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Fair Trade Gifts that Change the World: Juana Cholotio’s Story

Posted Jul 03 2008 1:14pm

ByWeBuyItGreen: promoting green living and fair trade

This is the first in a series at WeBuyItGreen calledFair Trade Gifts that Change the World, which attempts to show how buying fair trade goods impacts the lives of the individuals who produce them.  

Juana Cholotio sits on the floor of her living room beading a twelve-stranded bracelet as blue and beautiful as any Caribbean lagoon.  Her twenty-one year old daughter, Melchora Isabel, works at the table with four other women.  The table only seats five, so the remaining three women in this group of nine have joined Juana on the floor.  Tomorrow, the group will be different.  The eighteen women doing bead work in this cooperative choose their own hours, and most work part-time because they have children to manage at home.  For Juana, the work does become tiresome--she chooses to work ten to twelve hour days.  But she takes pride in her skill and explains that the conversation in the co-op helps you to “clear your mind.”  Like Juana, many of the other women have had husbands who became abusive, drank too much, or simply left them.  They talk about these things as they work--husbands, children, and financial worries.


                                                                        An illustration of Juana's bead work

Before she left her husband, when her children were young, Juana learned to bead from a friend and sold her jewelry herself.   But the income was not steady.  In 2004, fifty-six percent of the population of Guatemala lived below the poverty line.  In a good month, she could earn 1200 quetzales (162 U.S. dollars), but other months only 600 quetzales, not enough to send her children to school without accumulating debt.  Then, while working at her fruit stand in San Marcos, her cousin Christina met Ann Averbach and told her about Juana’s bead work.  Ann and her business partner, Tarvo Nurmeots, decided to sell Juana’s work, creating theMayan Connection.  Juana recruited other women to form the cooperative that now supplies traditional Guatemalan products for Ann and Tarvo.  The Mayan Connection has hired two additional families to make Guatemalan skirts and handbags. 

Melchora Isabela is studying to finish high school when she is not working at the cooperative.  Juana’s second daughter, twenty year old Claudia Fabiola, wants to become a bilingual secretary.  Eighteen year old Diego Mynor is studying to be a designer.  Bonnie, Juana’s youngest at age thirteen, is planning a career in psychology or medicine.  Through the Mayan Connection, Juana now has steady work and is able to consistently earn 1400 quetzales per month, which allows her to afford school for her children and pay down her debt without enduring an abusive relationship.

In addition to providing their suppliers a path out of poverty and abuse, the Mayan Connection donates five percent of profits to grassroots projects in Guatemala, including La Cambalacha, a school that teaches music and art to indigenous children.  They have purchased land for teaching people how to use permaculture design to create organic gardens, help to provide children in San Marcos with organic vegetables, and support a nurse who volunteers her time to deparasite the children in town.  They use recycled fabric to make their bags and skirts, purchase carbon offsets against their air freight for transporting products, and collect used boxes from grocery stores for shipping their goods.

As demand increases for their products, and they continue to educate their co-op members about the importance of consistently meeting vendors’ deadlines, Ann and Tarvo hope to increase their pay.  Juana is now climbing out of debt, but she says that she could live comfortably on 3000 quetzales per month. 


                                                                                Juana Cholotio

You will find Juana’s beautiful beadwork and other jewelry, handbags, and skirts at the MayanConnection

I would like to thank Kimie Montenegro for translating during my interview with Juana.


Jay Kilby

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