Behind the Cloth

By Allison Haven

Anyone who has spent time in Guatemala can’t help but fall in love with the colorful textiles worn by indigenous people here. Guatemala is unique in Central America for these strong Mayan artisan traditions apparent it in the quantity of tipica artisan products sold in the markets of Antigua, Panajachel, and in the stores of Xela.

A typical scene with a typical tourist in a typical tipica artisan handicraft store or market might go as follows:

“What a beautiful table runner/walling hanging! And it’s made by hand? How much? Wow, that is so cheap! What a bargain! I love shopping in Guatemala!”

Now, while it is true that there is a difference in cost of living between Guatemala and the US/Europe, there might also be another reason for the incredibly low prices for artisan products in Guatemala that tourists might not think about… labor exploitation.  Perhaps you don’t think that something handmade could in fact be made in a sweatshop. Unfortunately, many fabrics and handmade souvenirs common in tourist shops are indeed made in factories employing workers to sew and weave at dirt-cheap wages. While the items might be technically “handmade”, the purchase of the product is by no-means helping any individual artisan. This system of exploitative labor further deepens the cycle of poverty in Guatemala.

While not all artisan products in Guatemala are made in a sweatshop, some are actually made by women at home with their family and they might try to sell to you on the street. While this might not be an obvious example of labor exploitation, the price that she is able to receive for her handmade work might be. She is trying to sell her handmade product while competing against the cheap prices offered for mass-produced artisan products in the tipica shops. And because the public is used to paying cheap for something “handmade” she is forced to lower her asking price. When you think about the time it took her to make the product and the skill level involved plus the cost of materials, you might have a different opinion of what the product is actually worth.

However, there are various organizations and businesses in Guatemala working to change this type of labor exploitation of women artisans. Y’abal Handicrafts is one of those Fair Trade businesses. Y’abal works with three cooperatives of back-strap weavers in the highlands outside of Xela in an social enterprise to offer dignified job opportunities to indigenous women. Y’abal has been working for over 6 years with these communities to offer workshops on business practices, price calculation, administration, quality control, and social themes such as self-esteem, team-work, and health. Y’abal pays the women fair above market prices for their handmade products and provides both a local and international market for their work.

This month, Y’abal will be celebrating their 4th year anniversary of their Xela store! Stop by the store to celebrate their anniversary party on Friday April 25th from 2-8pm at 12av. 3-35, Zona 1. There will be  weaving demonstration, live music, mojitos, snacks, and fair trade shopping.


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