Monday, January 10, 2011

Behind the Beads: Mostacilla and Its Impact on the Women of San Jorge la Laguna

by Lianne Gonsalves, North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC, USA (written around 2007):

"You know, the people here really love beads as do people all over the world. Beads are something tangible; it inflames their imaginations...” –Surunda Velasquez

Though barely 20 years old, mostacilla (beadwork) has quickly spread across Guatemala, becoming a popular tourist souvenir and export item. Since its arrival to the San Jorge la Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala 15 years ago, mostacilla making has become a source of income for the majority of women and their families in this town. However, lacking a market in which to sell their products, the women of the town instead sell their work to indigenous vendors in neighboring Panajachel and Sololá. These vendors buy the work cheaply, then turn around to resell to tourists (or better yet, export to foreigners), making apparently a significant profit in the process. The women of San Jorge feel they are forced to sell mostacilla to their vendors at extremely low prices, and are unhappy they are unable to do anything about it. The women dream of a unified organization of San Jorge’s mostacilla workers, independent from vendors, with their own access to the tourist and international market. However, too much competition between the women, lack of leadership and lack of foreign support works to ensure that, at least for now, a market in San Jorge will remain just a dream.


The methodology for this study relied heavily on the use of open-ended interviews. Starting with members of my immediate host family, I used their references and those of my extended host family members in a snow-balling effect, which eventually allowed me to have extensive, sit-down interviews with 13 women living in different areas of San Jorge. Interviews (all of which were recorded) took place in the homes of these women (or the home of a family member), an environment which was both convenient and comfortable for the informants. At the start of each interview, I began with a ten-question survey, consisting of simple, easy-answer questions that allowed me to gain some basic information about the women I was interviewing (how old they were, how many years they had been doing mostacilla, etc.), let them become comfortable with me, and also provide me with some quantitative data to analyze later.

The interview itself was tailored to the women; women who had been doing mostacilla for close to 15 years were asked more questions about the history of mostacilla in San Jorge, while others who had been identified as the “señoras” of mostacilla work groups were asked more about vendor relations and business. Most interviews lasted about 30 minutes. Outside of San Jorge, I conducted both formal and informal interviews (also open-ended) with a number of mostacilla vendors in Sololá, Santiago, and Panajachel. Some vendors were street-side sellers, selling mostacilla from a small cart while others had established tiendas filled with hundreds of different designs. Depending on how much time the vendor was willing to spare, interviews lasted anywhere from 10 to 35 minutes; these interviews were not recorded.

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Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.