Reflections on our Guatemala Experience

by David Lingren, FTJ’s Chief Technology Maven

Fair Trade Judaica’s recent trip to Guatemala was a unique opportunity to meet the people behind many of the beautiful Judaica products we’ve been promoting. We visited six artisan groups, some conveniently located around Lake Atitlan and others requiring hours of travel to more remote inland villages.

The immediate benefits of Fair Trade were simple and clear; steady work, decent wages, fair treatment and a wider audience for the magnificant weaving traditions of the Mayan culture. Over the days of our visits and conversations with the artisans a larger understanding of their lives suggested itself.

These are proud, complex people; mostly women, although a few men are included. They were as curious about our lives as we were about theirs, and they responded warmly to our stories of what the Judaica they were making meant in our tradition and our spiritual lives. Our group included a few accomplished weavers and their expert appreciation of the artisans’ work and peer-to-peer conversations added depth to the experience.

The artisan groups are true partners with MayaWorks and Mayan Hands, not dependents. They set their own prices, choose their leaders, and manage their production. The skills required for these aspects of the work improve their personal and community lives as well. One of my favorite experiences was watching a group presenting their own new kippah designs for the first time. The designs were imaginative and appealing. As each woman who created a design was identified, the entire group applauded and celebrated her work; it was spontaneous and heartfelt.

One man in San Marcos, Bruno, spoke of giving up intermittent work as a day laborer and learning traditional crochet. Once he was good enough to join the artisan group he had steady work and enough money to send his children to school; that wasn’t possible on day labor wages.

This was perhaps the most common refrain we heard – making enough money to send their children to school. Every community voiced this as a priority and benefit of their involvement with the artisan group. In this part of the world, even a few years of education makes a difference and every additional year counts for a lot.

In the end, the biggest inspiration of the trip was the simple transformation of the artisans and their communities from poster-child simplicity to real, three dimensional people. As FTJ’s Chief Technology Maven, most of my work is well behind the scenes and away from the action. This trip gave me a real sense of the impact our work is having on so many lives. Please join us!