Lucia said, the women in the group barely spoke or raised their eyes. “Me ha costado mucho, esa comunidad,” she told us with great feeling: It has cost me much, this community. She’s worked so hard, investing time and emotional energy, to help build camaraderie and trust within the group, and to increase their sense of independence, self-confidence, participation and initiative. Still, they have yet to definitively identify an income-generating activity/product (OB works with weaving groups, but also basketmakers, soapmakers, and other craftswomen) and once they do that, they must find markets for their products.
This was my third workshop visit; the other two I attended dealt with themes of microcredit loans and determining product prices/costs. This one was a little different: a history of gender equality and women’s participation in Guatemala.
Lucia brought illustrations of various events throughout Guatemalan history, and presented them as a road on which Guatemalan society is still traveling– a journey toward true equality between men and women. The capacitación encompassed historical sources of marginalization and inequality, as well as the story of movements and struggles that resulted in the achievements that women have attained today. This capacitación is the beginning of a series of workshops about empowerment and political participation that seem especially important for this particular group of women. I love the way Lucia put it: “Imagine,” she told me, “these women don’t even know their own history. They don’t know where they come from! And without that, how can they know or imagine where they are and where they are going?” As a former history student, I appreciate this sense of the enormous significance of understanding the roots of marginalization and one’s place in a larger story.
During the capacitación, I was impressed by the visible changes from what Lucia had described: a majority of the women participated vocally and all seemed engaged in the topic. Toward the end, Lucia had them all participate in an exercise: the group stood in a circle, holding hands. Then, letting go of each other’s hands, all the women together repeated the mantra, “Soy mujer. Soy feliz. Soy Guatemalteca,” (I am a woman. I am happy. I am Guatemalan) first clapping once, then raising both hands in fists, then extending their arms and fingers up toward the ceiling. I got chills, witnessing such an affirmation of hope and identity. At the end of the capacitación, it was moving to see the women crowd around the illustrations, discussing among themselves where they are in the journey toward gender equality today. (Sorry for the blurry pictures– it was indoors with tricky light.)
So this is where my decision begins. Xeapaj II is one of the communities I could stay with as an Oxlajuj B’atz’ volunteer and a weaving student; though it’s not a weaving group I could learn from the women, who can all weave and wear beautiful, intricately decorated handmade huipiles as evidence. Since it’s still not clear what kind of product/income-generating activity the Xeapaj II group will focus on, I would have the exciting opportunity to work with them to figure this out and identify potential markets. There’s certainly a lot of need, and it would be challenging and stretching for me. Did I mention that most women in this group are illiterate, and the majority speak only a little Spanish? So I’d hopefully learn lots of K’iché.
I’m still torn about whether to take on those challenges, or to stay with a more advanced and well-established cooperative with a clear focus on weaving and tangible effects of their production. It’s a lot to think about, but luckily I have an abundance of time to think! And I think it’s good for me to really consider the limitations, goals, and focuses of my project.
Another picture! Just because this is already too many words. The church outside my hotel:
Thanks for reading! Hasta luego,