Quilting has never been something that particularly interested me. It’s also not something I ever associated with human rights campaigning.
When, in our fellowship orientation, Advocacy Project director Iain Guest presented quilting as an effective means of expression and advocacy, it took some time to sink in. I could see how it could work in various fellowship postings – how survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and Congolese victims of sexual violence, for example, would benefit from coming together and creating something based on their common experiences, something that would travel the world and ultimately be sold to provide some income. But did it have to be a quilt? It seemed so American, and so country.
True, the AP quilts I saw were interesting and beautiful, but this thing was not for me, I was sure, and not for a campaign against oil drilling in a national park in Belize.
Iain mentioned the quilt idea directly to me a couple of times, by phone and email. The thinking was that a quilt could somehow show the value of the Sarstoon Temash National Park, particularly to the indigenous people living on its periphery. I vaguely considered it but secretly hoped we could forget about it.
Then I was getting ready for work one morning… It was market day, and Mayan men and women were coming into town from the villages to sell produce and handicrafts. One woman knocked on my door, and in spite of my quiet protests, marched into my living room and began to display her various crafts. Among them were squares of cloth on which she had embroidered Mayan calendars and gods. She had grown up doing this. It was part of her culture. Essentially, these things were quilt tiles.
I remembered that Karyn, SATIIM’s development officer, had been talking about getting more women involved in the organization and applying for women’s artisana grants. I thought about Iain’s idea of having colorful animals and plants popping out from black cloth.
I bought a panel embroidered with the Mayan god of corn/fertility, and brought it into work. When my Q’eqchi co-worker Cordelia, the SATIIM park manager, saw it, her eyes widened. She said most village women know how to embroider. She had grown up doing it herself, and the next day she brought in samples of flowers she was sewing with bright shiny thread. Suddenly, this quilt idea seemed perfect.
I was, however, learning that things here move slowly, and at least in some of the Mayan villages, they also move very methodically. We decided to aim for the closest Mayan village, Midway, population 250. It’s about an hour’s drive away, mostly on a rough dirt road, and the one telephone in the village usually doesn’t work. Cordelia instructed me to type up two letters, one for the village chairman (like a mayor), and one for the alcalde (like a sheriff), explaining who I am, what the quilt idea is (including explaining what a quilt is), and requesting that the village leaders gather together as many women as possible for a meeting to pitch the project. We drove to Midway, left a letter with the wife of the alcalde, who was out, and pitched the idea to the chairman, first in English (me), and then in Q’eqchi (Cordelia). He told us to return at 2pm the following Thursday.
We arrived at 1:45 Thursday afternoon and set up chairs in the SATIIM resource center, a small emery wood one-room building in the middle of the village. I had printed out pictures of quilts, and Cordelia had brought samples of her own work.
We waited, me anxiously, as women only very gradually and very quietly began to trickle in. I decided we needed a minimum of 16 quilters for the project to be a go, and by 2:30, there were still only a few. Eventually, the room filled to capacity, with some 40 women and girls in traditional, bold-colored, square lace-necked shirts and patterned skirts, sitting in silence, looking at me blankly when I began to speak.
At the end of my pitch, there was no response, no knowing if anyone had understood a thing. Cordelia translated in Q’eqchi. Still nothing. Thomas, the SATIIM ranger, who works out of the resource center, further elaborated in Q’eqchi. Still, you could hear a pin drop.
We asked who might be interested in the project. Nothing. I was really starting to sweat now. This was not what I had expected. We asked why people weren’t interested. One elderly woman said in Q’eqchi that her and her friends’ eyesight wasn’t good enough. Another woman asked if it mattered what their names were. This took a lot of back and forth with Cordelia to figure out what she was getting at. Apparently, the last time a group came in from outside to do a project, the funders backed out because too many participants had the same last name, and it looked like a family rather than a community affair. I soon learned that many people in the villages have the same last name, but this is simply a fact of life where villages are small and families are big. I assured them this would not be a problem.
More silence. Cordelia speculated that there was a general lack of trust, especially about who would get paid for their work and how.
Some women said they didn’t know how to embroider. We assured them someone would train them.
(As an aside, Dear Reader, if it seems ludicrous to try to tell a suspenseful story about quilting, I apologize but that’s what it was. I kept feeling like I was in a movie, like Twelve Angry Men, but with 40 impassive Mayan women.)
Then, one woman, Brigida Ishim, gave her name and said she’d do it.
Another one, Verona Paau, gave a nod.
Was the ball beginning to roll? Maybe not. Another long silence.
A third, Susana Kus, waved her hand.
Three down, and 13 to go. At this rate, it would take several more hours to get the minimum number. This was killing me.
More silence. The ball was not rolling. We sat for what felt like an eternity.
Finally, we adjourned the meeting. I would have been heart-broken had I not been in disbelief. I wasn’t ready to give up. I suggested to Cordelia we could try the project in another village, but she looked at me skeptically. It could be more of the same, I acknowledged to myself. And if Cordelia wasn’t on board, I couldn’t imagine continuing.
Strangely, though, for a while after adjournment, no one budged. Only gradually, women started to make their way to the doors, but something else happened too: others made their way to our table at the front of the room and told us they wanted to be part of the project. Soon we had 14 people signed up. This we could work with. Maybe more would join, or some would make more than one panel.
I was ready to call it a day and schedule the next meeting, when Thomas said, ‘Now they need to hold elections. They need a chairlady, vice-chairlady, secretary, and treasurer.’ I thought at first that he was joking, but this is how things work here, and the subsequent rapid elections to each post seemed to make the project real, and theirs. Women who an hour before had seemed completely disinterested were now committed to something that none of us still fully understood.
We scheduled another meeting for embroidery training and quilt planning. No one replied when I said goodbye that afternoon, but I left with a nervous sense of excitement that this thing quilt thing just might actually work out.
Posted By Amy Bracken
Posted Aug 24th, 2011