Student finds a passion for fair trade during overseas trip to Guatemala

When junior Abbey Kittaka first heard about an overseas study trip to Guatemala to study fair trade practices and sustainability, the apparel merchandising major was intrigued.

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Abbey Kittaka in Antigua. | Photo courtesy of Abbey Kittaka

Although she didn’t know much about fair trade, she knew she wanted to learn more. Fast forward a few months later and Kittaka is not only more knowledgeable about the topic, she is now inspired to incorporate it into her future plans.

“Being able to see how fair trade operatives can work really opened my eyes and has me completely rethinking what I am going to do after college,” Kittaka said.

The trip was organized by senior lecturer Mary Embry and visiting assistant professor Lauren Reiter, both from the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, with the help of local fair trade advocate Gracia Valliant.

For two weeks in May, students immersed themselves in the Guatemalan culture, traveling to Guatemala City, San Juan la Laguna, Chichicastenango and Antigua. There, they visited local artisans to experience the hand production of cultural products made for both local and international markets. They also looked at the cultural, historical and economic factors that have shaped artisan production in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala; studied the history and impact of the civil war in Guatemala; spoke with community activists in Guatemala City about the impact of genocide there; and looked at the production, symbology and cultural impact both historically and today of traditional Maya dress.

Seeing in person the work of many artisans and the impact the market has on their work and livelihood is invaluable lesson for her students, Embry said.

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One of the group’s host, Patrona teaching how to weave on a backstrap loom. | Photo courtesy of Abbey Kittaka

“There can be no substitute to speaking to, or hearing from, an artisan about their craft and their lives, as well as witnessing how they live and their hopes and dreams, to truly be able to start to grapple with the challenges and rewards of a system meant to do something better for people and the environment,” Embry said. “The students that attended this trip could spend a semester reading about fair trade in a class I teach, but in two weeks, they clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the paradigms and parameters of sustainable thinking about product.”

For Kittaka, she was impressed by not only the intricate and hard work of the artisans she met, but also by just how much their work impacts their lives and families. The trip lit a fire within her to further study the idea of fair trade and all that entails — fair wages, safe working conditions, positive community impact and empowerment of artisans.

“Some of these artisans work a number of months just on one blouse. The weaving they do on a traditional back strap loom is so intricate, and watching them weave was such a joy,” she said. “Seeing how these people’s lives are changed by what they do and how much they apply to their work really makes me want to further pursue fair trade. I’m not sure what that looks like right now, but I know that I want to show people that fair trade can work.”

The trip was not only eye opening in regard to fair trade, it was also the first time Kittaka has traveled outside of the United States. She was blown away by the beauty of the land with its rich vegetation and stunning lakes surrounded by hills and volcanos.

But it was the people who were eager to share their experiences, and in some cases homes, with the American travelers that really made an impact on Kittaka. Particularly the group’s San Juan host, a woman named Patrona, who took the group in, making them breakfast and dinner and generally watching out for them during their stay.

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The group poses for a picture. | Photo courtesy of Mary Embry

“I met some of the hardest workers and some of the most generous and welcoming people,” she said. “These people wholeheartedly welcomed us into their homes or shops and were so generous, even if they had almost nothing to give.”

Although the trip was mentally and physically challenging — sparse hot water, food and water with the potential to make one sick, rough roads and high hills to climb — and not everything went according to plan, Embry said her students handled everything in stride.

“I believe I can say we were all at one time or another amazed, inspired, overjoyed, humbled and very, very appreciative,” she said. “I have traveled to many places to look at fair trade work, but have not been so inspired and challenged by a group of students to critically think about and understand what we were experiencing every day.”

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