The first Guatemalan woman to catch my eye had a baby tied on her back and a bundle of goods balanced on her head. She was bending down in a long skirt to retrieve something from the cobblestone street and she did it with perfect posture and the grace of a dancer.
And I thought, it’s just like my yoga teacher says back home. Save your back. Use your legs.
Cultural differences make us exotic to each other, but women of the world have our similarities.
Sharing those was the purpose of a women studies trip to Guatemala earlier this month, put on by Ellen Boneparth and her International Women Studies Institute – www.iwsi.org. We went to meet local women and to talk to some of the committed foreign women -from the U.S., Germany, Italy and Australia – helping low income and indigenous Guatemalans promote their wonderful weaving, learn family planning and get a jumpstart with their own businesses. The goal is one of those universal things – encourage independence and autonomy and help women find their voice.
Here were the creators of some of those distinctive Guatemalan designs you often see in an American import shop. Sitting at their looms and sewing machines, they were gracious and answered our questions. I wondered if they were thinking about us: where are your men? Where are your children? Why do you dress so dull? Their everyday clothing is as bright as volcanic lava and macaw feathers. We, in our blue jeans, t-shirts and dark glasses, must have all looked alike and pretty colorless.
At a weavers co-op in San Marcos on Lake Atitlan we asked the women how they felt about equality. They said that having the same rights as men was something they didn’t even think about until they had their own work and an income. Now they can. One of their own had run for mayor of the village. She didn’t win, but that she had the Mayan version of chutzpah to try was an accomplishment women everywhere would applaud.
The Mayan women are as remarkable as their dress, with thick long dark hair that seems to never go gray, creamy unmarked skin and proud carriage. But the culture is still machismo. The Catholic and Evangelical churches are competing for souls. It takes a lot for women to speak up.
In spite of language barriers, we hit it off. And of course, we bought what we could because that’s one thing you can do in Guatemala, even with a battered American dollar. When dealing woman to woman we paid the asking price. Nobody wanted to bargain down a thing of beauty made by a mother who you know lives in a house with a dirt floor on the side of a mountain with nine other people.
In his first week of office President Obama rescinded a major restraint on the world’s poor by lifting the gag rule on international family planning groups that receive American aid. The rule, supported by George Bush, had kept women from receiving counseling about contraception, protection against AIDS, maternal care in general and abortions.
In her new job as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke for women and girls around the world, saying that when women are marginalized, so is democracy.
Will you look at us? We’re barely into the New Year and America is making friends, again.
Listen to the Making Friends Again radio segment on KRCB’S Another Voice.