Almanac

Cover Story - January 23, 2013

Local effort to help indigenous women in Guatemala

by Dave Boyce

In traveling to Guatemala last summer, a few local women learned first-hand about the yawning gap between their lives in Silicon Valley and those of women in that Central American country, one of the poorest in Latin America and "one of the most dangerous places for women" due to domestic violence, according to a UNICEF report. The locals also learned of experiences and aspirations they share as women and mothers.

The women traveled there in support of an organization called Mercado Global, a nonprofit that works to empower rural Guatemalan women, in part by helping indigenous artisans design and market their hand-crafted accessories for North American retail stores.

Mercado-affiliated goods, including handbags and digital-device totes that reflect a Mayan heritage, may be found in major retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Anthropologie. The organization helps Guatemalan women form cooperatives and establish themselves as reliable sources for high-quality merchandise, said Ruth DeGolia, co-founder of Mercado, which is based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Common ground

The Silicon Valley women may not know poverty, but they know something about gender discrimination and injustice, and how to attempt to right such wrongs. And they understand the desire to make far better lives for their daughters.

This July, seven mother-and-daughter teams from Portola Valley plan to have their own experiences in Guatemala. The Portola Valley girls, most of them from Corte Madera Middle School, are trying to raise $15,000 for Mercado. "It is important for children growing up in our country who are remarkably privileged and have so many opportunities ... to see how others of their same ages live," said Sallie DeGolia, one of the mothers taking the trip and Ruth DeGolia's aunt.

What did the local women talk about when they were in Guatamala last year? Raising children; adjusting to being breadwinners; balancing career and family; family planning — a touchy subject in a deeply Catholic culture; and gender-based discrimination, according to Ruth DeGolia.

Two of the Silicon Valley women who traveled to Guatamala were Portola Valley resident Nancy Heinen, a former corporate attorney, and Menlo Park resident Judy O'Brien, a partner at King & Spalding, an international law firm based in Atlanta.

Ms. Heinen said she and her colleagues had it pretty good growing up. "We had terrific educations, mentors and an infrastructure for problem solving. These (Guatemalan) women have so little resources, no infrastructure and suffer incredible violence. Until I met these indigenous women in Guatemala, I didn't realize how deep the prejudice was against these people."

Ms. O'Brien said all the women related to having and raising children. "They're wonderfully warm human beings," she said. "There are amazing stories of strength and determination." Some stories had grievous overtones. One indigenous woman spoke of how her husband, after having fathered seven children with her, learned that she could not have more children and divorced her, leaving her and the children to fend for themselves.

While people in the U.S. at some point in their lives may aspire to change the world, "it's hard for these women to have that aspiration," Ms. Heinen said. "They don't even have sanitation! ... They were sharing stories and a lot of tears. They don't have a lot of self pity, but they have a lot of heartache ... and an enormous work ethic, latent leadership and great skills."

And ambition. The Guatemalan women, Ms. DeGolia said, are eager to learn from the Silicon Valley women, many of whom have experience on corporate boards. The Guatemalan women wanted to discuss forming boards for their cooperatives, Ms. DeGolia said.

If the indigenous women accumulate influence, how does this affect their relationships with indigenous men? "I do think they (the men) respect (the women's) economic power," Ms. Heinen said.

Illiteracy and violence

While the women conversed about what they have in common, there are the profound differences. Most indigenous women are financially illiterate and cannot read or write, Ms. DeGolia said. Many fathers don't allow their daughters to complete school, she said, so education is a significant part of Mercado's process.

Given the illiteracy issues, Mercado imparts ideas through lectures and discussion as well as activities, games and pictures, Ms. DeGolia said. Many of the indigenous women have poor self-images, she said, and "have suffered from extensive and regular discrimination based on their gender, their race, their rural lifestyle and their lack of education," she said. "The rates of domestic violence in the region where we work are also especially high. These and other factors can contribute to low self-esteem."

Mercado addresses self-esteem, in part, through a question not unfamiliar to American women: Is housework work? "One component of our training session on self-esteem is to go around in a circle and ask each woman if she 'works,'" Ms. DeGolia said. "Many women who are new to the organization and not yet participating in (filling orders from merchants) will say that they do not work. We then take out a paper clock and ask them to walk us through how they spend their day.

"We then have a discussion about how these activities are also a type of 'work,' even if they are not paid directly. Helping our partner artisans learn how to value themselves and their contributions to their family and community is one small part of helping to build self-esteem," she said.

"Mercado Global is committed to women and children as a way to create sustainable socioeconomic change," said Sallie DeGolia in an email. "Indigenous Guatemalan girls have virtually zero chance to go to school beyond the 5th grade — if they are lucky — but with their partnership with Mercado Global, women have been able to earn enough income and have chosen to direct a good portion toward educating their daughters."

"I think this is really resonating," Ms. Heinen said. "Parents, in particular, want their values to be infused in their children. There is nothing like being in an environment to really understand (those values). ... When the (local) girls see these communities and when they interact with them, I think it will forever change their views."

Sallie DeGolia's daughter, Sadie Bronk, is a sophomore at Menlo School in Atherton and organizing fundraising by the Corte Madera girls for the upcoming trip. Sadie is also a Guatemala veteran. To celebrate her bat mitzvah, she solicited $10,000 in donations to fund a new computer lab at a school in the village of Chua Cruz, and the community turned out for her. What did that feel like? "The whole school was out there waiting for me," she said. "It was overwhelming to see how grateful they were. I never thought it would make that much difference for the people."

The big leagues

It seems a tall order to graduate from producing peasant-like shoulder bags that reflect a village provenance and for sale in health food stores to supplying Bloomingdale's and Anthropologie with handbags for fashion-conscious women who may not care about provenance.

Mercado deals in "fair trade," a global initiative not immune from controversy that seeks environmental and social justice and fair compensation for the producers' efforts. Fair trade arose to counter exploitative practices in extracting goods and resources from poor nations.

Mercado is on the ground in Guatemala with a staff of indigenous women. Fashion designers from the United States — most recently, a former designer for Ralph Lauren — visit and discuss with the artisans how to retain the colorful essence of traditional patterns while adjusting to U.S. tastes. "We call it 'designing for aliens,'" Ms. DeGolia said. An initial design of 15 colors may end up with two. The artisans are flexible, she said. "The most important thing to them is they just want more sales and more income," Ms. DeGolia said.

Handbags range in price from $42 for a two-tone rope-dyed clutch to $278 for a black-and-white awning-striped weekender. Similar patterns are available for pillows and rope-dyed carrying cases for digital items such as Apple iPads ($50) and Amazon Kindle reader ($38). Handbags for spring 2013 are available at Kicks in Menlo Park, and will be available in February at Anthropologie in the Stanford Shopping Center, Ms. DeGolia said.

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