Ak Kuxtal Sian Ka’an: Empowering Artisans for Sustainable Futures in the Maya Riviera
Note: This article was commissioned by Sali Sasaki for INDIGO and written by Maria Rogal.
The Economy: In rural communities near the Maya Riviera—a culturally and environmentally rich area on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast—Maya artisans make crafts for the tourist market. Embroidered handkerchiefs and dresses, carved wooden masks of Maya gods and warriors, concrete and stone pyramids and ancient calendars, and loosely woven hammocks—these and many more objects that are marketed as traditional crafts are ubiquitous. Their design is usually copied from books and advertisements about the Maya, borrowed from what neighbors make and sell, or based on models provided by vendors. So, many products that can be categorized as “craft” are not, as would appear, the result of regional traditions. Rather, they are the result of invention manifested in the hopes of appealing to tourists visiting the Maya Riviera. In this way, these crafts simplify our interpretation and understanding of “The Maya” already so commodified in other media. If not already a cultural dilemma, craft production is an economic one as well. Vendors and distributors offer artisans low prices—even as they take items on practically perpetual consignment. The result is that most artisans—except for the most skilled—earn little, if any, profit given the cost of their labor, materials, and transportation.
The Environment: The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, part of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a working reserve with a protected area of 1.3 million acres. This status mandates that human’s access and use is minimal—limited to less than 10% of the reserve. When so many people who live in surrounding rural communities are accustomed to using natural resources for physical and economic survival, what strategies and tactics can be employed so that people and the environment benefit?
The Project: “Ak Kuxtal Sian Ka’an,” (Kuxtal—Maya—that which gives us life; pronounced kush-tol), is a network of artisans established to counter the systemically low value, low wages, and low expectations of and by artisans and simultaneously promote environmental stewardship by fostering an economically, culturally, socially, and environmentally sustainable craft industry. Specifically, Kuxtal, as a socially and environmentally committed business, would promote this new, equitable concept. As a grassroots organization, Kuxtal was established in 2008 as a collaborative initiative between two local conservation NGOs—Amigos de Sian Ka’an (Amigos) and U’yo’olche—and a small group of diverse, skilled, and experienced artisans living in close proximity to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Since people in Amigos and U’yo’olche worked closely with local artisans prior to the inception of the Kuxtal project, the needs that emerged from these cumulative interactions inspired this project.
While there are many companies in this region whose mission and vision may appear similar to Kuxtal—i.e., working with indigenous artisans—Kuxtal is essentially a cooperative organization owned by and working for the good of the artisans. Their goal is to market their highest quality, all-natural, and fairly traded artisanal products to an international market—on the Maya Riviera and online (www.kuxtalsiankaan.com). So, not only does the consumer have access to quality work, they support local Maya artisans through a business committed to sustainability, social responsibility, and the development of the area’s artisan industry. A critical difference between Kuxtal and other organizations and business I have researched in the region is that the artisans have agency, are empowered, and work in a transparent environment—all of which is contrary to the current paradigm. Working in this region, I’ve seen many businesses describe themselves as fair trade and lay claim to working with Maya people, but it is rarely on equal footing as I’ve seen with Kuxtal.
Project directors Elsa Torres Zapata (U’yo’olche) and Basilio Velásquez Chí (Amigos de Sian Ka’an) described Kuxtal as a process, a project, and a business that is holistic, participatory, and respectful of cultural and craft traditions. In order to do this, they set out—using an ethnographic approach—to discover the personal, business, design, production, and many other issues central to the participating artisans. From my perspective, this approach is central to the success of the project because it does not presume knowledge but seeks to surface real issues and concerns. Unlike a traditional business model with a rigid hierarchy, Kuxtal’s process is a process that takes time to build. This is, in part, because it aims to unravel the legacy of colonialism that continues today in all facets of life.
The many meetings and workshops on subjects that emerged through dialogue with artisans became places of engagement and enlightenment, with discovery leading to the identification of areas for growth and to growth itself. Specific areas of development included esteem building, small business management, rights and ethics, design, use of all-natural materials, and environmental stewardship. As Torres noted, the “dreams” workshop—where participants envisioned their dreams, possibilities, and potential outcomes of their participation in this project was particularly effective because participants explored ways not to be self-limiting—important in a context where marginalized people have been confronted with limitations for generations.
Kuxtal, as a socially responsible and sustainable business, is structured to be manageable and scalable. At its formal launching in February 2009, thirty artisans who live and work in six communities surrounding the reserve presented their new products. It was evident that their cumulative work expressed respect for, reliance on, and engagement with nature—a key characteristic of rural Maya culture. The intent to locate the essence of the individual and collective vision, capitalize on their skills and abilities, and make (design and produce) work that appealed to a sophisticated and international audience—was not only to create economic development but social and cultural as well.
My interactions with the Kuxtal artisans indicate that each participant understands and will act on their own agency. Efren Mukul Puc, a member of the Sabucan Maya hammock makers (Santa Rosa) noted, “From a very young age, and the same as our parents and grandparents before us, we have created hammocks. When invited to join the Ak Kuxtal Sian Ka’an project, I was asked if there were other products that we were able to create using the same techniques we use to create the hammocks. Subsequently, I began to experiment with the creation of bags. It was quite the challenge, seeing as how I was, for a long time, accustomed to using large weavings for the creation of hammocks. We use 100% cotton threads and wood handles from Celso Kumul Caamal, another member of Kuxtal Sian Ka’an. The average time it takes to create a bag is one day. One would think that creating the bags is easier because of their smaller size, but it took some time to find solutions to closing the weavings, designing the handles and ensuring a perfect finish—therefore, creating a high-quality product.
With beautifully crafted, environmentally friendly products, a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities, and a collective brand identity, the artisans could market their products to upscale boutiques and hotels on the Maya Riviera. The strength of their collective work undergirds the Kuxtal brand and positioning it as a competitive and standard-creating business, with profits returning directly to the artisans. Enrique Mendoza of Fine Crafts and Furniture of Noh-Bec writes, “We are a company comprised of 6 people and have 18 years of experience in designing different types of furniture. For us it is always important to create new things and we are convinced that if we collaborate with other producers, we will generate more opportunities for all.”
Despite all the positive aspects of Kuxtal, tourism in the region has taken a double hit: the downturn in the international, and consequently Mexican, economy and the perception that the extreme violence in certain regions of Mexico affects the whole country. Some boutique hotels, which had committed to buying products outright to sell to their guests, suffering themselves from the decrease in tourism now want to sell on consignment—although still at fair prices. While this is disheartening, a friend reminded me that people here have survived major hurricanes, not to mention regular downturns in tourism and the economy, and so they are resilient. Their hope is that Kuxtal is successful in promoting their work in the marketplace, whether in the Maya Riviera or online, since Kuxtal’s online store was launched in mid-2010 (www.kuxtalsiankaan.com). The long-term plan is to ensure Kuxtal is a sustainable business that will invest in new artisans, using a percentage of profits generated from sales, and support the development of a sophisticated and unique craft industry.
Teaching & Learning in a Multicultural Context: In 2009, as part of the Design for Development initiative I lead, my students in the graphic design program at the University of Florida and I developed and implemented a creativity workshop in Noh-Bec with master woodworkers, including Enrique Mendoza. At the same time, students learned to conduct ethnographic field research by working with artisans to explore their processes, motivations, techniques, and products—all with the intent to responsibly inform their design process. Our interactions (conversations, interviews, dialogues, exchanges, and learning experiences) made evident the interdependence and connections we have. While we may respect practices, traditions, customs, and knowledge coming from “being indigenous” or community life, these are not fixed positions. Maya people I have interviewed noted that the ancient Maya gods so prevalent in tourism have no meaning for them. They are as distant for them as Egyptian or Greek gods are. This region is a hybrid space—one that integrates elements, beliefs, and practices that span time, place, culture, and language.
As we’ve seen time and time again, change and growth—both good and bad—stems from exchanges. In terms of the development of the craft and design industries here, access to information and resources is paramount, but so is education—particularly in design and the arts, something that is non-existent in the public school system and in communities in these poorer southern states. All this must build, in my opinion, on existing knowledge. As the Kuxtal project demonstrates—reinforcing my experiences working and living here—building collaborative, open relationships with all participants is vital to a socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally responsible and respectful outcome. Working directly with people on-site from the inception allows for trust to develop, mutual learning, and an understanding of subject matter and context. It is with this that we can work together to develop responsible, appropriate, and engaging work respectful of authorship, the knowledgebase, and the culture of origin. Interviewing women from Hecho por Manos Mayas in Tihosuco, they asserted, “We are a group of 10 women with 20 years of experience in the design of clothing and embroidery. In all these years we have experienced many things that have made us stronger as a group. We recognize our skills in sewing and embroidery, and complement those skills to achieve quality in our work. Most importantly, we recognize that as women we are capable of achieving everything that we set out to do and that our will has no limits.”
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Maria Rogal, Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Florida, teaches course in advanced graphic design, specializing in social design and design for development—an international initiative working with indigenous communities she developed in 2004. In addition, she explores how design can positively shape the human experience. Rogal works primarily in southern Mexico both studying the visual culture of ancient and contemporary Maya in tourism context and on entrepreneurial projects with people in Maya communities. She received the inaugural American Institute of Graphic Arts Design Research grant in 2008. From 2006–2007 she was a Fulbright Scholar, working and teaching in the Yucatán.
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