September 4, 2005 in City

Fine handiwork, better lives

Virginia De Leon Staff writer
 
Brian Plonka photo

Maria Cuc works her backstrap loom in her Spokane home, making a traditional tablecloth.
(Full-size photo)

SOLOLA, Guatemala – Thousands of tiny, colorful beads pass through Dolores Mendoza’s deft fingers, forming intricate patterns that honor her Mayan traditions.

Bead jewelry has become a way to feed her family – especially with the recent order for 500 bracelets and necklaces from Spokane.

After years of sporadic sales, mostly to tourists hunting for bargains in this central highland town, Mendoza now counts on a steady income thanks to a partnership that began two years ago with a family-owned company in Spokane.

Moonflower Enterprises – a business established by Felipe Gonzales and his wife, Maria Cuc, a Mayan Kakchiquel who grew up in Solola – works directly with more than 40 artisan families from four Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala. The company is among a half dozen in the Inland Northwest that have embraced the practice of fair trade – a growing movement that seeks to alleviate poverty, particularly in developing countries, by improving the conditions of marginalized workers and producers.

Frequent mass orders for jewelry and other beaded handicrafts have enabled Mendoza to hire about 20 other women from the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan. “We have regular work now,” she said in Spanish. “It’s better for us because we have money for food, and we can send our children to school.”

Cuc and Gonzales’ desire to provide a living wage to artisans in Guatemala is shared by others in the area. More than two dozen small companies in Washington and a few in Idaho now belong to the North American Fair Trade Federation, an association of wholesalers, retailers and producers committed to fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers throughout the world.

Moonflower Enterprises is one of six based in the Inland Northwest, but three more are in the process of becoming members.

Once considered a niche market, fair trade products have hit mainstream. Total sales for the fair trade industry in North America grew to $180 million in 2002 – a 44 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to statistics from the Fair Trade Federation. The highest proportion of sales that year came from certified fair trade coffee, which accounted for 29 percent of total sales.

The growth is reflected locally as well. Global Folk Art in Spokane, which was founded about 12 years ago, saw a 30 percent increase in sales during the mid-‘90s, and the growth has continued steadily, said Stacy Ott, the store’s former manager, who’s now a volunteer.

Fair trade coffee has become so widespread that it’s available not only at area grocery stores, but it’s also for sale and often served at a number of local churches, including First Presbyterian Church, St. Ann’s Catholic Church and through the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.

Ott and others attribute the growing awareness of fair trade to current events throughout the world, including the war in Iraq and the Asian tsunami.

As people become conscious of the numerous connections between the Inland Northwest and other parts of the globe, they begin to grasp how their own actions here can have ripple effects in far-flung places, she said.

“This is about global relationships and creating friendships,” said Denise Attwood of Ganesh Himal Trekking and Trading Co., a Spokane-based business that has contracted with Tibetan artisans and refugees since 1984.

“It’s also recognizing the fact that through your purchase of consumer items, you can positively impact people all over the world.”

Dolores Mendoza is 42 years old and the mother of nine.

Like other indigenous women from Guatemala’s highlands, she still wears an orange headdress and traditional “huipil,” or woven blouse. Her clothing features the hand-embroidered figures of animals, birds and flowers specific to her hometown of Santiago Atitlan, the Tz’utujiil Maya village on the lake’s south shore.

Words such as “sustainability” and “fair trade” aren’t part of her vocabulary, but she eagerly talks about the benefits she and other women have received as a result of their partnership with the Cuc-Gonzales family.

For the first time in her life, Mendoza gets money in advance for her work, allowing her to train and provide jobs to women in the community. These women – some are mothers of school-age children, others are widows who lost their husbands during Guatemala’s civil war – have become their families’ main providers, earning several dollars more than the two “quetzales” (less than 25 cents a day) that their husbands or family members would get fishing or toiling in the fields.

“It means more money for survival,” said Cuc, whose own family was so poor that she was forced to wash clothes or sell snacks on buses when she was a little girl. “Poverty is so grave down there that parents would rather have their kids work than go to school.”

As someone who grew up in the highlands and spoke the Mayan language Kakchiquel even before she learned Spanish, Cuc understands the plight of many indigenous families.

She was 7 years old when her father died, so her mother supported a family of six children selling carrots, beets, corn and other vegetables. Cuc, 37, was the only one in her family to graduate from high school and receive any formal education. To help preserve the traditions of the Kakchiqueles and the 22 other indigenous groups of Guatemala, Cuc worked with several grass-roots organizations that served the Mayans through community development projects.

It was through one of these projects that she met Gonzales, a second-generation Mexican American who was born in Alaska but raised in Texas. After earning a degree in business administration, Gonzales traveled to Mexico and Central America to get in touch with his heritage and to work for non-governmental organizations devoted to social justice and rural development.

During his travels, he fell in love with Guatemala, a country that became his home for 16 years.

While teaching Mayans to prepare and incorporate soy-based foods into their diet, he met Cuc and discovered that they shared the same vision: to empower and promote the social and economic development of Mayans while respecting their traditions and culture.

They’ve been together for seven years now. As a U.S. citizen, Gonzales was able to return to the United States in 2001 to establish their business selling folk art, handicrafts, coffee and Guatemalan textiles. They had to wait another two years for Cuc and her two children from a previous marriage to join him in Spokane.

Gonzales, who has frequently traveled back and forth from Guatemala to the United States in the last two decades, was practicing fair trade long before it became a movement.

He would often bring tablecloths, textiles and other items to market and sell in the United States on behalf of friends in Guatemala.

“During this period, casual relationships with Mayan artisans developed into long-term business relationships and intimate friendships,” Gonzales said.

After the couple formalized their importing business in 2001, Cuc also established partnerships with old friends and other artisans. In addition to selling their products in the United States, she continues to share her Mayan tradition here by teaching her daughters, 14-year-old Ingrid and 12-year-old Lesly, the same weaving techniques she learned from her own mother in Solola.

Having worked for several years at Global Folk Art in downtown Spokane, Ott knows the history of every item sold at the store – from the green and purple pillowcases and doilies sewed by a Sudanese refugee in Kenya to the table runners created by the Nepalese women, who cried with joy the first time they touched the money from the sale of their work.

Americans often wonder what they can do to help alleviate poverty in the Third World, Ott said, so she tells them to consider buying fair-trade goods. “It’s a practical way to help,” she said.

Unlike commercial importers, fair trade businesses focus on the artisans, said Gonzales. According to the North American Fair Trade Association, organizations that practice fair trade return up to 40 percent of an item’s retail price to the producer.

Several area businesses give back at a higher rate.

For every one of Mendoza’s $8 bracelets that are sold in the United States, Cuc and Gonzales return $4 of that total back to the women in Solola.

A hand-knit wool sweater made by Tibetan refugee families sells for $44 wholesale through Ganesh Himal. After paying for shipping, customs and other fees, Attwood makes sure that $20 to $22 per sweater goes back to the families.

“The prices are really good because it’s not about getting the most profit,” she said. “Our business is based entirely on trust. It’s really that simple.”

While fair trade often highlights the works of artisans in the developing world, it also takes into account marginalized workers in the United States, said Ott. Along with tapestry and textiles from far-away lands, Global Folk Art also sells gift baskets of bean soup and other foods packaged at Christ Kitchen, a program in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood that provides jobs and training to homeless women.

Fair trade actually helps the American worker, says Ott, because it “makes people more aware of the real price of goods,” teaching consumers not to take these products for granted. Also, many of the items sold by fair trade organizations are handicrafts specific to their country or region, she said – products that aren’t made in the United States and therefore don’t take away jobs from Americans.

“It’s the free trade market that puts more people in America out of work, not fair trade,” said Ott, referring to policies governing the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, reduced tax barriers for large companies, allowing for the less-restricted flow of goods and services between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Earlier this year, Congress also approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is basically the expansion of NAFTA to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. While former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton praised CAFTA in a recent column, saying that it will create new opportunities for Washington state to increase its exports, critics of free trade fear it will benefit only large corporations in the United States.

CAFTA won’t directly affect Moonflower and other fair trade businesses in the United States and Canada, according to Gonzales, but artisans like Mendoza – and especially workers who have no fair-trade connections – will be impacted by the Guatemalan government’s upcoming policy changes. Gonzales also fears that CAFTA policies could have harmful effects on the environment and the Mayans’ efforts to maintain their cultural identity.

When Cuc returns to Spokane from Guatemala later this month after visiting relatives in Solola as well as Mendoza and all the artisans who work with Moonflower Enterprises, she will go home with 1,500 pounds of goods that will be sold online and at fairs throughout Washington and Idaho.

When the family unpacks the boxes of textiles and jewelry, they touch the beads, the hand-dyed fabrics, the threads weaved over a loom.

“We give thanks to the Great Spirit for all this,” said Gonzales. “Each one of these products represents a person, a family, a story. … It’s like having a piece of Guatemala right here.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email