GUATEMALA CITY – Stephanie Jolluck first came to Guatemala in 1997 to volunteer with a women’s cooperative. The country’s 36-year civil war had just ended, leaving a bloody legacy of 200,000 people dead and more than 40,000 disappeared.
Working with an organization that helped empower indigenous women, Jolluck gained an insight into the color and culture of Guatemala.
“I rapidly fell in love with the rich and vibrant colors of the textiles and other handicrafts. I witnessed extreme poverty for the first time and noticed that most people living in poverty were the very ones creating the beautiful, ingenious, awe-inspiring weavings and art; it was a contradiction that didn’t make sense,” Jolluck told The Tico Times.
Guatemalan textiles have become famous throughout the world; however, the majority of the Mayan women who create them live in extreme poverty. Many Mayan girls drop out of school during third grade, marry young and have large families, which puts a strain on their already limited resources.
“I explored the country and the anthropologist and designer in me grew amazed at the 2,000-year-old textile tradition that was slowly disappearing. I couldn’t bear the thought of this beautiful tradition going extinct and wanted to share it with the world,” Jolluck said.
Shortly after returning to the United States, Jolluck gave up her job as a high school Spanish teacher and decided to create Colección Luna, at the age of 26, in an effort to alleviate poverty, preserve Guatemala’s textile tradition and empower women.
Working with a women’s cooperative that employs about 100 people on the shores of Lake Atitlán, 150 kilometers west of Guatemala City, Colección Luna sells handbags, accessories and beaded jewelry to customers all over the world using reclaimed indigenous clothing and fair-trade practices.
“I travel four to six times a year to the highland region of Guatemala, working directly with the artisans on my designs. The line of textiles is created from reclaimed Mayan indigenous clothing: huipiles (blouses), cortes (skirts) and fajas (belts) that are hand-woven or hand-embroidered,” she said.
Weaving together ancient traditions and contemporary pieces such as iPad covers, smartphone cases and yoga bags, Colección Luna shares the Mayan culture with customers overseas and teaches them the importance of fair trade and empowerment of women.
“It’s been amazing to see and hear how consumers are becoming more socially conscious about their buying decisions. When my business started in 1999, you rarely heard the words ‘fair/direct trade,’ ‘women’s empowerment,’ ‘sustainability,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ things that I focused on when I began Colección Luna. I love that these words are now recognized and that consumers care about the how, where and why of Colección Luna,” she added.
Last month, Jolluck was announced as a “Leg Up” winner by SPANX, a hosiery company that runs a program to raise awareness of entrepreneurship by women.
“On the morning of the announcement I was on a plane headed to Guatemala to work with my artisans. It was so wonderful to share [the news] with them because, as my partners, it was their award too,” Jolluck said.
Lidia Agarre and her husband have worked with Jolluck since the business first began, sourcing fabrics, developing products and working with weavers in their small village in Quiché, in northwestern Guatemala. Coming from a family of artisans, Agarre used to sell her designs at Chichicastenango, Central America’s biggest market, but says that business was unpredictable.
“Stephanie has helped us a lot. The economy has gone down a bit, but Stephanie is always opening up new markets so we still have work. Employees earn more than they used to at the market and they work when they can. Some of them have to attend to the maize harvest so we work around that,” Agarre said.
Since working with Colección Luna, Agarre and her husband have seen their standard of living improve and have been able to buy a small plot of land and a house.
“We’ve had some difficult times, but thanks to our jobs we were able to afford hospital bills. We live better now – we can send our daughters to school and afford food,” she said.
Jolluck is currently working on a line of vintage Guatemalan textiles and an exhibition and talk in the U.S. about Colección Luna’s work.
To learn more about Colección Luna, visit the website: http://coleccion-luna.myshopify.com/