Rug Money: How a Group of Maya Women Changed Their Lives through Art and Innovation

Rug Money: How a Group of Maya Women Changed Their Lives through Art and Innovation

by Cheryl Conway-Daly, Mary Anne Wise


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780999051788
Publisher: Thrums Books
Publication date: 09/07/2018
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 406,001
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mary Anne Wise is a nationally known rug artist and the Vice President of Multicolores. She is also President and cofounder of Cultural Cloth, which represents artisans from developing countries and highlights the value of indigenous textile traditions. Cheryl Conway-Daly spent nearly 20 years as an academic researcher. Her interest in working with grassroots women's empowerment organizations lead her to Guatemala in 2009, where she helped found Multicolores.

Read an Excerpt


Part I:

An Extraordinary Opportunity

Women Who Perform Small Daily Miracles

* Guatemala Highlands, 2007

A couple of years before volunteering to teach a weekend-long rug-hooking class, my friend and fellow weaver Jody Slocum and I spearheaded three trunk show sales of traditional Guatemalan textiles as fundraisers. The trunk shows benefited Guatemalan-based nonprofits including Friendship Bridge, a microlending organization. B.J. Bobrowski, a close friend, along with colleagues in the U.S. interior design industry participated in the endeavor.

Because Jody and I are weavers, we have a passing familiarity with the processes and the tools Maya women use to weave their traje, the handwoven and village-specific clothing worn by some Maya. We knew, for example, that a backstrap loom is nothing more than a complex collection of sticks and threads. Yet backstrap looms produce astonishingly intricate cloth that, removed from the loom, is fashioned into traje. The patterns on the cloth hold significance to the daily lives of Maya people and can represent creation mythology, zoomorphic figures, and other symbols associated with their village. Jody and I didn't realize that we were crafting new lives for ourselves and that the trunk shows would shape the foundation for our future.

Initially, we envisioned a single trunk show sale, but a sale with intense preparations. The preparations lasted over seven months and included a two-week collecting trip to Guatemala. After the trunk show was over, or so we said, we would return to our lives. But the first sale spawned a second sale and then a third sale in as many years. The first sale was so much work because during the process of producing the event, we learned about the extraordinary variety of traje. We also learned where to buy traje, how to decipher the woven codes or patterns embedded in the cloth that distinguishes clothing worn in one village from that of the next. We learned how to conserve the traje and how to ship it back to the U.S. And we learned how to produce the fundraiser itself. All of this presented such a steep learning curve that we told ourselves, "Of course, we should do another sale."

During the trunk show collecting trips, Jody provided logistics. She'd learned the ropes through her two-decades-long leadership role at Farmer to Farmer, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit working in Honduras and Guatemala. Her volunteer work led her to Guatemala at least twice a year where she learned Spanish and grew lifelong friendships with dozens of Tzutujil families in Santiago on beautiful Lake Atitlán. In pursuing her commitment to the people and her passion for the place, Jody began to lead tours so that Farmer to Farmer members might experience "her" Guatemala. She quickly mastered the transportation systems, discovered the locations of the country's best craft markets, and found restaurants where a tourist can eat salad with the faint expectation of not getting sick. Other incidentals were also Jody's domain — things like who will accept your personal check in exchange for local currency when none of the country's ATMs are functioning, or whom you can call to pilot a private boat so you cross Lake Atitlán right now. Possessed with an affable and perennially cheerful personality, she established connections wherever she went.

While in Guatemala collecting for the second trunk show, we reached out to some of Jody's connections with other organizations. We met Deborah Chandler of Mayan Hands, Jennifer Easter of Maya Traditions, Ramona Kirschenman of Oxlajuj B'atz' (OB), Diane Nesselhuf of Sharing the Dream, and others. We wanted to learn more about their organizations, and in particular, we wondered if any of the products these organizations produced would be suitable for our trunk show fundraisers.

We met these leaders in their offices abuzz with activity as artisans came and went, politely interrupting with a "con permiso" (with permission). The artisans asked questions about a product or confirmed the quantity needed to fill an order. Surrounded by stacks of colorful textiles, our eyes would dart about the room in awe of the staggering number of production hours in the handwork before us. We learned that all of these organizations were, quite simply, engaged in creating income-earning opportunities for women who had very little formal education and few options to make money.

Listening to the stories of Deborah, Jennifer, Ramona, and Diane, we began to appreciate the challenges they faced as leaders of their fair-trade organizations, such as how to gain the trust of their artisan members because the artisans are among populations of marginalized women. The artisans are accustomed to broken promises by those offering help, including the government and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). As trust builds, the challenge is how to lay the sequential groundwork to ensure that the women succeed in even small increments. Incremental success builds the confidence necessary to alter one's circumstance.

To accomplish the work of gaining trust and creating opportunities for marginalized artisans to succeed, the fair-trade organizations often teach new skills. The idea is to then create products for the export market based upon the new skill. Once production standards have been agreed upon, the materials and equipment are equitably dispersed to carry out the production. In tandem with the production is assuring that the payment system is defined and transparent. Finally, the fair-trade organizations must anticipate the reception of their products in the marketplace.

I came to think of these dedicated leaders as women who perform small daily miracles. From the point of view of their marginalized clients who, among many other things, never learned to use a pencil, the rare chance to seize upon an opportunity to earn money on a semi-regular basis must surely feel miraculous.

Jody and I Offer to Teach a Weekend-Long Beginning Rug-Hooking Class

* Panajachel, Guatemala, February 2009

By now, we understood that craft development associations were continually interested in expanding their array of products for the export market. New products helped them remain competitive in the marketplace and also provided some measure of confidence that income-earning opportunities for their clients might be sustained. Jody and I would be in the country collecting traje for our third, and by now final, trunk show. We reasoned that with adequate planning, we could take a weekend off to teach rug hooking if anyone was interested.

Rug hooking, I knew, would be compatible with the way the women's lives are organized. The technique is portable and, like backstrap weaving, it is easy to pick up and set down as women move in and out of a day filled with domestic duties. Equipment costs are modest and, as long as you aren't committed to hooking with wool, you could enjoy a seemingly endless supply of fabrics to hook with that could be purchased inexpensively at local pacas — used-clothing stores. The word paca means bale in Spanish and describes how the used clothing arrives in Guatemala from its place of origin, often the United States. Paca also refers to the used clothing itself.

Unlike backstrap weaving, rug hooking is free-form and might hold some appeal, I suspected, for those with an inventive eye. Unrestrained by the confines of the loom, I thought the students who were weavers, in particular, would understand rug hooking's free-form possibilities.

But rug hooking was not "of" the culture. And so before offering the class, we sought advice from those with craft development experiences. Condensing our concerns through numerous conversations, we ultimately asked, and answered, two questions:

1. Who are we to decide what a Maya woman should learn? (No one.)

2. Doesn't everybody have a right to make a living? (Yes, they do.)

It is unusual for Guatemalan NGOs to collaborate, but Brenda Rosenbaum and Jane Mintz, founders of Mayan Hands and Maya Traditions, two organizations dedicated to women's economic empowerment, decided to pool their educational resources. They formed Oxlajuj B'atz' (OB), which means Thirteen Threads in the Mayan language Kaqchikel, and hired Ramona Kirschenman as director. Throughout the year, OB conducted many workshops. The class rosters included women clients associated with both Mayan Hands and Maya Traditions coming together under one roof.

Knowing OB offered educational workshops for artisans, Jody and I approached Ramona with our idea of a weekend-long rug-hooking workshop. Ramona agreed with our assessment of the craft as a compatible fit with the way the artisans' lives were organized. She understood that the craft might have potential for income opportunities, and she liked the idea of using locally sourced paca. She enthusiastically accepted our offer to teach the workshop.

The How-Tos of Rug Hooking

* Maya Traditions Sala, Panajachel, Guatemala, June 2009

Twenty-nine women, and one man, Diego, participated in our two-day workshop. Deborah Chandler of Mayan Hands volunteered to help translate the OB-sponsored workshop. I was happy to have Deb's assistance, for she had been working with Maya women for a dozen years and had led many workshops. At her suggestion, I came up with one design, the same pattern for each participant, traced onto burlap ground cloth. Deb, who is not one to mince words, said, "Your time is short — you'll want to jump right in with the how-tos. Don't waste time explaining how to draw a pattern, just focus on the technique." And so I drew a pattern for each participant, a bird on a branch, and now with the workshop quickly underway, everybody could begin hooking. I silently blessed Deb and her good advice.

I discussed how to cut the paca into strips for hooking and how to hold the hook, and I demonstrated how to pull the strips through the grid of burlap to form loops on the surface of the ground cloth. The goal, I said, was to achieve a consistent nap height and position the loops to stand shoulder to shoulder above the burlap ground cloth. None of the women were familiar with the technique, but watching me demonstrate, a few likened it to embroidery.

Outside the classroom door, in the shade of the portico, OB fieldworkers María and Hilda assisted Jody and piled mountainous stacks of paca clothing to be used in our hooking. Reaching for the brightest clothing colors, for I've observed there is no such thing as too bright a color for a Maya woman, the students began to choose their rug colors.

As they started to hook, one student wondered if she could change the pattern. Her question, I guessed, originated from her experience as an artisan who creates products that must conform to specific standards. "Go for it," I said, and then I observed with pleasure as some freely added more design to my pattern while others simplified.

As the afternoon concluded, I anticipated that the women would be eager to begin their long return trip home. But the women, I learned, would spend the night here in the sala. OB organized dinner arrangements as part of the workshops, and a local cook would soon deliver the meal. Foam mattresses would be pulled out of storage, and the women would continue to work on their rugs until fatigued. Like women attending rug camps everywhere, I knew they would also gossip and giggle into the night.

By morning, it was evident that most had launched into their rugs without any sort of artistic inhibition. I'm convinced that lack of artistic inhibition breeds personal inventiveness, a characteristic artists everywhere admire. Inventiveness can lead to developing imagery that helps us view the world anew.

Watching them work, I noticed how quickly they adjusted to the rhythm of the process: cutting strips of cloth, then using the hook to feel for the strip hidden below the ground cloth, pulling the strand to the surface to form the nap's loop, and adjusting the tightness of their cloth to the hoop. Their hands, I observed, worked as if powered by the confidence born to a lineage of makers.

Class continued throughout the morning, and during a break, they checked their cell phones for messages. I was surprised that they all seemed to own cell phones, for I had yet to learn that cell phones were inexpensive and that cellular reception within the country is better than in most locations across the U.S. You can buy a simple cell phone for around ten dollars. You don't need a data plan; instead you buy saldo, or minutes, to apply to your phone in whatever denomination you're able to afford. Even if you run out of saldo, you can still receive phone calls, although you cannot place calls. The cell phone, it turns out, is a lifeline connecting to business opportunities, home, and family.

At lunchtime, Jody and I retreated to our room and Diego, the lone man in the workshop, followed us a few steps up a steep hill. Noticing the stinging ants swimming in our agua pura dispenser, from which we pulled fresh drinking water, he fished out the ants and boiled the water for tea on the small gas-fueled cooktop. Our hillside cabana was surrounded by a lush garden overflowing with blooming flora and some familiar medicinal plants. The sala sat below — birdsong and women's laughter filled the air. We settled onto the terrace as fragrant steam from the hot tea rose into the atmosphere around our cups. Then Diego, who I guessed was about fifty years old, told us his history as a lifelong resident of Chichicastenango.

He explained that during the civil war (1960-1996), his family and many of his friends and neighbors hid from the soldiers in the mountains. They hid for months never knowing if they would be captured, tortured, and killed. Pausing as he sipped his tea, nodding his head toward our students below he said, "They all have similar stories, you know."

Leaving our terrace and the sober conversation behind, we returned to the sala, for it was time for the "throw-down," the point in every rug-hooking workshop when rugs come off the frames or hoops. Unencumbered, the works in progress were lined up side by side on the floor for examination and admiration.

The students' rugs were alive with vivid color. Only a few of the women chose contrasting values, and their compositions positively vibrated with energy. The rugs without contrasting colors vibrated energy too, but the bird disappeared, blending into the background.

A natural at photography, Jody snapped photos of the women posing with their rugs. One woman, Carmen, stole the scene by clowning around with her classmates and inserting herself into nearly every shot. With the end of the workshop approaching, Jody took her flash drive with the photos on it to the Kodak store located a short tuktuk ride away. (Tuk-tuks are enclosed three-wheeled taxis.) She ordered prints as a gift for each woman, a memento of the class. Through her work with Farmer to Farmer, Jody understood that photographs are rare because they are an expense few can afford. She knew that a photograph documenting participation in this class would be displayed prominently in each woman's home.

Returning from the Kodak store, Jody circled the table distributing the photos as the women sat working. Exclamations of delight erupted in her wake. The women laughed with pleasure and compared their portraits.

Catching one another's eye, Jody and I understood that it was time to leave. We had appointments to keep along our collecting route. Noticing the clock, we realized that Guillermo, our private lancha (boat) captain, was probably already at the dock waiting to take us to San Juan. In San Juan, a community across the lake that specializes in natural dyes, we would make purchases and add to the trunk show collection.

The women continued hooking as we stood in the doorway to say our good-byes and to wish them well. And then, as if on cue, they dropped their hooking, pushed their chairs back from the worktables, and stood as one. Yolanda, a woman in her early thirties from a village near Chichicastenango, spoke first. She spoke with confidence and poise, her speech unrehearsed, straightforward, and articulate. She thanked God for the class and then she thanked God for delivering us to this place. She was grateful to learn this skill and wondered about the possibilities of this new craft, a statement left hanging in the air with no expectation of a reply.


Excerpted from "Rug Money"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mary Anne Wise and Cheryl Conway-Daly.
Excerpted by permission of Thrums Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Artisan Groups,
Artisan Groups,
María Ignacia,
Photo Credits,
Alliance Organizations,

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