Guatemalan weaver makes JP her second home

December 15, 2006
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A piece of indigenous Guatemala exists in Jamaica Plain. Maria Ajcalon Bocel, a member of a women’s weaving cooperative of 200 economically disadvantaged Mayan women in the highlands of Guatemala, is in her fourth year of making JP her home for half of the year.

She lives with Eliza Strode, a social worker who owns A Thread of Hope, a “Fair Trade” business. “I feel very fortunate to have such a wonderful intercultural friendship with Maria, and a special connection with Guatemala,” Strode said.

A Thread of Hope is exhibiting at Shopping for Social Change and Multicultural Holiday Celebrations at Spontaneous Celebrations this weekend, Dec. 15-17. [See Happenings for details]. The business exhibited on Dec. 9 at the Jamaica Plain Arts Association Holiday Art Fair at the Footlight Club.

Bocel volunteers at the Rafael Hernandez bilingual, bicultural elementary school in Egleston Square and has learned to read and write in Spanish during her time here. She never attended school in Guatemala. Her primary language is Cakchiquel, one of 22 Mayan languages in Guatemala. She is now learning the written form of her native language.

A master weaver who began learning at the age of 8, Bocel demonstrates weaving at various events where A Thread of Hope exhibits. She has traveled to Canada and Venezuela as well as the United States to represent the co-op, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2007.

Using backstrap looms, the weavers create one-of-a-kind jackets, scarves, handbags and other accessories from hand-dyed rayon chenille and cotton. The 200 women in the co-op have all been affected by the military violence against the Mayans during the 40-year genocide that ended with peace accords in 1997. In 1982, the Guatemalan military invaded and burned down Bocel’s village, murdering her father and brother along with all the men and many of the women.

Working together in the co-op has helped the women to begin to heal, they say. They are learning that they can speak up in safety. Earning more money for their weavings has allowed the women to stay in their villages rather than having to move to the city to work as domestics or work on coffee plantations. The women say they are developing self-governance skills and strengthening their economic roles.

“Before and during the violence, women got paid less than a dollar for their weaving in the market,” Bocel said. “We didn’t have work. We suffered a lot. Working for our cooperative, things are better. We have work, money to buy food and clothing for our children and send them to school.”

Fair Trade principles and practices include: fair wages, cooperative workplaces, consumer education, environmental sustainability, financial and technical support, respect for cultural identity and public accountability. The goal is to benefit the artisans who do the work rather than to maximize profits. Fair Trade is the antithesis of sweatshop production.

Strode connected with the co-op when she went to Guatemala in 1997 to learn Spanish. She has a deep interest in economic cooperation, having managed food co-ops here for over 10 years. She said she hopes to return to Guatemala next year for several months to work with the co-op.

To contact A Thread of Hope, e-mail athreadofhope@yahoo.com or call 308-7026.

From a press release.