Many tourists who come to Guatemala make it to the Chichicastenango textile market and experience it’s dizzying, all-consuming effect. It is a feast for every sense: colorful textiles as far as the eye can see, the smell of fresh flowers and fresh meat, the sound of hawkers trying to sell cheap cures for common ailments, the constant ebb and flow of the crowd around you as you try to take it all in. Removed from of all this, above a supermarket, without even a sign to draw in the dozens of tourists who have the daunting task of taking this all in in the space of two hours, is the modest sales stand for the cooperative Utz Threads (K’iche’ for Good Threads). Despite the fact that it’s one of the busiest days of week for the salespeople outside, not a soul makes it up here all day.
The market in the main town of Chichicastenango buzzes with activity. Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018.
This is the reality for the women who are struggling to earn a dignified wage for their talent as backstrap weavers in this town where competition for tourist dollars is fierce and as a result, textiles are typically valued on the cheap. The women of Utz Threads used to have a physical location all to themselves. They were getting by and managing to pay their fellow cooperative members a fair wage for the time and skill it takes to create a work of art on the backstrap loom. But then, a few years ago, without any warning, sales just stopped. The women figured it was just a bad month, and each contributed money from their own pockets to keep their store open another month, and then another, until they couldn’t afford the rent anymore and had to call it quits. Maria, the elected president of Utz Threads explains, “In the market, everyone is selling the same products. Then one [vendor] starts selling [their textiles] for less and everyone has to drop their prices to compete…Furthermore, most tourists can’t distinguish between techniques or thread types which play a big part in why our products are more expensive than what they can find on the street. Although we can communicate with tourists who speak Spanish, if someone only speaks English, we can’t explain why our products are more expensive than what they can find in the market.”
Close by but far removed from this busy market scene are the small agrarian communities where the market vendors and the weavers of Utz Threads spend the majority of their week. Unlike the marketplace, these towns in the larger municipality of Chichicastenango are places tourists rarely see. Take the community of Quiejel (Key-Hel), for example, where founding coop members Tomasa and her mom, Dolores, live. This small community is only 30 minutes from the center of town but here, all the houses are still made of hand-packed adobe and have dirt or occasionally poured-cement floors. The community is largely devoid of men: most make the dangerous trek to the United States in order to generate enough money to catapult their way out of this land-based lifestyle. In the meantime, life here still revolves around the planting season and even the smallest children can tell you what month corn is planted and harvested. As a result, wealth isn’t measured as much in Quetzales (the local currency) as in the amount of arable land you either inherited or you didn’t and what you’re able to grow on it. Tomasa and Dolores are middle class in that regard: they have a wealth of animals, fruit trees and even coffee plants living and growing on their small plot of land. When I first arrived, Tomasa took me on a botanical tour of the area, pointing out the fruits growing all around us: lemons, tomatoes, anonas, among others.
Left: Maria’s house in rural Chichicastenango. Right: A coffee plant on Dolores and Tomasa’s land. They harvest and process this coffee primarily for their own consumption. Photos: Elena Laswick, 2018.
Nearby, in the community of Chontalá, Maria lives with her family and her two daughters in a well-cared-for adobe house on a large plot of land that, she explains, “Can sustain the whole family for a year.” In all these towns, traditional gender roles are a result of the lifestyle; when your life revolves around agriculture, men are expected to work the field (or emigrate to the United States) and women to stay home and take care of the kids. That’s why working with the cooperative was a point of contention for many men when they married cooperative members, and the cooperative lost several members when their husbands forbade them from working because they resented the implication the women felt they weren’t being adequately taken care of.
Maria with her daughter and a recently completed Utz Threads shoulder bag near their house in Chontalá. Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018.
Maria and her neighbor Manuela are a few of the women who have managed to persevere and convince their husbands otherwise. Manuela tells me that her husband has learned to accept the fact that she works and she lists a few reasons for staying active in the cooperative despite the recent drop in sales: “I enjoy working. And with the money I earn, I can buy things without having to ask my husband for money….Now I can help my husband buy things for our kids like school supplies and clothes.”
Besides silently tipping gender roles, the women of Utz Threads give other reasons they’ve stuck it out throughout the years, especially after their shop closed. Most notably: they refuse to sell out. According to Manuela, “The price I get for my work at the cooperative is very different than what other people pay. The cooperative pays me a fair wage. I like that. I don’t sell my weavings anywhere else anymore.” Just hours before, Maria had told me the same thing: “I could work anywhere but I would get paid less. But since the cooperative is fair trade, it pays a fair wage. That’s the difference.” Plus, the cooperative pays up-front which is a huge advantage when you don’t have enough money to invest in materials and then risk your product not selling. “I might weave something on my own to sell but I wouldn’t have an assured buyer,” says Manuela. Many people out on the streets of the market often drop their prices for this exact reason: they are desperate to recoup at least their investment, even at the expense of not earning any income. Cooperative members don’t have to resort to this, because the women are assured their fair payment whether the product sells or not.
Manuela creates a ball of thread that will then be woven into an Utz Threads shoulder bag in her home in Chontalá. Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018.
Of course, without sales there are no new orders and they can’t generate these fair wages consistently. After their brick-and-mortar shop closed, the cooperative lost several members who, “quit because there wasn’t enough work,” Tomasa tells me. “[The women] want full-time work,” says Maria. Consistent work for a dignified income for themselves and other women in their communities are reasons the remaining cooperative members have so much hope for the new Utz Threads website: “I want to try exporting our products. That’s what I’m fighting for,” says Maria. She continues, “If the website is successful….we will be able to employ more women.” Manuela echoes her: “I hope [we] manage to sell our products [online] to have consistent work.”
Detail of a 5"x10" pattern from an Utz Threads product. This pattern can take up to 3 days to finish brocading due to its intricacy. Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018
The Utz Threads website is a direct response to the need for transparent marketing that can do the only thing the cooperative members can’t do already: reach an audience that values the dignity and skill of women like Dolores, Tomasa, Maria and Manuela. We are excited to start bridging this gap between the women and consumers like you! Besides beautiful lifetime products, you can expect interesting and educational content not just about weaving and life in Guatemala but also about language, social justice, and revolutionary fashion.
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