The bracelets produced by Kiej de los Bosques not only look good, they have a real impact on the lives of Guatemalan women. The organization employs female artisans who create the products, providing income to rural women who traditionally did not work and allowing them to move from a cycle of poverty to one of prosperity. In the rural villages around Lake Atitlan, where communities are often widely dispersed, each group of artisans nominates a leader to oversee the process.
We spoke with leader Santos Tepaz, of Producciones Tzununa, who told us about her work, the benefits and how the dynamics of her relationships are changing..
Please state your name and age.
My name is Santos Tepaz and I am 21 years old.
How did you become the leader of this community?
The women chose me. I’m the 4th leader of this group. The first leader didn’t have permission from her husband; he used to hit her, he didn’t want her to travel to Guatemala, but in order to do this work, you have to travel to Guatemala often to deliver the product to Kiej. The second leader, she didn’t know how to do this. Every time any of us would tell her to check our work, she wouldn’t want to do it. She had a bad attitude. The third leader was the same in that her husband used to beat her when she got home at night or any time she came back home with problems. She’s my aunt, she lives in that house right there. And the fourth leader is me. When I first told my husband Juan that I had been chosen to be the leader, he, like most men here, didn’t want me to be in a leadership position because I have a 1-year-old son to take care of. But little by little I told him: “Look, I’m going to do the leadership and you’re going to accompany me, we are going achieve many new things.” And little by little he said: “Alright.” [Smiles]
What does your husband do?
Well my husband, sometimes he has a job and sometimes he doesn’t. He helps me make the bracelets that I have to complete; sometimes he helps me count the bracelets that the women produce because those amounts always vary. And sometimes my son bothers too much so he takes care of him, he does it all. Thank God that now he’s supporting me [smiles].
When did you become the leader of this community?
In the month of March. We are in the first period of incubation and the women keep going. We are about 35 women in this community and I work with all of them. But some of them look at the work as too difficult because I am very strict about quality and cleanliness of the bracelets. Everything has to be 100% good quality. Some women don’t like that I’m so demanding since sometimes I look at the beads and they’re dirty or not attached well so I tell them to do it again. Some of them get angry about this so they decide to leave.
Why is quality control so important?
I honestly don’t pressure the women for pure fun; I try to explain to them that what we’re doing, our products, are going somewhere far away, so it’s in their benefit as well to make a quality product.
How has your life changed ever since you started working with Kiej?
Well before, I wouldn’t talk much, or to anyone, I was scared. I was very shy and didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t know what to say. Now I can talk to other people and have a conversation. Now, thank God, I feel motivated by the women and that’s how I’m changing my life. Also, sometimes my husband doesn’t have a job so now that I work, I can help him out. Before, I would just stay at home and didn’t contribute.
And your son, does he go to school?
He’s still not old enough to go to school, he’s going to be 2 this year. But that is my dream and I will achieve it with my son, I want him to be a professional [smiles]. For me, I was only able to stay in school until the 9th grade because my parents didn’t have much income. But thank God we at least have a sister that is in 11th grade.
Can you please describe your responsibilities in your home and as a leader in your group?
First I wake up early in the morning at 4 am to prepare my husband’s lunch for him to take to work. Then I wake him up and serve him breakfast. Then the women arrive and have breakfast at 9 am. While they work on the bracelets, I do quality control until 5 pm. Then I tell my husband to help me out: we shower with warm water so I tell him: “hey, go and heat some water up” and he replies: “OK”.
So you and your husband share the responsibilities at home?
Yes. But it didn’t use to be that way before.
Is that something that you see is changing with other women and their husbands, that is, the mentality that women have to stay at home?
With my group, yes. I see it everyday with my sister because now her husband helps her.
How do you feel about the work you’re doing?
I’m really happy now. But it’s also the women that make me happy. Their support means a lot to me, because without it, you don’t feel motivated or happy. Whenever there’s an order, all the women come here and work together. But also the women are starting to support their husbands and that makes all of them very happy: to be earning an income and helping out economically. And this makes me happy because they tell me “look this helped me” or they tell me what’s working. I always ask the women how much they want to make. The women decide how many bracelets they want to produce, but I always tell them to take more so that maybe their husbands can help out when they don’t have jobs and that way they can earn more than what they’re making now.
So do the husbands already know how to make the bracelets?
Well mine does [laughs]. He came with me on the first day of training. And I’m happy he helps me because women here are not supposed to work outside the home, have businesses or make much money. But my husband supports me with this. When we travel to Guatemala, he helps me pack everything up and travels with me to the city and our son, so it really means a lot to me that he’s ok with this, it really makes it easier for me.
Is this something that applies to other women here?
More and more, men are starting to support the women with what they want to do. And this brings more civility to the family because if the men don’t have a job and aren’t making an income, the women do. Before, that was not the norm, women couldn’t work because men wouldn’t give them permission or hit them even.[Things are changing for this group in particular, but within the population, old norms still exists. Sexism is very prevalent in the area so it’s very hard for the women to participate, because women are expected to stay at home. In this group the paradigms are now changing. For this reason, generation of income is so powerful in these villages because it gives the women work and other people start appreciating them, whereas before they were only expected to stay in the kitchen. ]
What is the dynamic between the women? Did you know each other from before?
It really wasn’t until now that we met and got to know about the women: their names, where they are from, what they do, who they are… Sometimes women stay home and don’t leave very often.[Even though it’s a small village, women don’t know each other because they tend to stay in the home and take care of domestic chores. Women’s situation in villages is one of isolation.]
So do you like coming together, do you have a good time?
Yes we have fun because we laugh together and start sharing things with each other. And also when someone’s sick and doesn’t show up to work, we are all very supportive of it. If I have their number I call them to check up on them, that’s what I do.
What about the younger children? Who takes care of them?
Sometimes the women bring their children along, other times the older siblings take care of their younger ones. I always tell them to leave them somewhere safe because I don’t want them to neglect them either.
There are a variety of bracelets available from Kiej de los Bosques on our website, with each contributing to the communities in different ways. From providing eco-filters for water to a year’s education for a girl, your purchase will have a tangible impact upon the lives of Guatemalan women like Santos. To learn more or to make a purchase visit the Kiej de los Bosques page here.