Cristobalina Colaj Mux tried to calm her nerves as her sister introduced her to several women. She looked carefully at the faces of these women, who together would soon form a cooperative with Mercado Global. For years, she had worked 12 hours for six days a week sewing traditional Mayan clothing and still struggled to support her seven children and her husband, who could not find work due to the loss of his arm in a terrible accident. Her sister assured her that the group would offer steady work weaving fabrics for products to be sold around the world as well as provide free education and skills trainings. It all sounded like a dream.
Cristobalina had never been part of a cooperative before; this would be her first. How would she manage the work, collaborate with the other women, and use her new income to improve the lives of her children she wondered. She felt both nervous and excited at the same time for her journey ahead.
Like Cristobalina, other women artisans are being empowered by Mercado Global’s programs in ways they never thought possible. We see the remarkable results time and time again. From investing income to send their daughters to school or applying lessons from our trainings to create a side business, our partner artisans are becoming agents of change in their own lives and in the lives of their families and community members.
We have found that managing and dealing with change is not always easy. In many cases, our artisans are experiencing many “firsts” — their first cooperative, first leadership position, first savings account, first child to go to school, and the list often goes on.
Doing anything for the first time requires the support of close friends and teachers and self-confidence. And so we have built our most popular and well-received training program around these the fundamental concepts. We call it the Power to Change program.
In the program, women bond over exercises that encourage honest conversations about personal and community challenges, such as leadership and gender dynamics. They discuss barriers to making changes in their lives and those of their families and learn ways to take action to overcome those barriers. After participating in the exercises, the women feel more self-confident and independent, and the group becomes more cohesive and close-knit.
About the program, Cristobalina said, “It has taught me about leadership and self-confidence, and I feel more empowered after every training. It’s never too late to make a change.”
Three years after joining her first cooperative, Cristobalina is a remarkable example of an agent of change. She is a respected leader within her cooperative and community. All of her children are enrolled in school with two already graduated.“Every day I wake up so thankful for Mercado Global, the work they provide to me, and the new chance they provided for my family. It’s something I will never take for granted,” said Cristobalina with a big smile.
Last week, we had the honor of hosting Emmy-nominated host of Top Chef, award-winning author, and advocate for women’s health, Padma Lakshmi, at our headquarters in Panajachel, Guatemala. The Love, Loss, and What we Ate author joined us with her daughter for five days of adventure and insight into our work to educate and empower women in the highlands of Guatemala.
The trip provided opportunities for cultural exchange, but also a chance for the pair to learn more about the barriers our artisans face in the areas of nutrition and women’s health and for Padma to share her experience and knowledge on these topics.
During our first community visit to San Andres Semetabaj, Padma sat in on a women’s health training focused on cervical cancer awareness and prevention. It was a beautiful mix of Spanish, English, and Kakchiquel, the indigenous language of this cooperative, spoken around the room as the Co-Founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America engaged with the women on their personal experiences and shared her knowledge on the importance of early-detection.
On the third day of the trip, we went to a partner cooperative in the community of San Jorge to attend a training focused on malnutrition. The artisans learned the difference between undernutrition and malnutrition, the importance of a balanced diet, and the dangers of popular sugary drinks and food for children, as Padma provided her personal tips for incorporating healthier foods into your diet. With Guatemala having the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, receiving the education and resources necessary to lead a healthier lifestyle is crucial for our artisans.
Later, the group bridged the gap between language and culture through a love of cooking as Padma and her daughter showed the artisans how to make pickled peppers, straight from Padma’s recent memoir, while the artisans taught the mother-daughter duo how to make traditional corn tortillas.
An advocate for women’s health around the world, we truly admire Padma and her work to empower women to lead healthier lifestyles and were honored for her to experience the Mercado Global model at work.
For more photos of Padma’s trip, check out our Facebook album here.
One main road leads to Las Cruces San Andres Semetajab, a quiet town in the Highlands of Guatemala. The streets are lined with a few tiendas or convenience stores, its fields are filled with corn and other vegetables, and women and men walk about in their colorful traditional Mayan clothing, known as traje. Despite its beauty and serenity, the rural and isolated location makes it difficult for the town’s talented artisans to access markets and earn income from their craft.
With the support of Mercado Global, a group of extraordinary women came together and took a collective step to change their futures. They were inspired by stories of women from a local Mercado Global partner cooperative. After several meetings with Mercado Global, they decided to form their own cooperative with 15 women and officially launched in April 2016 with the name Tejiendo Conocimiento or Weaving Knowledge. The launch marked the beginning of the women’s journey to become more skilled artisans, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.
In mid-May, Mercado Global held its second set of bi-monthly trainings focused on advanced sewing techniques and healthy cooking. Speaking in their native language, known as Kaqchikel, our two Community-Based Education Trainers made the women feel comfortable and confident in learning new skills and information about their important everyday decisions. Despite their early morning shyness, the women opened up during the day, sharing their experiences along with smiles and laughs as they practiced sewing and stirred the ingredients of the day’s recipes.
These trainings are exemplary of the two types of classes offered by Mercado Global — those focused on technical careers and those focused on empowerment. Through technical trainings, women discover ways to advance their careers as sewers and weavers, while the other classes equip them with important life skills, such as financial management, nutritious cooking, and leadership.
The indigenous women we partner with are the heart and soul of Mercado Global. Our mission and vision originated with the goal of empowering women to break the cycle of poverty and become rural entrepreneurs.
We would like to introduce you to Lorena, an inspiring young woman who has utilized our microloan, education, and technical training programs to transform her life as well as her family’s.
My name is Lorena Chiroy Pixtay and I am 23 years old. I grew up in a small community called La Fe with 11 siblings. Family is everything to me, everything I do is so that they can have a better life.
When I was 10 years old, I had to drop out of school to support my family. With a large farm, we needed as many hands as possible to harvest our crops. Our livelihood and the importance of maintaining the farm were my family’s main priorities and education quickly became an afterthought.
When I wasn’t helping on the farm I worked in Guatemala City, two hours from my home, at a tortilla shop for 12 hours a day to earn more money for my family. The job required me to cook over a hot stove, making hundreds of tortillas a day. I always daydreamed about another life for myself but I never thought it would be possible.
One day, my mother was invited to join a weaving cooperative and work for Mercado Global. After working with them for a year she seemed so much happier. I didn’t realize that work could inspire that kind of fulfillment, but I soon found out exactly what she meant.
Meet Alejandra Carillo-Munoz, Mercado Global’s Design Associate. As a Mexican-American designer, her work is inspired by her rich cultural heritage. Alejandra sat down with us and shared her motivation for working in sustainable fashion and the impact Mercado Global has on her life and perspective.
Can you tell me about your background and how that has influenced your work with MG?
Since a young age, fine arts have always been my strongest voice. This led me to receive a BFA in Fashion Design at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, CA where I was introduced to sustainable design and its focus on both social and environmental issues. However, it wasn’t until I started working in the industry that I was awakened to the severity of social exploitation in the garment industry, a realization that led me to grad school in an effort to ask more critical questions about my role and influence as a designer. With a thesis integrating design, art, and anthropology to explore social sustainability, I graduated from Purdue University with an MFA in Electronic and Time Based Arts in spring of 2015.
What inspires you to do this kind of work?
The first artisans I met were my parents, both were embroidery (piteado) artisans during my upbringing in Jalisco, México. We left for the U.S. as many families do in exchange for opportunities, but craft, art and culture remain as valuable ties to my Mexican roots. Guatemala reminds me of this every day!
Why did you want to work for Mercado Global?
My desire is to continue learning, and I am. I’m learning about ancient practices from strong, resilient artisan women. I get to collaborate alongside a talented, diverse design team and most of all, I am part of a larger team collectively proving that fashion can serve as an agent of change.
As a Design a Difference program participant, how do you see Bonnie Cashin's legacy as a pioneer in the fashion industry living on in the work you do with MG?
Bonnie Cashin was a significant contributor to the democratization of fashion for women. From her utilitarian designs that reinforced functionality to promoting ease in garment construction for mobility and comfort, she met the needs of real women. We strive to do the same at MG--to design a beautiful piece that also compliments our customers’ dynamic lifestyle.
How has your position influenced the design process?
I am the associate designer, meaning that I’m involved in the design process of our core collection. I assist with the research and conceptualization of the collection as well as develop the necessary design tools, resources and materials for our artisans to use during the sampling process of the textiles and techniques. It’s a special position because I have the opportunity to work closely with our artisans in their homes and communities as well as our in-house production team—such a humbling opportunity!
What is your favorite part of working for Mercado Global?
I love the days I wake up in the early morning to travel to our artisan communities for weaving trials, or the process of testing patterns on the loop as we develop fabric for our collections. The Guatemalan highlands have the most talented and skilled women and seeing this in person is such a privilege.
Can you share a meaningful memory from your time here?
One of the most memorable experiences was the first day I worked with our Master Artisan, Doña Maria. I designed our brocades for that particular season on the computer, a design inspired by Guatemalan technique. Once I arrived to her home I watched her set up the loom, interpret my two-dimensional design and bring it to life upon a textile piece. It really was one of those 'dream come true' moments.
How has your perspective changed from your work with MG?
It’s teaching me that I am exactly where I ought to be in life. In the pursuit of an education, I left a very rural town in México at the age of four. Twenty-three years later, I’ve returned to familiar lands and I wouldn’t change a thing about this perfectly ironic journey.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope is to continue growing both professionally and personally, and to contribute as much as I am learning from these many experiences at MG.