By Emily Smith van Beek
Although my official internship was over, I didn’t want to stop seeking new experiences while in Guatemala. I love fashion, and I try to buy socially conscious clothes. I’m an advocate for human rights, but specifically for women’s rights. I have always wanted to work with women’s cooperatives to see the work that goes into making clothes and have a greater appreciation for the shirt on my back.
Each day when I walked to the waterfront in Panajachel, I would see a woman tirelessly at work weaving scarves, shirts and skirts. I couldn’t believe the array of beautiful colours my eyes would feast on. She was making the same things I see all the time in Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, but this stuff was the genuine, real deal. I wanted badly to buy something off of her, but I had an even better idea.
One day I walked up to the woman, and to practice my Spanish, I asked her if she would be willing to let me spend a few hours working with her as her apprentice. This woman, named Andrea, was more than thrilled to have someone interested in her work and happily said yes to bringing me on board.
We agreed to meet up the next day at 10am. When she didn’t show up I figured she thought, ‘oh another white person trying to exploit me’. But I wasn’t willing to give up and went back later in the day. Andrea was there ready to act as my teacher and I, her attentive student.
I got down on the cobblestone ground and strapped into a belt that held a large wooden spool-type mechanism, the same way Andrea does all day, everyday. Let me tell you, before I even started to weave my knees hurt. There is no luxury of using any kneepads. Hundreds of thin strings ravelled around the spool. The belt held me tightly in. ‘Aci, aci, aci’ Andrea directed me, and then pull through. It was very complicated and complex to pull the right strings through, and Andrea was a perfectionist. I, not so much. This work takes much focus and dedication.
After only 2 lines of the scarf, I got very tired and very sore. My friend Laura took over with her turn. This gave me the opportunity to speak more directly with Andrea about her artisans and the work that goes into weaving.
Andrea has been weaving since she was a little girl. When I first encountered her, I thought she was in her late 40s, early 50s. It turns out she is only 5 years older than me – 30.
Hunger, poverty, sun and hard work have taken a toll on Andrea’s youth. She travels each day from the mountains to weave and sell her work to a tourist market. She says there is no business with natives of the area because all women are brought up and raised with the skill of weaving. Her livelihood depends on foreigners, and she always has an excess of products, yet never stops working. With tourism down in Guatemala, her market base is fairly low. There are lots of other street vendors competing with one another too.
Weaving materials are relatively cheap. String and yarn are easy and affordable to come by. Andrea could make 100% profit and then some by up-selling the products. However, this isn’t the case. It takes Andrea 3 ½ weeks to weave a short scarf, 6 months for an indigenous shirt. What she is not paying herself for is her labour. Her hard, in the heat of the sun, dedicated labour.
Andrea might market her skirts at 250 Quetzals, about $32 Canadian. Her scarves, 100Q (or $13 CAD). When tourists vacation down south, they go to bargain, while locals think they travel with lots of money. What we might pay full price for at home, we wouldn’t think to pay in Latin America. As tourists walk by and show interest, Andrea lists her price. Very quickly people scurry away and act like it’s an obscene amount to pay. Because any money is good money, and is necessary money (especially when you have a family at home to provide for), the price drops rapidly. No bartering really even happens on the tourist’s part, but the vendor slashes the price in half, and then a deal and purchase is made.
What we as tourists seem to forget is that all of these handmade products are unique and one of a kind. Tireless labour goes into making everything. Nothing is for large-scale distribution or exploitation. When you go on vacation and buy from locals, you are supporting fair-trade products. No better kind in the world. The big corporations can’t act as a middleman and in this case you would assume fair prices and wages will be met, but ultimately individuals act as corporations and dictate the prices that control the fates of millions of indigenous, impoverished people, worldwide.
Although I helped contribute to the labour, I didn’t dare try to barter with Andrea. Her products were so beautiful, and I was happy to pay full price. Upon return to Canada, I saw similar products at the mall. The prices were fairly low, but I got queasy thinking about the large-scale production and distribution that went into those products. Even though I didn’t get a sale, I felt like the true winner with my purchases from Andrea. I supported local manufacturing, fair-trade and it was a very humbling experience working with her.