Blog posts of '2014' 'March'

Artisan Spotlight: Diego Ravinal

Everything old is new again, right? At its best, fashion takes classics that have been around for ages, and spins them into something new right before our eyes. Oscar de la Renta, Rachel Roy, Nicole Miller, and several other designers showed pearls for Spring 2014, but these weren’t your granny’s pearls. While pearls have an elegant, classic aesthetic, they take on a cool, young edge when mixed with more casual pieces.

At Unique Batik, we are always looking for ways to translate fun fresh trends into our handcrafted jewelry and bags, so we’re pleased to bring you the Pearl Circus Necklace and Pearl Circus 2 Strand as a great way to incorporate the pearl micro trend into your spring and summer wardrobe. These subtly dramatic pearl necklaces are created for us by the same family of artisans that makes our delightful Circus collection of jewelry, as well as our Rock Candy and Trapeze collections.

Pearl Circus

Led by artisan Diego Ravinal and based in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, the group is made up of Diego, his four sisters, and his brother-in-law. When their father died thirteen years ago, Diego had to abandon his education, leaving school to work and support the family. Diego was able to get a bank loan of Q3500 (the equivalent of $450) and set up a stall on one of the main streets in town, near the beach. There, he sold jewelry and other trinkets to tourists, as the town in which he lives is on a beautiful volcanic lake and is a popular vacation spot. Although doing business this way was enough to get by, Diego was unable to grow his business until he could find a wholesale buyer.

DiegoLake Atitlan

When Diego connected with Sharon and started making jewelry for Unique Batik, he was able to generate enough work for all four of his sisters. Diego’s family has not had the opportunity for much education -- both his mother and three of his sisters are illiterate and not all of them are able to speak Spanish fluently. This means that income generating opportunities are few and far between. Their work making jewelry allows them to contribute to the prosperity of the family, and gives them a voice in decision making. When making decisions about pay and production, the group dialogues and decides together.

ChonaElanaMariaDiego's Kids

Diego is proud of his work; he has created his own designs, and when people come to his stall and admire his jewelry, saying it is unique, it gives him energy to continue creating. He has also continued his education, going to school in the afternoons, and is only one class away from completing his studies and getting his diploma. In the six years of working together with his family he has built a successful business and now dreams of growing that business and building his own home in Santiago. Sure, it’s the same dream that people have had for generations...but some things never go out of style.

Fair Trade Principles: No Forced or Child Labor

It might surprise you to learn that there are more people enslaved today than there were at the height of the U.S. slave industry -- more than at any other time in human history. Although it is difficult to track, since human trafficking is a hidden business, the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are over 29 million people being held in slavery across the globe today. Slavery is defined as being forced to work through fraud, threat of violence, for no pay.

Although the rates of slavery are highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe, it happens in every country in the world. In the U.S., there are an estimated 60,000 people being held in slavery, many of them illegal immigrants. Something all of these populations have in common is that the workers are made more vulnerable by high rates of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. Women everywhere are more at risk than men, as are children. Eighty percent of transnational trafficking victims are women, and fifty percent of them are children.

The commercial sex industry is rampant with forced labor, and sadly, many men, women and children are trafficked into just such situations. However, not all trafficking is sex trafficking; many people are held through debt bondage as migrant farm workers, laborers, or in domestic servitude. One industry with the most rampant abuse of forced child labor is that of chocolate production, with an estimated 200,000 children working in cacao fields in the Ivory Coast alone.

How does buying fair trade fight human trafficking? According to the WFTO, one of the principles of fair trade is that there is no forced or child labor involved. When you see an organization labeled fair trade, you can know that they have ensured that no forced labor and no child labor is involved in the production of their goods. When you see a food or beverage labeled fair trade, you can know that none of the farm workers were children or forced laborers. For example, if you want to continue enjoying chocolate, and you find it bothers you to think that your Hershey bar was produced by enslaved children, you can make your next chocolate purchase fair trade chocolate and feel good about that choice.

Another important way fair trade fights human trafficking is that is creates sustainable employment opportunities for at risk populations. Poverty is a huge risk factor for victims of trafficking. People who are desperate for work leave their villages and go to the big city or even other countries to find jobs, and instead, they find themselves cheated and trapped. People who are desperate to feed their families send their children away under the belief that they will be cared for, they will be educated, they will be able to work for a while and send money back to their families and return safely. Instead, their children are forced to labor on cocoa plantations with machetes in the hot sun.

Fair trade work is done by fairly paid adults, who are paid enough to support their families, educate their children, and live lives of dignity and respect. When you choose to pay a little bit more for a bar of chocolate that is labeled fair trade, you choose to prevent child slavery. When you buy a handmade bag made by fairly paid artisans, instead of one made by laborers in a sweatshop, you choose to prevent forced labor. Human trafficking may sound like a far away problem, but it is not unrelated to our choices. The things we buy and the things we consume are paid for by us, or by those who are exploited to create them.

The Sacred Grain

The culture that brought us chocolate and guacamole is also the basis of Guatemalan cuisine. Mayan foodways reign supreme in Guatemala in traditional foods such as corn, beans, and chilis, although there is also a clear European influence. Rice, for example, now a staple of Guatemalan meals, was introduced by the Spanish during their rule which began in the 1500s. Before that, maize was the main crop, and it is still seen at almost every meal in the form of the ever present corn tortilla. Mayans first cultivated corn around 2500 BC; in fact, it was corn that helped form the great civilization when the formerly nomadic people began to settle in order to tend their crops.

A fundamental of everyday eating, the tortilla can be found virtually everywhere in Guatemala. Residents of the region have been eating tortillas for at least 3500 years. The Mayan creation myth even tells of the gods making humans out of various substances until they found one that was successful - corn. In Mayan culture, a meal is not complete unless it includes some kind of corn. In fact, the words for “tortilla” and “to eat” are almost identical.

Mesoamericans made tortillas from maize that had been nixtamalized, or soaked in an alkaline mixture, usually lime. Although historians do not know when or how nixtamalized maize became a dietary staple, we do know that through using this preparation of the grain, the nutritional value of the corn is released for human absorption of niacin, B vitamins, and amino acids. Without this process, it is impossible to live on corn as a main food source. People who consume a large amount of maize that has not been nixtamalized suffer from pellagra, birth defects, and even death. When Columbus brought maize back to Europe and Africa and it was consumed widely without the traditional preparation, the result was a devastating epidemic of pellagra which remained a medical mystery for centuries. Though they did not have the benefit of modern nutritional information, the Mayans and other Mesoamerican peoples developed and used this fundamental process for corn thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the New World.

Try your hand at making the thick, delicious tortillas of Guatemala. You don’t have to boil your own maize in limewater -- a simple trip to a Latin grocery store will yield a bag of masa harina, or nixtamalized corn flour. The ingredients are simple - flour, water, salt, and a little love.  It may take some practice to get the technique down, but that’s half the fun!

Guatemalan Tortillas

Yield: 16 medium tortillas


2 cups masa harina

1 ¼ cups water

¼ teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, mix the flour, water, and salt until a soft ball forms. Continue kneading until the mixture has the consistency of play-dough. Cover and allow the dough to rest for ten minutes.

2. Divide the dough into sixteen pieces of equal size and roll them into small balls. Keep the dough covered with a damp towel to keep them from drying out.

3. Shape the tortillas by clapping the ball back and forth between your hands. If you’d rather, you can roll them with a rolling pin between two pieces of plastic wrap, or use a tortilla press. Just remember that to be authentic Guatemala style tortillas, they should not be too thin (at least ¼ inch thick).

4. On a preheated griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat, cook tortillas for about one minute per side. When they are ready, there will be small black spots and the tortillas should easily come off the cooking surface without sticking.

5. As you finish cooking the tortillas, remove them to a plate or basket; cover and keep warm.

Serve warm and enjoy! Try the tortillas by themselves with butter or guacamole, or as a side with black beans or stew.

Nutrition: Vital Support

Among the many challenges faced by disadvantaged populations in Guatemala is that of providing adequate nutrition for themselves and their families. Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The mainstay of the typical diet is based on corn (in the form of tortillas) and beans, and also includes sugar, cheese, eggs, meat and fresh fruits and vegetables. Although many Guatemalans enjoy the exceptional coffee grown in their country, it is typical a much weaker brew than that preferred in America and is usually served with plenty of sugar. The most impoverished people in Guatemala often subsist on a diet of just corn, beans, and fruit, which provides inadequate amounts of many nutrients, including amino acids and fat.

Almost 20% of the population of Guatemala is categorized as undernourished by the World Bank.  Children under the age of five are especially at risk, with over 25% being underweight and over 50% being stunted (short for their age). Most at risk are rural, indigenous people, who are also the less educated and poorest populations in the country. Anemia is big risk particularly for pregnant women and infants. The underlying cause of the much of the nutritional deficiency for the majority of Guatemalans is economic access to food. 54% of the population is living below the poverty line, and these people only consume about 60% of the minimum daily caloric requirement, leading to malnutrition.

Unique Batik  provides vital income to just this at-risk population through fair trade purchases of their handmade crafts. Seeing the nutritional challenges faced by so many of the people of Guatemala, we wanted to do more, and when the good work of ODIM was brought to our attention, it seemed like the right partnership for advancing the cause of good nutrition in Guatemala. Unique Batik has been a supporter of ODIM for several years, funding their Children’s Cultural Exchange (CCE) and Nutrition Project.

ODIM is an organization operating in the Highlands of Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlan in two villages, San Juan and San Pablo La Laguna, with a focus on healthcare and education. ODIM stands for Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya, and the two villages where they work have a total population of approximately 20,000 people, almost entirely indigenous Maya. ODIM’s Nutrition Project was founded in 2010 after seeing a drastic increase in severely malnourished children at their healthcare clinics. The Nutrition Project is a comprehensive nutrition program that works with twenty families. Participants attend monthly classes in hygiene, nutrition, combating common illnesses, safe food preparation, and family budgeting. The program also includes cooking classes, bi-monthly health checks, emergency food assistance and a community garden where families in the program work and share in the vegetable harvests.

The nutrition, cooking, and budgeting classes, as well as the organic vegetables and herbs from the community garden established especially for them, has greatly improved the lives of both the mothers and children involved in the Nutrition Project. ODIM no longer sees such extreme cases as the month-old baby girl, weighing 4 pounds and the 10-month-old baby boy, weighing 8.8 pounds who were the impetus for the program.

You can support the good work of ODIM by visiting their website, connecting to their organization on Amazon Smile, and , of course, continuing your fair trade purchases through Unique Batik!