Imelda’s weavings: On making a difference for one family

November 5, 2014 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue

IMG_8654From the moment I stepped off of the boat, I’ve been looking for her.

On every walk through the village and each boat ride across the lake. I even crashed the high school graduation ceremony, on the basketball court on the main square, last week to scan the crowd of proud parents for her face. She was nowhere.

“Mom! MOM!” the children were excitedly shouting at me across the restaurant. I’d crept off to the hammock at Del Lago to watch the lake turn from twilight silver to ink and to rest my sick body while someone else did the cooking. “MOM!!! COME HERE!” Shouting is uncharacteristic in our family, especially at one’s mother; especially in a restaurant.

And, there she was

I met Imelda four years ago, one of a long stream of local women who would appear at the house and ask if I needed help, because they needed jobs. I didn’t. I have this thing about taking care of my own family and also teaching my children to work hard. I can’t sit and write when some other woman is washing my dishes or sweeping the floor (although I don’t mind when my kids do!) The most I can manage is to send out our laundry, and only that because Tony insists that I not end up with the arthritic hands my mother has from years of hand washing on our adventures. “No, lociento, yo tengo ninos por el trabajo!” 

One by one the women disappeared, except Imelda. She came back another day, with two or three of her kids in tow, to ask if I was quite sure there was nothing she could do for me. We sat on the porch and had tea while our children played soccer and laughed in the garden. “You know, this is the only big flat space in the village that is green,” she mused, “So nice for playing ball.” I invited them to come back and play whenever they liked (to the chagrin of the gardener, who’s job it is, apparently, to protect me from becoming friends with the locals.)

On her third visit I had a question: “Do you know how to weave? You know, with a back strap loom?” She looked at me like perhaps she had not understood, or like I was a dull child.

“Si, yo puedo,” she answered.

“Would you teach me? I’ve been wanting to learn this winter and I need a teacher.” Her face split into a smile and a deal was struck. She became my teacher and three or four days a week she turned up with her daughter Maria as translator (Spanish is Imelda’s second language too; Ka’chi’kel Mayan is her first) and we set to work. I made it my business to be a slow learner. We talked and told stories of our lives. We drank pots and pots of tea. We became good friends. When we left, there were tears on both sides and she promised to pray for me every day and to await my return, I assured her we would be back. In two years. It has been four.

Four years ago

Four years ago

She was weeping when she found us. Tony was bent double to hug her tiny frame and the kids crowded around her like giants.

“I’ve been looking for you for so long! I prayed for you every day and I asked god  where you were and that you would come back safely. And then, yesterday, I saw this big one (Elisha) in the village, carrying laundry on his head like he used to when he was small, and I said to myself, that’s the small one made big! And so I started watching! And then I saw this one (Ezra) walking in the road and I said, “Where are your parents?” and HERE YOU ARE!”

We hugged and laughed as she pulled from the bundle she carries with her everywhere a tattered paper notebook. From between the folds she produced an envelope. In the envelope were the four photographs I’d given her as we departed four years ago. She carries them with her everywhere. The first one to appear was of my mother, seated in a back strap loom, with Imelda hovering and my Dad supervising int he background. “How are your parents? Are they still living? Are they well?” She clapped and cried some more when I replied to the affirmative and added their plans to spend a few months with us later in the winter.

We shared a plate of dinner and ignored everyone as we talked hard and fast, catching up. Happily, for both of us, our Spanish has improved on both sides. Her family is well. Two more of the girls have headed on to collegiate schools (Imelda is bound and determined that all of her children attend school all the way through, which is difficult for an indigenous family when uniforms and shoes must be purchased in order to attend.) Miguel, the tiniest one, who Gabe used to fall to his knees to chest bump with when a soccer goal was scored, has been sick, something chronic and respiratory, but they aren’t sure what. Taking him to the doctor is too expensive, and he seems to get better after a while. And also, she is glad to see me. And also, I am glad to see her.

On Monday she arrived with Miguel and Fatima, all three with big bundles on their heads.

The kids evaporated to kick a ball, laughing and pointing at how TALL my kids had gotten. Miguel collapsing in amusement, from time to time, at Gabe’s enormity. It’s amazing the difference proper nutrition makes.

Imelda and I settled ourselves into the grass with cups of tea and began unpacking her bundles. Her textiles, each one handmade on her back strap loom. She gets up at four in the morning, makes the day’s tortillas and gets the cooking fire going, then she sits and weaves for a couple of hours before breakfast. There is no time to pick up the loom again until after dark and so she weaves by the light of the one bare bulb that hangs in the main room of their little house, sitting on the dirt floor. It’s hard, back breaking, artistically challenging work, you can trust me on that. I’ve tried, in the daylight, with a chair to sit on, and I can barely do it.

We talked while we unfolded and photographed each piece. I told her where we’d been and why it had taken so long to get back here and what the children were up to. I asked after her family, her mother, the kids:

  • Her kids are fine, growing fast, but not as fast as mine, she joked.
  • Her husband is still drinking. Sometimes he has work, sometimes not. It’s hard. She focuses on the house and the children instead.
  • He racked up some debt, apparently, and now their house is in foreclosure. This weighs heavily on her. She’s been praying about it a lot.
  • This week is the last week, the landlord says, and then he’s throwing them out with all of their stuff. She’s afraid because if that happens, they have no where to go.
  • Her mother is a widow with no means of support, Imelda takes care of her because she’s the only one who can.
  • Her sister is drinking heavily and her husband is beating her.
  • They can’t take care of their four children, so two have gone to another aunt and two have gone to Imelda.

“Life is hard,” she tells me, “But I have a big god, and I pray everyday. We will be okay.”


We talk a while more and I explain to her that I’d like her to work, this winter, making things for my (eventual) house. I begin by ordering a table cloth for our enormous dining room table. Three meters long, one and a half meter’s wide. White panels with the blue rainbow edging like on two smaller pieces she has. I give her a deposit for the materials and then we go back to taking pictures.

“So, may I ask how much you need to save the house?” I ask, tentatively.

“Ai! Es mucho, mucho dinero, it’s so much money,” she says, shaking her head, “It’s 5000 Quetzales, and we have to pay by the end of this week.” I quickly to the mental math. She needs $600 USD.

“Well,” I smile as cheerfullyas I can, “I hope that maybe some people I know will want to buy your textiles and maybe we can make up at least some of that this week!” 

She brightens a bit, “By god’s grace! Yes!” and sets about carefully smoothing each piece, telling me how long it took to make and what she imagines an American woman might use it for.

“How much for this one?” I ask over each piece.

“Well, for you, and for your friends I will give a good price…” she begins, each time.

“No!” I tell her, “I don’t want a good price! I want the fair price for your labour. These are a lot of work, my friends will want to help and they will want to pay a fair price!”

She smiles each time and with a little trepidation in her voice gives me a price that I know is hard for her to ask for, it seems like so much, and any woman in the village would under cut her; competition is fierce to sell weavings. But they don’t have access to my friends, or my Facebook page and I won’t have Imelda paid less than her work is really worth. Besides, would you work morning and night in the dirt, on your knees for three weeks straight, for $85 USD? I didn’t think so. It is dark before she leaves and my heart is heavy for her.

Similar to what my table cloth will be… only three panels wide

Similar to what my table cloth will be… only three panels wide

I was supposed to work yesterday, but I didn’t have time.

I gave up, a long time ago, on the idea that we can change the world. I don’t have that kind of strength or energy. Most days, it’s all I can do to keep my focus, keep my own little herd moving forward on a productive path and maybe find a little time to write. I can’t do the big things, but I can do a myriad of little things and I’ve dedicated my life to not missing them.

  • I can feed people dinner
  • I can bake bread
  • I can make tea
  • I can make folks welcome
  • I can look with an intent to really see
  • I can listen with an intent to really hear
  • I can take a few pictures and upload them
  • I can use my sphere of influence to lift one burden here and there

I woke up worrying about Imelda’s house. $600 USD is a small fortune here, several months work for a well employed man. We’d decided, whispering in the dark, that we’d cover it if we had to and find a way to create enough work for her to make it up, but that’s no one’s first choice. It’s humiliating to have to accept charity, even when you absolutely have to. So I posted pictures and wrote to “my people” about my friend Imelda and her situation, and I waited. 

My friend Lauren, from Thailand, was the first one to contact me, “I’m looking at the two rainbow ones, I can’t decide which one… my colleague says to just get them both, but that seems a bit much… which one do you think?”

“Buy them both!” I anxiously replied, “We’re trying to save her house!”

“Right! Point taken! Of course, I’ll have them both!” I love Lauren. She “gets it” in a way that few people do and she’s characterized by a willingness to help where she can.

Before long other folks were jumping in.

Tacy did all of her Christmas shopping, I think. She quickly paid for her first batch of weavings and Tony hollered from his office space, “Money from the Rutherford family!” And then a few minutes later, “More money from the Rutherfords, but this one says it’s from Dawson, who’s 16… wait, MORE from them, this one from Tucker who’s 11… who ARE these people??

In short, they’re strangers. Tacy and I belong to a group of mothers with more children than sense. I’ve never met her, but I love her. She’s a kindred spirit. Her daughter Shelby, who went to China this spring, is Hannah’s age and has become dear to my heart. Miss Shelby bought two weavings herself. She’s looked into the eyes of orphans on her travels and it has changed her life. She knows how much this matters. That her younger siblings, who have not, were begging their mother to be “allowed to help” too is a testimony to those parents. Their family made me cry yesterday. They single handedly saved Imelda’s house. I wish every 11, 16 and 18 year old could know that joy, of doing something that significant. 

Gina and Gayle and Jennifer were all quick to help out. My buddy Lee, purchased three pieces, two as gifts and one so that he’d have something from a place that means so much to me. Wendy couldn’t buy a weaving, but she sent a gift instead, because she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to help.

I quickly did the math at ten in the morning and shouted to Tony, “HOLY COW!!! OH MY GOSH!!! We did it!!! The house is covered and people are still buying stuff!!!” Leaping out of my chair I grabbed all three debit cards and raced for the boats.


Working on Gina's piece

Working on Gina’s piece

I returned to a note from John, a guy Jade and I walked with for the first couple of weeks on the Camino. It said, simply, “You know what, let me make this easy on you, I’ll take all of it, whatever she has left… I’ll figure out what to do with it when I get home… I believe in helping people out, and it’s good karma for you, and for me. Let me know what I owe her.” 

I sat in front of my computer in shock. I met this man the second night of our walk, in Roncesvalles. He bought me a beer and told me his life story, and then we walked together, off and on, for a couple of weeks. He’d turn up, then disappear. He bought Jade and I dinner in Pamplona. I bought him a beer in Puente La Reina. I saw him and waved, from a distance, in Najera, and then he was gone. He walked faster than we did.  He has neither house or wife to enjoy the weavings. I have no idea what he’ll do with them, but he has them, and he too, single handedly saved Imelda’s house.

Imelda was late.

Which drove me crazy. “On time” and “Late” are not concepts that translate well to the Guatemalan experience. I know this, but I was excited. I had to repeat myself several times, either because my Spanish is terrible, or because she couldn’t quite believe it, I’m not sure which.

“We sold it all! Every single piece is gone!” I grinned.

And then, she started freaking out, because there is a tiny bit of trim work to be done on the fringe of each piece and she refuses to let them go until they are perfect. She tucked Gina’s denim blue striped piece into the belt of her skirt and started combing and tying while she talked.

“You tell your friends that I will pray for them every day. I will pray for them that god blesses them very much. I know that because they have big hearts to help me that god is going to give them many blessings, children, health, work, and money to replace the money they have given to me. So many people come here to this lake, and almost none of them understand. They have their vacation and then they leave, but they never really see us. You are the only person who has ever seen me. You have a big heart, your friends have big hearts. You are very lucky to know so many very good people. God is going to bless you for this. He is going to bless them for this. He is a big god, you know, and he takes care of everyone! He takes care of me. I have been praying and begging god about this for many, many months, and then, here you are, back when no one expected you, and your very good friends come with you in their hearts. They see me. They understand. They are such good people.”


And then we were both crying again.

Elisha carried her bundles back up the hill and to the turn for the path up to her house. She talked the whole way.

“My husband has a question,” I interrupted her. She looked up at him and smiled, she thinks that he is frighteningly enormous and she giggles about how gentle he is for being so huge. “He would like to know what a man here earns for his work, what is normal for a decent family income?” 

“Well,” she began, “If he can get a good job that is consistent, you know, with work every day for the whole month, then he would make about 1000 Q. If he has a really good job, then maybe 1500 Q. If a family is really, really lucky, then 2000 Q a month would be a great job, that would be god’s big blessing. But you know, most of the jobs around here aren’t by the month and they pay far less, so we make do with what there is when my husband can find work.”

There are about 8 Q to 1 USD at the moment. $125 a month is a man’s wage, $187.50 if he’s doing well, $250 a month if they are very, very lucky.

The total amount she sold her weavings for that morning came to 14, 760 Q. Roughly $1845 USD. Imelda had a very good day. 

Of course it doesn’t end there. Together, we’ve secured her employment through much of the winter. There are the things for our house that she’ll work on, in and around the four other orders that have come from north of the border, for a kitchen table cloth for Gayle’s house, a picnic blanket or two for Brandi’s family, and one for the Kirk family as well. Shannon ordered a very long scarf. It’s going to be a busy winter for my friend Imelda.

To each of you who bought, or shared the post, or sent well wishes, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

It’s an amazing feeling to be part of a community of people whose first thought is, “How can I help?” Instead of, “Someone should do something about that….”

I love that your first question is not, “Well, how did she get into this mess?” But, “What can I do, even if I can’t buy a weaving?”

I love that, the knee jerk reaction of the most unexpected person was, “Who can we help next?”

What a privilege to walk through this life with people like that. I’m proud to call you my friends. 

Imelda says to thank you.

In fact, she can’t stop thanking you, and hugging me on your behalf. She says to thank you and remind you that she will be praying for you, to invite each of you to come and visit. She says to tell you that you’re god’s gift to her and that she hopes that her work will be god’s gift to you too.


And… we’re still taking orders, if any of you would like to commission something beautiful!