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I Made My Own "Bootstraps"

Bootstraps

Diego was a baby when his dad was kidnapped during Guatemala’s thirty-year-long civil war.

They never heard from him again.

Little Diego had to do his part to help the family survive without the income and protection of a father. His work was to collect firewood from the forested slopes of the Atitlan volcano bordering their village.

What kind of a future can a young boy imagine for himself in such traumatic and desperate circumstances?

(Put on his sandals for a moment: what are your chances of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps"?)

Diego’s new destiny was set in motion when he found a job at an American jewelry workshop down the street from his house. Still just a teenager, he learned the craft of turning seed beads into stunning fashion accessories. After working there for eight years, he ventured out on his own, making jewelry at home. He’d walk down to the docks and peddle his creations to tourists as they stepped off the boats.

That was his first bold move on the path upwards.

His integrity and talent were soon recognized by foreign buyers. Unique Batik made his acquaintance almost a decade ago and has happily kept him busy ever since. Today he employs 35 of his people, the Tjutujil of Santiago Atitlan, as well as a few family members.

He says his art is his passion...

and his happiness is beads!

These days orders arrive from as far away as Canada. Quite often he is commissioned by interest groups to set their logos in a brooch or pin. This requires time and effort to get the colors just right, but the results are strikingly satisfying.

What Diego likes best about his job is the moment an order is shipped and he receives his payment. Ka-ching! (Don’t we all?) It’s not just he and his 75-year-old mother who is thriving. The blessing extends to all 35 households involved in filling orders.

Yes, he pulled himself up, one strand of beads at a time. His current goal is to open a boutique studio on the main street of his town, where his creations will be on elegant display.

We salute you, Diego!

Check out samples of Diego’s popular creations below:

crystal bracelet 

  Kensington Crystal bracelet

three strand necklace   

Savannah Three Strands Necklace           

 

  beaded pen case

Beaded Pen Case

 

hummingbird earrings  

Hummingbird Earrings

  moon flower earrings

Moonflower Earrings

 

How this woman finally attended school at the age of 33

Joy in beading

She could only dream of learning to read and write as a little girl. As one of fourteen children, Carmelita had responsibilities in the household from an early age. She took care of younger siblings and sold handicrafts to tourists on the streets. There were no resources, time, or hope for sending her to school. Watching her dream for education slowly fade as she grew up, she hoped that her own children one day would be afforded the opportunity.

Next generation

When she was old enough, her sister taught her how to weave seed beads into jewelry. Her skills and dedication paid off as she successfully traded these delicate creations in the subsequent years. So much so, that she has been able to support all six of her children through high school! Seeing them established in the professional careers they studied for is her pride and joy.

Serendipity

A kind foreigner whom she met while selling on the street one day, heard of her childhood dream and connected her with a tutor. This is how, at age 33, Carmelita was finally taught to read and write. This experience emboldened her to enroll in primary school, and eventually, she finished sixth grade along with the twelve-year-old students.

weaving with beads

Rainbows, flowers, trees

Inspired by the dramatic beauty and vivid colors of nature around her Guatemalan village, she designs and crafts intricate pieces, which you can view and buy here: bracelets, rings, chokers, badge holders, and eyeglass holders. What she appreciates about modern times are the technological advances that made communication much easier between her and the customers. Because Carmelita delights in getting orders and filling them on time! Finding the right colors for specific orders is sometimes a challenge. A challenge she doggedly accepts. She says her husband is her greatest support.

Faith seeds

And now Carmelita has a new dream: she wants to buy a car. Reality check: the percentage of car owners in Guatemala’s population is the same as the percentage of the US population who do not own cars (8%). In other words, this is a big ambition! Her children smile and tease her, but she has seen a few preposterous dreams dusted off and come to life already. The little seed beads strung into jewelry are called “mostacillas”, a word related to “mostaza”, which is Spanish for “mustard.” This reminds me of the familiar “faith like a mustard seed” challenge. With her sincere and indefatigable trust, I daresay she will yet see mountains move!

seed beads

BATIK

     

BATIK 

How do YOU pronounce this word? Most English speakers say buh-TEEK with emphasis on the second syllable. The word, of Javanese origin, is pronounced BAH-tik in Indonesian, with emphasis on the first syllable. According to some sources the term evolved from Javanese amba (to write) and the Malay word titik (dot). Writing with dots…

Mystique

When I start digging for origins, Indonesia features prominently. (Indonesian batik was internationally recognized when UNESCO added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009. Read about it:  UNESCO Cultural Selection.) 

The Indonesian island of Java’s fine batiks were highly sought after by traders from Europe, the Arab world, and India, not long after the middle ages. Yet, it appears the art form was practiced in various ancient cultures. A batik-like linen grave cloth has been unearthed in Egypt, which dates from the 4th century BC. White patterns contrast with an indigo blue background, which could very well have been made by scratching designs into the wax.

Technique

Wax is the keyword here. Hot, liquid wax. Patterns are created by dropping dots and lines with a spouted tool filled with wax onto cloth, or with wax-soaked stamps. Then the cloth is soaked in cold water dye. Everywhere the wax was applied, it resists the dye. When the piece is washed in hot water, the wax melts away, resulting in a two-toned printed piece of cloth. The process can be repeated multiple times with new wax designs applied once the cloth is dry, then dipped into new shades or colors.

Unique

Phew! What a labor-intensive process! One can see why Unique Batik even re-purpose the precious batik fabric cut-offs into beautiful products. For example, check out these earrings or these scrunchies.

Since 1999 when Unique Batik first met a few small artists in West Africa, its own indelible impressions are clearly seen. Over the years trusting relationships with the families have slowly grown, as regular personal visits are made to the workshops. Unique Batik is still a vital link between them and customers on this side of the Atlantic.

               

So, big applause for tremendous and faithful effort is appropriate! And a little pause for reflection:

I was thinking about the singularity of each hand-printed cloth. (The word “unique” has roots in the word “one”.) Have you thought about how we all leave our unique mark in the circles we move, intentionally or not? By our individual choices, we can resist common default reactions to what life throws at us, just like the wax repels the dye, with extraordinary results! Imagine how our environments can be custom decorated by forgiveness instead of bitterness, by thankfulness instead of complaining. Each one of our pièce de résistance a jaw-dropping work of art.

Pique your “Interestique”

If you want to try your hand at the actual process of batik, you can follow this tutorial for a small beginner project: Handprinted Introduction to Batik

To Market with My Basket
Paper or Plastic?

Plastic. The woven kind, standing tall among the reusable choices of our day. Not mass-manufactured, but individually plaited by the delicate fingers of a family I’ve known for two decades.


Come With Me

First, you need to stomach several hours of winding mountain road travel in a crowded minibus from Guatemala City (the subject of another story, another day).

Next, you ascend a precariously steep cement staircase of 144 irregular steps to arrive at our friends’ house in a hamlet clinging to the vertical sides of the San Francisco River Valley. If you still have breath in your lungs at this altitude, you’ll soon lose it to the priceless views of Lake Atitlan from here! (Where in the world?)

Stringed Instruments

Our host comes to the gate to welcome us with a big smile. The walls are hung with loops of colorful plastic wire. Baskets in various stages of completion are sitting on the kitchen table amid open school books. Wooden frames in different sizes are stacked on top of the pantry cabinet. Chickens cluck in their pens and a pot of black beans is gurgling on the wood stove. This, right here, is where the magic happens.

Luisa, her soft-spoken husband and their six beautiful daughters (among them a set of twins) are all involved in the family business. He is a mason by trade and the girls are all in school, but everyone joins in weaving baskets when they have extra time. You can sense the family’s pride in their handiwork and shared excitement when an order comes in from Unique Batik. They are happy to show us how it’s done: each tight wound of the string around the rugged wooden pegs, in and out, over and under, culminating in symphonies of color.

Big baskets take her two days to finish, and the smaller ones are a full day’s work. (Here “hand” is put back in hand-crafted!) Once a week she totes (the pun intended) a collection of her baskets to the local market, where she trades on the sidewalk. The orders for baskets to export come periodically, and they are made the same way and with the same dedication. One by one.

Pack up your Troubles in a Handy Tote and Smile, Smile, Smile

These woven baskets are ubiquitous in Guatemala and I have an assortment myself! In my opinion, they are the most practical option for produce shopping at the farmer’s market, packing a picnic, and transporting or storing all my general and specific paraphernalia. They are durable, easy to clean, and they are just plain pretty.

Our short visit has brought smiles to all. We leave with several purchases, full hearts, and an unforgettable story to share.

That's why I say, choose plastic. Choose Luisa's canastas.*   HERE.

* “Canasta” is what they call a basket in Spanish, from Latin “canistrum”, which originated from earlier usages of “kanna” for “reed”. (You may know a fun card game by that name too.)

Want to explore more about our Guatemalan artisans? Look here: Unique Batik Artisans

 

 

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Reading the Beads, Part 3

As we noted in our two previous posts, beads carry great significance in Ghanaian culture — marking key moments in your journey through life. What’s more, they can signify your status within society. 

A priest, for instance, would wear beads made of organic materials like bone, cowrie shell, or elephant teeth. A queen mother would wear white beads, symbolizing purity, as well as silver and blue beads, aligning her with the moon. A chief would wear bronze beads, plated with gold, and complementary yellow beads. According to our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, these glowing colors represent “fire under control.”

Not surprisingly, beads marking the end of life are especially meaningful. At funerals, mourners usually wear black and white beads to express their grief — but they might also wear red, to show their rage at the loss of a loved one. Beads of creamy red-brown bauxite, exclusive to Ghana, indicate an extremely profound loss.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion of beads and their significance for the people of Ghana. Whenever you wear beaded jewelry, think of the ways different colors and styles can express something about your own journey through life.

Reading the Beads, Part 2

In our last post, we noted the significance that people in Ghana attribute to beads. As we saw, beads can celebrate and commemorate your birth. Here’s how they reflect the later stages of your journey through life:

Waist beads represent an intimate adornment once you reach adulthood. To quote our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, “they should be worn discreetly and not be seen by just anyone.” Beads worn around the wrist, however, can show status and express identity — for everyone to see.

Beads can also designate major landmarks in your journey, such as overcoming an obstacle, surviving an accident, or even giving birth. To make these moments tangible, you might opt for white beads or disk-shaped beads.

In our next post, we’ll talk more about the way beads can communicate social status — and mark the end of life. Be sure to join us!

 

 

Reading the Beads

In Ghana, beads are more than beautiful objects; they are symbols with specific meanings for each person. To quote our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, they help “narrate your life from birth to death.” At the start of your journey, for instance, beads tell your story in the following ways:

One week after your birth, you’ll have a naming ceremony, and you’ll receive a small string of beads. These may be blue or another color, chosen by your grandmother. 

If you’re a twin, you’ll get a special set of beads to reflect your special status. These beads represent seed and bone, and they’re usually made of glass, in a combination of black and white or brown and white.

As you grow, your beads will be carefully restrung — continuing your story into the next phase of life. In our next post, we’ll explore that pivotal phase, so be sure to join us again!

Making a Difference -- With Masks

Earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached America, thousands of people had trouble getting face masks. There simply weren’t enough to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Beginning in March, we’re pleased to say, Unique Batik took action to address this problem. Working in tandem with skilled artisans and longtime retail customers, we were able to produce thousands of masks — and to make them freely available.

In Guatemala, for instance, artisans created soft, colorful masks from traditional corte fabric. In Thailand, artisans made beautiful tie-dyed masks.

We donated many of these masks to nonprofit organizations, and several of our retailers did the same, or facilitated the donation process. Here are some inspiring examples of fair-trade stores doing their part:

 

The Bridge (Holland, Michigan)

Volunteers bought masks and sent them to the Navaho Nation, a coronavirus hotspot with an infection rate among the highest in the country. Now, thanks to contract tracing, social distancing, and a mask mandate, the Nation has almost completely eliminated new infections.

 

Blue Heron Design (Lee’s Summit, Missouri)

Blue Heron gave masks away for free. With donations from its customers, the store raised almost $3,500 for four local organizations: Hope House, Lee’s Summit Social Services, Black Waters Market Food Pantry, and the Humane Society Animal Shelter (which received masks with a cat print). “I’m proud of our customers,” says owner Peggy Brown, “and humbled by their generosity.”

 

Mosaic Fair Trade Collection (Eugene, Oregon)

Mosaic helped customers donate masks to the Navajo Nation. For more information about the Nation and its response to COVID-19, click here.

Thanks to everybody who has helped us get masks to the people who need them!

 

When you buy a face mask from Unique Batik, you're helping talented artisans like Laura and Francisco -- hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

When you buy a face mask from Unique Batik, you’re helping talented artisans, like Laura and Francisco, who've been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

 

The Impactful Work of ODIM Guatemala

One of the universal truths in this world is wherever  you go in the world you will find people just want to provide a good life for their families. At Unique Batik we strive to present opportunities for the families and communities we work with to do just that. We also know our work is only one avenue of support, so we believe in advocating for organizations doing life changing and life saving work on the ground in these communities. One of our favorite such organizations in Guatemala is ODIM (Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya). ODIM was founded in 2005, initially beginning its work by supplying humanitarian relief for the people of Guatemala after being devastated by Hurricane Stan. In 2008 construction began for ODIM’s San Juan Clinic (Clinica Sanjuanerita), and in 2014 the San Pablo Clinic (Clinica Chuitinamit) was opened. One of the greatest things about these clinics is that they are staffed by bilingual Spanish/Tz’utujil speaking nurses and a local physician, and of their 42 staff members 82% are Tz’utujil Mayan staff, 13% are Guatemalan (but not Tz’utujil), and only 5% are foreign staff. Another bonus: 83% of ODIM’s leaders and coordinators are women! 

Since ODIMs conception its staff has worked hard to raise funds to implement and maintain an array of incredible programs:

  • Healthy Mommy & Me utilizes healthcare, informational sessions, cooking classes, food vouchers, psychological support groups, and medical appointments to combat chronic malnutrition.

  • Adolescent Health is designed to equip youth with knowledge about puberty, sexuality, contraception, and gender equality to empower them to make sensible decisions for themselves and become peer educators in their communities.

              Adolescent Health                   Let's Walk Together
  • Let’s Walk Together provides education, exercise, cooking classes and support groups for those living with diabetes, which affects more than 25% of the indigenous population (to compare, the CDC’s 2020 report estimates 10.5% of the US population has diabetes).

  • High Impact Home Improvement (HIHI) provides families with water filters and safe, smokeless, and environmentally friendly stoves in their homes, as well as informative workshops about Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH).

ODIM provides medical care at their two clinics, their dental clinic Healthy Smiles, and goes above and beyond to address the root of issues in these communities. The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. While helping people to heal once they come to a clinic is certainly important work, having programs which assess and address the factors that lead to common issues is crucial to ensure the highest number of safe and healthy individuals. The fact that ODIM does both is truly impressive and heartwarming. 

These are just some examples of ODIM’s phenomenal programs. You can visit their website, www.odimguatemala.org, to learn more about all of the work they do, the communities they work in (San Juan and San Pablo La Laguna), and ways you can get involved. Thank you to all of the staff at ODIM for your tireless efforts to make your communities the best they can be. 

 

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Hope for the Next Generation

As Unique Batik looks for nonprofit partners to support in the regions in which we work, one of the most important attributes we seek is sustainability. Will the organization be able to work effectively not only now, but in the future to make a long term impact instead of putting a temporary band-aid on the community’s problems? One of the most impressive things about Asociacion La Libertad, or ALAS, is that they have a sustainability plan to secure the organization's future. ALAS, a nonprofit organization based in Guatemala, coordinates educational development and more for the neglected populations of Guatemala.

Students in ALAS’ educational programs contribute to the plan by working while they attend school. To launch a new school in a remote area, La Libertad must ensure that they can support the minimum number of students required by the government.  Unique Batik has funded tuition for the seven qualified students needed to reach the minimum number required and start the new school.  Once the school is established, the students will help sustain it through their work.  Through this system, not only are they creating a future for the students who come after them, they are also empowered by knowing that they can contribute to the community.

After the brutal 36-year civil war ended in in 1996, 410 refugee families were repatriated to a remote zone of the highlands of Guatemala in the Zona Reina area, to the village now known as San Antonio de Nueva Esperanza, or “New Hope.” Reconstruction began and the vision of the village elders included establishing education as a foundation for future development. With the lowest literacy rate in Latin America, especially among rural, indigenous populations, education is of paramount importance to the development of the lives of the Guatemalan poor.

Fourteen years after the initial founding of La Libertad’s educational program, which seeks to provide formal education ranging from elementary school through college, the village of San Antonio de Nueva Esperanza and its neighbors have seen over 450 people complete their education through the ninth grade. Approximately fifty students participating in extended vocational training for computers and agriculture have gone on to study at the university level. Considering the odds against them -- on average, only one out of ten rural Guatemalans completes middle school -- these figures indicate the tremendous success of ALAS.

La Libertad continues to take on challenges, including the 2010 opening of the university satellite campus of the Mariano Gálvez University, the only one in all of the Zona Reina. With this, the original vision of extending local education from the middle school to university level has been brought to fruition, but sustaining this vision takes continuous work on the part of not only ALAS, but program participants. One benefit of local university classes is that it guarantees that local teachers who want to stay in Zona Reina and expand the educational system can achieve their own necessary education to lead and inspire future students.


Unique Batik is proud to partner with ALAS in providing educational opportunities for the people of Zona Reina and San Antonio Nueva Esperanza. Through the years, the community has shown its commitment to education and La Libertad has created a program that can achieve its goals sustainably, making the vision of the founding village elders a reality that will touch generations to come.