The Story Behind Maya Works’ Kippot
Interwoven lives: Kippot made in Guatemala, worn in Chicago
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood
The Chicago Jewish News Online (10/02/2009)
The next time you see someone in your synagogue wearing a beautiful, richly colored crocheted kippah, think of an indigenous Mayan woman in Guatemala.
She probably made it.
A small Chicago-based non-profit named MayaWorks that sells crafts made by hand by Maya women has found that the kippot (yarmulkes) are now its biggest sellers.
When you buy one, you’re not only purchasing a one-of-a-kind work of art, you’re helping an economically disadvantaged Guatemalan woman feed her family or send her children to school, MayaWorks products manager Naomi Czerwinskyj said in a recent conversation.
That’s the whole idea behind the organization, which was founded in 1996 by a Connecticut woman, Pat Krause, who had been working in a clinic near San Marcos, Guatemala that offered health care services to economically disadvantaged indigenous people of the region.
“Women started coming to her with their weavings and placemats. She brought them back to Connecticut with her and people fell in love with them,” Czerwinskyj says. Krause began selling the crafts projects out of her house – “as grassroots as you can get,” she says.
Soon volunteers were selling the items in their churches, synagogues and schools and using the profits to help the desperately poor indigenous Maya people, especially the women, who had no other source of income. The organization was incorporated as a non-profit and eventually moved its headquarters to Chicago. (There is also an office in Guatemala staffed by four indigenous Maya people.)
The kippot enterprise began several years ago when a Jewish volunteer on a MayaWorks tour saw some of the women’s handiwork. “She said, if they are making hackysacks, I bet they can make kippot,” since the size and shape of the products were similar, Czerwinskyj says. The women received a few lessons in how make the rounded kippot, then set to work.
A few months later another volunteer realized that the women had no idea what they were creating, and explained the use and meaning of the kippot. A discussion ensued about religious customs, both Mayan and Jewish. The women now understand the significance of the items and are especially careful and respectful when making them, Czerwinskyj says.
The kippot, which come in three sizes (5-inch, 6-inch and 7 1/2-inch) are the organization’s biggest-selling items. The women also make beaded mezuzot along with other products including banners, runners, textiles, woven bags and beaded jewelry. All the products are either crocheted, such as the kippot, woven on traditional looms or beaded. Every item, including the fabric used, is made by hand.
About 65 women in two different artisan groups in San Marcos, Guatemala, on the shores of Lake Atitlan make the kippot. Altogether MayaWorks employs about 200 artisans, most of them women.
Profits go back into the community, where 66 percent of the residents live in extreme poverty.
“What MayaWorks is all about is abiding by fair trade principles,” Czerwinskyj says. “We pay the artisans according to the prices they set and make sure they are paid a living wage. I’ve met with some of the women, and this has really impacted their lives. Now they can have meat every day or a few times a week. Before they didn’t have access to different kinds of foods. They are able to be independent and support their families.”
When Czerwinskyj, along with others from the organization, visits the women, as she was getting ready to do on the day of our interview, “now a lot of them will step forward and talk. They didn’t before,” she says.
MayaWorks also offers the artisans access to microloans and to educational scholarships for their daughters. “We only give them to daughters because in Guatemala women have very little access to education. Usually only boys are given the money to go to school,” Czerwinskyj says. While most schools are free, students have to buy all their own books and materials.
MayaWorks volunteers and other interested parties can see all this for themselves on the periodic tours the organization sponsors. “We’re continuing to build up our volunteers,” Czerwinskyj says. “They sometimes go on the tours, meet the artisans, come back and want to tell the story.”
The products are sold in some local stores and can be purchased online at www.mayaworks.org. You can also set up an appointment to visit the organization’s North Side warehouse and see the products; call (312) 243-8050.
About those kippot: They are $9 each, with discounts for bulk orders. Each one takes three to five hours to make, Czerwinskyj says, and each is different, as every artisan has mastered a particular set of designs. And as you put one on your head, you know you’re helping a Mayan woman put food on the table for her family and herself.