How the Pixan Program Supports a Strong Connection to Land, Culture and Community in the Western Highlands of Guatemala

What a Strong Connection to One’s Land, Community and Culture Means untitled2

People are happiest in their native lands, communities, and cultures; especially those who are indigenous to their place of origin. Guatemalans are no exception. Unfortunately, like in many places in the world right now, natives are being forced to migrate from rural areas in order to survive. The Highland Support Project organized the Pixan program in order to assist in reversing this trend. Because our partners of Pixan are able to make an income through their weaving while being able to work from home, their quality of life and happiness is significantly increased. With our support, they are able to continue to fortify their relationships with their natural environment, their families, and themselves.

Displacement, loss, and migration are common factors of life in Guatemala.  We see through our work that the internal armed conflict— lasting from 1960 until 1996—has left families and communities dealing with an ongoing pain that is still healing. What is evident in many communities we collaborate with are the effects of post-traumatic stress from this period, and the personal obstacles brought about by an uncertain and violent past. Furthermore, not only did displacement and loss happen during the war, it is still taking place today due to the widespread mega projects of transnational corporations including mineral mining, hydroelectric construction, petroleum plants, and African palm plantations. Many people have to desert their homes and communities because the land is being used for its rich resources, and is then exported for use to a different country. Population growth and unequal distribution of land further exacerbate the problem, making it difficult to support an entire family and have a legitimate salary in rural areas.

A perceptive quote that summarizes the importance of our connection to land while not forgetting why people continue to leave it, is from a book called Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land, and Nature, where the author explains, “For most of our history, the daily lives of humans have been played out close to the land. Since our divergence from apes, humans have been hunter-gatherers for 350,000 generations, then mostly agriculturalists for 600, industrialized in some parts of the world for 8 to 10, and lately dependent on industrialized agriculture for just 2 generations. We still have close connections to nature. Yet, many of us in industrialized countries do not have the time to realize it. In developing countries, many are still closely connected, yet are tragically locked into poverty and hunger. A connectedness to place is no kind of desirable life if it brings only a single meal a day, or children unable to attend school for lack of food and books, or options for wage earning that are degrading and soul-destroying” (Pretty 6). Guatemala is just one example of how many rural populations in our world have no choice but to leave their source of happiness and rootedness behind purely for survival.

Women in Guatemala are not traditionally the chief source of income for a family, but often times there is either not a husband present to act as economic support, or his wages simply just aren’t enough. Since opportunity is limited in rural areas, finding income usually means internal migration. If widowed or single, a woman must move with her children (if she is a mother) to a city to find work. However, the work she will find is often in sweatshops or factories working from 6 in the morning to anywhere from 6-11 at night, earning insufficient wages and many times suffering sexual abuse. There are also rising cases of women joining gangs or drug traffickers out of desperation to make a livable income. All of these options not only tear families apart, but also force a woman to leave her land, culture, and community: the three most important factors that are integral to the mental health and happiness of a Guatemalan indigenous woman.

The importance of connection to community stands in sharp contrast with the values of heightened self-interest and materialism. The book “Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System”, portrays this eloquently: “Beyond food and shelter, the basic necessities for human well-being and optimum health include an individual’s feelings that they are competent to do what is needed, that they are connected to others by kinship and friendship, and that they have personal autonomy, freedom, and self-direction. The satisfaction of all basic needs is presumably linked to individual well-being through the specific motivations and behaviors that lead to need satisfaction. When motivation is culturally operationalized through strongly internalized materialist values for self-interest, competition, high consumption, and economic growth, corresponding values for cooperation, altruism, community, and strong interpersonal relationships may be suppressed, and basic needs may go unmet” (Bodley 520). If someone can never focus on strengthening themselves, their family bonds, and their community involvement, they are bound to feel out of control and greatly insecure in their world. In our experience, it has been apparent that mental health is significantly diminished by these negative circumstances.

How Pixan Works to Support and Keep Connections Strong

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After the peace accords in Guatemala were signed in 1996 that ended the conflict, there are many reforms that have still, 19 years later, not been fully realized.  The country continues to struggle with issues on every front: economic inequality, malnutrition, domestic violence, lack of education, and political corruption for just a few examples. A history of colonization and racism toward indigenous people further complicate matters of life, but that is not to say that there are no options for Guatemala! Many people nationally and internationally understand that problems here are deep-rooted, and to truly impact change and begin to better people’s lives there cannot be a metaphorical “band-aid” placed on the issues. We must work to initiate change from the ground up. The methodology of empowerment, education, support and opportunity is the basic framework of AMA’s programs. Our approach supports indigenous women’s lives in many ways that are lifelong and sustainable, and one of those ways is through their employment with Pixan.

Some may wonder how Pixan’s fair-trade weaving initiative differs from other businesses that also carry the fair-trade program label. For example, in the beautiful, tourist-laden lake town of Panajachel it’s possible to find many women either selling their handmade items along the sidewalk or stroll into one of many fair-trade stores. However, Pixan is different: you won’t find the weavers miles away from their communities. The relationship and support offered to weavers by our association is very special. We have two community facilitators; Paola Tzep and Mayra Izara, who carry out visits to the communities where our weavers live to not only distribute supplies for weaving and collect finished products but also to give continuing education. This is where the theme of land, culture, and community as beneficial and necessary factors of life comes into clearer focus. Since our weavers do not have to leave their land to travel to Quetzaltenango, Panajachel, or other large market cities, they have more time to spend at home with their families. It can be extremely stressful to have to leave home every day and not attend to the needs of family members, as well as risk danger traveling alone at night. The cost of commuting daily ends up weighing heavily on a weaver already burdened with a minimal income.  Being able to work from within their home and community spares them the pain of constant, distant travel from rural to urban areas, as well as the potential to have to completely relocate.

As opposed to the common method of a one-time training or consulting appointment with a group that is ready to learn, our model of education is one of “accompaniment,” which means that our education sessions continue over the long-term. Those that are employees of Pixan are also members of AMA’s “Women’s Circles.” These circle meetings, conducted either once weekly or once every 15 days, draw from the methods and practices of our behavioral development program. Not only do we support women in learning new skills that will enhance their professional development as weavers, they are able to participate in various personal development programs of sexual health, adult literacy and self-esteem building. It is a common problem that because of various types of trauma related to displacement from natural disaster, discrimination against the indigenous, and sexism involved in machismo culture, that self-esteem in women is extremely weak. For one to become a participant of Pixan, they must foremost join AMA’s women’s circles that focus on entrepreneurship and behavioral development. The first step towards growth is to develop more self-confidence, self-love, and begin to dissolve fear.

Not only does a Pixan weaver get to be free of her dependency on foreign aid and donations for income, she can develop a strong sense of self-worth in her talents and cultural identity, stepping outside the machismo culture that dictates that man is the only provider or money. Pixan’s work is not just paid wage labor. It is an opportunity for the women themselves to have direct access to market and cut out the “middle-man.” Because the Pixan team works as a connector to national and international markets, the weavers end up getting the profit directly from those markets who are interested in investing in their work. Next, Pixan works to educate women about how international markets work so that they are aware of the entire process of direct-trade, and feel empowered to make proper decisions for themselves. Establishing oneself in the methodology of AMA is a long process, but one that strengthens a human being from the roots of themselves, which is never easy or a “quick-fix.” Over time, results and improvement are seen in those who have put in the effort to develop and grow.

The Story of Espumpuja

untitled3Within the Pixan program, there is a very special, very empowered group of women that has been participating in AMA’s women’s circles for 9 years now. Espumpuja is a Maya Mam community northwest of Quetzaltenango that first had smokeless stoves built (one of AMA’s most foundational and important projects) in their community before becoming weavers for Pixan 5 years ago. They all make a substantial and supportive part of their income from their weavings, but it wasn’t always that way. This group participated in AMA’s women’s circles and behavioral health programs for many years before they began weaving training, and before eventually being able to earn a significant income from their finished products. Becoming a weaver for Pixan requires a lot of time dedicated to personal development and improved weaving methods, but ends up being a source of happiness because of its ability to allow highland women to stay in their communities.

In early September of 2015, a group of community facilitators including Mayra, who speaks Mam, paid a visit to Espumpuja not only to pay the group individually for their sales in Pixan, but also to check up on how their improved stoves are working 9 years later. Facilitators took advantage of this visit to conduct a short interview with them and allow anyone to respond or speak about their experiences with AMA and Pixan in a circle. One of the most beautiful things we see in the personal development of our partners is how they become stronger through attending weekly meetings. Most of our newer members start out speaking very little in front of their group, or sometimes not at all, for sustained periods of time. It is usually more difficult for them to elaborate about their opinions and experiences, and even their voices are quieter.  This particular visit was a delightful and enriching because all of the members of Espumpuja were eager and open to sharing their thoughts. It was obvious that AMA’s programs for mental well-being and self-esteem have been greatly beneficial for their self-confidence. They have come such a long way!

untitled7Before selling their weavings to Pixan, the members of the community were selling them in the markets of nearby town San Juan, because they had already been weavers for their whole lives. One of the questions the group was asked was if they found it to be an important thing that their partnership with Pixan allows them to stay in their communities, or in their homes. They were asked if they think it’s a beneficial way to be able to work, and with much enthusiasm, many responded. Josefa Romero (right) specifically spoke up, saying, “It is much, much better that we can work from home. We have many things that we have to do every day. We have husbands, we have children, we have animals to feed… and when our children come home from school we can have food already made. We can go back and forth from cooking, weaving, cleaning and washing, back to weaving, feed our livestock, and then continue weaving. This allows us a lot of time to take care of everything that needs to be done in a day.” This reduction of time spent outside the community, possibly traveling to San Juan to the market allows them to be productive in their work while also feeling equally productive at home.

untitled6Juana Méndez Romero (left), 62, who is from the nearby community of Manantial but participates in the Espumpuja women’s circle, has 12 children and “countless grandchildren,” so needless to say was very happy about the extra time she has. She mentioned that working for Pixan and with AMA is a great source of happiness for her, and she thanks the organization so much for taking them into account. She loves getting an income from her weavings.

Another Espumpuja resident, Esperanza Romero Méndez (pictured under the title "The Story of Espumpuja"), elaborated on why being able to work in her community is so important, saying, “Yes, staying in our community helps us so much, because each one of us has different things we do. We can’t survive by just attending to one thing—we have to do many things to make money. Some of us plant vegetables in the fields, some of us harvest them, some of us sell them in the markets. Pixan is a very helpful part of all that we do to gain income for all of our necessary spending; especially on our children’s studies. For example, here in Guatemala, you are required to buy a uniform for your children. It’s such a shame when the principal requests that you buy the uniform of 50 quetzales, and you can’t do it. It’s very sad.” Since Esperanza has 7 children, the cost of uniforms would definitely add up to a lot in the end. She is now an independent earner and contributor, with all the confidence of being able to care for her family emotionally and financially.

untitledYolanda Romero Romero (or Yoli), 23 years old, spoke the most out of anyone in the group interview. Her radiance and confidence was inspiring, and represents the next generation of weavers and AMA participants, as her mother also is a member of the AMA women’s circles. She commented that “To be a woman and have work that is other than our housework, which no one pays us for, is something I deeply thank the support of AMA and Pixan for. I never tire of being thankful because I’ve seen the fruits of my work. And even though I feel tired right now, there is money. Before we had never known, had never seen a 100 quetzales bill—it’s so hard to earn that amount of money. Even though it’s hard for men to earn too, it’s still easier for them than us.” She went on to remark about their weaving training; “AMA has helped us so much with our training, with delivering cloth, experience, and knowledge. Thanks especially to Mayra for her patience and her efforts to come here. It was a little difficult at the beginning because we didn’t know how to take measurements or how to use yarn—but we thank those who have given us the opportunity to be trained, who have given us knowledge that we didn’t have before. It’s all such an asset for us. When I first started to weave, I wasn’t saving any money because I couldn’t. But thanks to God now for the little I have put together, some of which I can support my family with. I also thank the support of my mom and grandmother, because before I was not part of any group. And now, I am! It was so different in the past; because of my participation I’ve lost all my fear that I had! And I know more, and I’m seeing more of this every month.”

Supporting and empowering women foremost with knowledge is the fundamental value of AMA’s work, and our successes are shown through how weavers of Pixan and women’s circle members feel about themselves after all they have accomplished. The benefits of loving oneself and strengthening one’s identity come on slowly, but come from a deep and authentic place that truly improves one's sense of self-worth. We facilitate the opportunity to learn and grow, but our members are the one’s that take advantage of it, and actually do all the work. We are so proud of them for all the time and effort they have put in with their participation. What is important to us at AMA and HSP is not only the personal development of our partners but also how that development positively affects a wider scope of the nation of Guatemala. If we support women to make beneficial changes internally, the external world of their land and communities is subsequently affected. We strive to always continue connecting women to their culture and supporting healthy lives with the intention to allow them to remain in the land they love.

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Works Cited

Bodley, John H. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System.Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2011. Google Books. Web. 9 Sep. 2015.https://books.google.com.gt/books?id=COgW94KxVL4C&redir_esc=y

Pretty, Jules N. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land, and Nature.Virginia:Earthscan Publications Limited, 2002. Google Books. Web. 9 Sep 2015.https://books.google.com.gt/books/about/Agri_Culture.html?id=f57JHmlqOMC&redir_esc=y