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Fair trade instills dignity for artisans in Guatemala

Felipe Gonzales weaves his business skills with nonprofit know-how to connect Guatemalan weavers and artisans with American consumers. “My faith values of respecting human life and believing everyone has the right to live in dignity are part of my philosophy of creating a win-win-win business environment for producers in Guatemala, people in between and consumers in the United States,” he said in a recent interview about Moonflower Enterprises.

Felipe Gonzales
Felipe Gonzales

“Everyone needs to benefit and reach their goals socially, economically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” said Felipe, who attends the Hispanic church at St. Joseph Catholic in Spokane.

From his Catholic heritage and his study of other faiths, he believes all religions promote self-realization.

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, when his father was in the Air Force, Felipe settled near his grandfather’s ranch in Austin, Texas, when he was in his early 20s in order to become familiar with his family roots.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Texas at Austin—the same day his grandfather was buried—he met family members from Mexico he could not speak with, because he didn’t know Spanish fluently.

So he traveled down the Pacific Coast in 1985 to learn Spanish, and wound up in Guatemala, where he learned the language and culture, and started volunteering with a Mayan nonprofit development organization, the Association for Economic, Educational and Cultural Development. 

He worked with the organization from 1986 to 2001, doing rural development. When he sought financial partners in Spain, Canada and the United States, he would make sure they were “on the same wavelength” with values of the Mayan culture.

“It was clear we could not address the people’s economic problems without also addressing health, education, legal, credit, religious and infrastructure needs,” Felipe said.

Felipe and cloth
Felipe with stock of woven items

Befriending weavers and artisans through this work, he would take their products to sell wholesale when he went to Austin once a year.

Finding it hard to market the goods while remaining in Guatemala and finding the market in Texas saturated, Felipe moved to Spokane, where his brother lives.

In 2001, he legally established Moonflower Enterprises to import products from Guatemalan friends.  As part of sales, he educates people about Guatemalan culture, arts, history and humility.

“In turn, North Americans share their economic resources by purchasing products and learning about fair trade,” he said.

Through selling items at shows, Felipe learned about the Fair Trade Federation and joined it in 2004. 

Moonflower Enterprises is also a member of Weavers for Real Peace (WARP), the Asian, Hispanic, African and Native American Business Association (AHANA) and the Hispanic Business Professional Association.  It is a founding member of the Northwest Fair Trade Network with five others in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. 

“I run the business like a nonprofit, channeling 80 to 90 percent of the proceeds back to the artisans,” he said.

Felipe is able to do that because he is not dependent on the sales for his income.  He writes and manages grants for the Kalispel Tribe to earn a living, and does the shows evenings and weekends.

Felipe Gonzales

Felipe

He finds similarities between the histories of the Kalispel and the Mayans, and the issues they face in the globalized economy.

Spanish conquistadors in Latin America had the same effect that English and French traders and settlers had in this region.  Both tried to destroy the indigenous people’s cultures.

“Indians were subjected to poverty in remote areas on the worst land.  Since the tribes established casinos, they have gained a way to generate income and have gained power to maintain their sovereignty and culture,” he explained.

About 70 percent of the people in Guatemala live in poverty, many of them in extreme poverty, Felipe said.  Fair trade helps them gain power and maintain their culture.

“As with poor people around the world, they can be educated and given things, but without a source of income, they will remain poor, unable to become self sufficient.  Having a source of income gives them the dignity of using what they earn as they choose,” he said.

The match with North America’s consumer society means Guatemalans can earn an income, and people in the United States can enjoy products that reflect Guatemalan culture, he added.

As orders and sales have increased, Felipe has created a catalogue and website, which he uses for retail and wholesale sales. 

He recently launched an educational quarterly newsletter, El Petate.  A “petate” is a mat for sitting or sleeping, symbolizing the matriarchal way of Mayan life, grounding a woman to the earth, her family and her community.

“The petate represents the rich, collective knowledge and norms  guiding Mayan women and families,” he said, pointing out that the newsletter is a means to connect North Americans with the Mayan culture.

Felipe finds that poor people in Guatemala oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), started 10 years ago for Mexico, the United States and Canada.  Guatemala adopted CAFTA in 2005.

“The policies benefit large, multinational corporations, freeing them from paying taxes and complying with labor and environmental laws in host countries,” he pointed out.

“The corporations pay low, slave wages in maquiladoras—factories.  North American and other countries send materials to factories and use the cheap labor to produce products to sell at cheap prices in discount stores,” Felipe said.

Felipe Gonzales
Felipe shows a blanket.

The extensive poverty means people will take any job, even one with “subhuman wages,” he said.  They work long shifts without overtime pay in conditions that would not be accepted in the United States. 

Because the maquiladoras draw young workers and women in Guatemala, fewer learn to weave. 

“The people are losing their skills in traditional arts, because they have no time to weave with the long hours at the factories,” Felipe said.

“Recent protests against the U.S. immigration law proposals relate to this exploitation,” he said.  “The only options for the extremely poor are to work at maquiladoras or come to the United States seeking better lives for their families.”

Felipe added that some Latin American countries, tired of human rights abuses and poor working conditions, have elected leaders on the left, because of “seeing the destructive results of neo-liberal policies—which are considered neo-conservative in U.S. politics—policies that make the rich richer. 

“Latin Americans’ trying something new is spreading fear among U.S. politicians whose policies to control are wreaking havoc in Latin America,” he said.

Moonflower Enterprises plays a small role in the cycle, working with artisans and organizing coffee growers, Felipe said.

“I believe in taking teachings of faith and practicing them to find if they are valid,” he commented.

“Moonflower Enterprises’ philosophy is based on peace, justice and equality, believing that resources are to be shared,” he said.  “So we supported victims of Hurricane Stan through a $1,220 donation to 35 families in Santiago Atitlan whose homes were destroyed.”

For information, call 768-3193 or email fgon@moonflowerenterprises.com