On Monday morning, in transit from my homestay in rural Quiejel to the Día de los Santos kite festival in Sumpango, I stopped at an internet cafe to send my first Quarterly Report to Watson HQ. Which means my year is 1/4 over. What?!
Other things happening very soon, all meriting exclamation points:
November 8-12: trip to Rabinal to learn about medicinal plants, natural dyes, and new weaving techniques!
November 17: flight outta Guate!
November 18-22: long weekend in London!
November 23: arrive in Cairo!!
Here’s my report; some of it will probably sound familiar because I took it from this blog.
On July 30th, I set off to begin my Watson odyssey in the highlands of Guatemala, home of a vibrant backstrap-loom weaving tradition. Though I had dreamed and hoped and worked and planned for this adventure for so long, in those first days I felt nervous, overwhelmed and daunted by the prospect of a whole year on my own. Partly because Guatemala was a late addition to my Watson itinerary and partly because I wanted to start my year by embracing independence and spontaneity, I arrived with little concrete idea of how I would spend my time here. I spent my first few weeks visiting weaving cooperatives, getting my bearings, and talking to lots of people about my project. Those weeks were really important for me: they were filled with the thrill of exploring a new place and attempting to process a flood of new information, constantly questioning how best to pursue my project, and learning to deal with uncertainty.
In the course of this questioning and exploring, I connected with Oxlajuj B’atz’, an organization that provides educational opportunities for Mayan women’s artisan groups. (Oxlajuj B’atz’ means “Thirteen Threads” in Kaqchikel; I’ll refer to it as OB.) There are a huge number of women’s artisan groups in Guatemala; I chose to work with OB because they partner with small, less-established cooperative groups, but provide well structured programs responding to the needs articulated by these groups. The OB staff warmly and graciously invited me to participate in their work; I visited women’s cooperatives in small rural communities to observe workshops on gender equality, medicinal plants, hooked rug production, and product pricing; I attended meetings to discuss curriculum development and effective methods of monitoring and evaluating projects; I read and gave feedback on strategic plans and business models. I never expected to learn so much about responsible nonprofit management!
Reto, which means challenge, was one of the first new vocabulary words I learned when I started work with OB. There are endless challenges in fighting the ycles of oppression and dependency that Mayan women face: an ethnically stratified society, history of genocide and conflict, restrictive gender norms and family roles, devastating natural disasters. I’ve been so impressed by the foresight, commitment to democratic organization, and dedication of the OB staff. They don’t take any shortcuts, analyze every obstacle, and are so conscientious of the ever-present goal of fostering independence and self-sufficiency in the artisan groups. Their passion and thoughtfulness are visible in their pedagogy, the way they treat the women and each other. I have always gravitated toward communities of strong women, and the OB staff members have filled that space for me, providing me with a space of companionship, camaraderie, and like-minded interest in sustainable grassroots development. I’m so grateful that they welcomed me and encouraged me to stretch myself through involvement in their programs, while remaining very flexible and cognizant of my project goals. Despite setbacks and delays to my project caused by the whims of rainy season weather and the inherent frustrations of working in remote communities, I’m very happy I made the decision to work with OB. They opened doors for me to visit places and meet people that I never would have found on my own.
It’s easy to describe what I’ve learned about crafts: I can now weave on a backstrap loom, and I even learned a simple form of brocada weaving, the enormously time-consuming technique that produces the amazing patterns that make Guatemalan textiles famous. (I also learned rug-hooking—it’s funny to have learned that American folk art technique here). Weaving has been lovely. Although learning this new skill takes practice, the motions that once felt stilted and awkward have begun to feel smooth and natural. My weaving lessons have reinforced what I already knew about myself: that I love to make things with my hands. Processes that would be tedious for some people are for me an opportunity to engage my body while letting my mind go. In the Mayan belief system, backstrap weaving has always been women’s work, associated with the processes of birth and creation. I now understand the deep satisfaction and the suggestive metaphorical power of making a pile of sticks come alive into a loom, and a length of fragile thread become cloth. For me, learning to weave has also been a way of feeling connected to the Mayan women around me–through direct relationships with my weaving teachers, and an indirect sense of understanding with the thousands of women who keep the backstrap weaving tradition very much alive.
Partly because of lack of opportunity but more because of my own decisions, I haven’t pursued the idea of environmental consciousness connected with craft as much as I imagined I would. Though the vast majority of weavings produced in Guatemala today use synthetically dyed thread that is definitely not environmentally friendly, there are a few weaving groups that use natural dyes, and I had the opportunity to visit one such cooperative. Many natural dye formulas used in the past have been forgotten, and I was interested to find out that the natural dye recipes that this cooperative now uses were taught by an American textile artist. This group’s decision to use natural dyes stemmed more from an economic incentive to differentiate their product than from pure environmental consciousness. Before I leave Guatemala, I am excited to visit another natural dye group and hopefully a group working in Guatemala City’s dump to transform trash into jewelry.
What I’ve learned about crafts and community is a little more complicated and harder to pin down. Reading over my project proposal recently, I was struck by the optimistic and idealistic way that I described craft production as a catalyst for positive change for women and their communities. Though I definitely haven’t lost that optimism (I hope I never will!) my perspective has been tempered and complicated by a more concrete understanding of the realities of craftswomen’s lives. For women who have had limited or no formal education, weaving and embroidery are often the only skills they can draw on. The market is flooded with textiles, driving prices so low that the sale price barely covers materials, let alone a fair compensation for labor. Membership in a weaving organization is not necessarily empowering, either personally or economically, on its own. Some groups struggle with lack of organization and infighting, and others have trouble finding a market in which to sell their products. Struggle is the norm. There is hope, however, and I think OB’s tailored educational programs give their groups an edge that will help them propel themselves toward their goals.
As part of my work with OB I had the unique opportunity to help with an asset-mapping project in a small community, Xeabaj II, which was displaced five years ago by Hurricane Stan and has since been struggling to achieve economic sustainability. I find the idea of community asset-mapping fascinating as a development strategy: the idea being that every community, no matter how impoverished, has strengths and resources that they can draw upon in order to build for the future. As part of this process, I individually interviewed all 14 women in the artisan group that OB works with. Through conducting these interviews and staying in the women’s homes, I was granted the privilege of experiencing their lives. And despite the poverty and the challenges, I did find resources. For example: hard work, perseverance, an incredible resiliency after trauma; an intensely communitarian mindset that was foreign to my Western perspective, in which individual interests are truly subsumed by concern for the family and the community more broadly; an incredible hospitality and generosity which I experienced as a guest in their homes; a determination to live joyfully even in the face of adversity. And, through weaving and wearing their unique, amazing traje indigena, women are proudly sustaining their cultural heritage. I’m witnessing firsthand how women can be natural community developers, thinking in terms of their children and families—though often sacrificing their own dreams and goals to provide for the future.
It often takes some time for me to fully realize the personal changes and growth that I undergo as a result of meaningful new experiences, so I imagine that it will take a while to understand how this Watson year is changing me. Already, though, I notice that I’ve become more comfortable and in tune with both my introverted side and my extraverted side. I’ve discovered that being on my own can be deeply satisfying, and that I am pretty good company for myself. At times when I question my path, I’ve learned to rely on my own reflection and thought processes instead of immediately asking for the advice of others. At the same time, I’ve bolstered my confidence in my ability to interact with people: strangers, people of other cultures, people who speak languages that are unintelligible to me, people who have very different visions of the world. I’ve grown in my appreciation of how other people contribute to my life and happiness. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how meaningful and uplifting even the smallest interactions can be.
Three months: the days and weeks have passed quickly, and I’m realizing how much I need to savor this wonder-filled year of my life. I’m so grateful to feel the incredible joy of learning every single day, and being challenged (intellectually, artistically, emotionally) by engaging myself with the world. I’m trying to push myself beyond fulfilling my project goals: to also take advantage of my amazing freedom and independence to imagine my ideal life, and then try to live it one day at a time. Seek out and revel in natural beauty. Fuel my own creativity. Make time for art. Eat delicious and healthy food. Write. Indulge in daydreams. Above all, I am trying to embrace the beauty of this experience, which to me appears to be that I came to Guatemala to study women’s craft organizations, but am learning so much more along the way: how to fry perfect plantains, how to make (admittedly less-than-perfect) tortillas. I’m becoming a connoisseur of all kinds of transportation, from tuk tuks to chicken buses to the bumpy backs of pickup trucks. I’m learning that the sight of volcanoes rising out of the mist never fails to make me catch my breath. Qué rica, esta vida!