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!

Unique Batik and Fair Trade: The “Fair” in Fair Trade

Continuing our exploration of the ten principles of Fair Trade as outlined by one of the leading bodies in the fair trade world, the World Fair Trade Organization, let’s look at what it means to pay a fair price. The idea that producers receive a fair price for their goods is the most basic idea of the fair trade movement. It’s also the one most familiar to consumers. If you ask someone what “fair trade” means, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Some people equate “fair trade” with “fair wage” (although there’s a lot more to it than that).

It doesn’t really seem necessary to explain why, if we call ourselves fair traders, we should be paying artisans a fair price. Even small children understand the concept of fairness. Maybe some of them understand it better than a lot of America’s large corporations. Instead of talking about why it’s important to pay a fair price -- which seems pretty obvious -- let’s talk about what makes a price fair. Who determines what’s fair? How do they decide how much is enough?

First of all, who determines a fair price? The answer is that the price is determined by both the producer and the buyer. We dialogue together to determine what price is appropriate for each product that is being made. If that seems unlikely to work because the goals of the two parties are mutually exclusive, consider this -- as fair traders, we want to provide a living wage to artisans. It’s one of the reasons we’re in business. But both the artisans and we at Unique Batik want that income to be sustainable, so the price that we pay them has to translate to a retail price that consumers are willing to pay us. In our mission to provide sustainable income to the artisans with whom we work, we must work together to find that fine line.

So, how do we determine what constitutes a living wage? There are a lot of factors that affect the answer to that, including where the artisans are working, the cost of materials, and how long they will work on the product. The cost of living in their local economy is relevant, as we are buying from artisans living in different countries, where the cost of living may vary. Producers know that we pay a fair price as we are familiar with the cost of living in the area and what local wages are.

The important thing is that wherever they are living, artisans earn enough to pay for the basic necessities of life. They should be able to provide shelter, food, and clean water to their families; they should be able to educate their children, and have access to medical care.

As any small child could tell you, we’re supposed to treat others the way we want to be treated. When you look at it that way, it’s fairly simple.

Mixing It Up for Spring

For Spring/Summer 2014, we’re excited to introduce a new collection of Unique Batik bags and scarves made in Guatemala. These au courant accessories reflect a couple of spring trends, including nautical inspired stripes and animal print. Mixed with another spring trend -- florals -- polka dots and leopard print look fresh, fun, and ready to go anywhere.

An important part of both our design process and our commitment as a fair trade organization is working with artisans to preserve cultural traditions while creating brand-new products that are on trend. Recycled huipils (embroidered blouses traditionally worn by Mayan women) have long been one of our favorite materials to use for bags of all sizes. Embroidery patterns from all over Guatemala make their way onto these beautiful, elaborate textiles and represent unique designs found in each region. As huipils become worn and unwearable, they are sold at the marketplace, which is how Unique Batik can bring you hand-embroidered work at affordable prices...another reason to love recycling!

With a little bit of ingenuity, these recycled huipils can become something completely new, both beautiful and practical for the way we live our lives here and now. Artisans appreciate design assistance, in regard to both functionality and form. Information, like what size to make a bag perfect for carrying your passport while traveling, and what colors are going to be hot this season, is exactly what they need to know to develop successful products. Often, it is an ongoing process. For example, when working on a new product, we talk about colors and they send us samples. Then, we communicate again and the samples are refined, until the artisans know exactly what colors to use to get consistent results.

Santos Perez is one of the many artisans who benefit from such design assistance. He and members of his extended family work together to create one of our favorite wardrobe staples, the striped scarf. Working in the village of San Antonio, the group makes foot loom and back strap loom scarves, with 21 women doing the iconic back strap weaving and three men working on the larger foot looms. The group is proud of the work that they do, both in keeping traditional weaving alive and in the quality of the products they make. They only use first quality thread that doesn’t fade or bleed when washed. The biggest challenge they have faced is finding a market for their handicrafts; through their sales to Unique Batik, they can provide for their families, including sending all of their kids to school.

Our new striped scarves crafted by Santos and his family feature color schemes influenced by two classic but always fresh trends. The red and white stripes reflect the nautical chic seen all over fashion runways for spring and summer. Earthy toned stripes are a take on the animal print craze that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Both of these manage to be trendy but never faddish. We think they look great paired with the mixed prints of our new bags, so don’t be afraid to mix it up and make it your own!

Polka Pot Passport and San Antonio Stripe ScarfPolka Dot Flap and San Antonio Stripe ScarfPolka Dot Eyeglass Case and San Antonio Stripe Scarf

Education: The Gift of a Lifetime

In Guatemala, over a million children are not in school -- one in 28, according to a UNESCO educational report. Many kids are working to support their families, while others would go to school if their parents could afford the fees. Although primary school in Guatemala is ostensibly free and compulsory, only thirty percent of students who begin school finish the six years of primary school. While school is theoretically free, in reality, there are high registration fees, costs for materials such as textbooks, and more, putting even basic education outside of the realm of possibility for many families. Those who drop out are disproportionately rural and from indigenous families, just like the ten students who are receiving scholarships through Unique Batik.

Thanks to your purchases from Unique Batik, ten children who could have been part of these dire statistics made it to school last year. Ten students at a rural school in the mountainous state of Solola , Guatemala, received scholarships through Unique Batik to continue their primary and middle school education. The group, composed mostly of girls, all come from families with limited economic resources who would otherwise be unable to provide an education for their children.

Because they know it isn’t always guaranteed, these children value education and see it as a bridge to a better future for themselves and their families. Recently, we received a packet of thank you cards from Pedro, the local scholarship coordinator, which contained three handmade notes from scholarship recipients. Pedro also sent pictures of the students and the school. In their pictures, the girls, dressed in the traditional Mayan costume of embroidered blouses and a woven wrap skirt bisected by a wide belt of woven fabric, stare seriously at the camera, but their solemnity at having their pictures taken is belied by the sparkly stickers and handdrawn flowers that decorate their letters. The handdrawn strawberries, glittery stickers, and rows of fanciful flowers and a carefully cut out scalloped edge, express the pride and creativity of the girls who made them.

In a country with the second lowest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere, simply being able to write a thank you note is a great achievement. Indigenous women are the most marginalized population in the country, with a literacy rate of only thirty percent. This is the group from whom we buy most of our handicrafts, and the ones we aim to help with our scholarship program. The education they are receiving has allowed these girls to dream of a life different from the one their parents have led; they can conceive of a bigger world, filled with opportunity. Filomena writes that she hopes to achieve her dreams of being a successful professional, and Elena anticipates finishing middle school, an accomplishment made by only the top third of the population.

If the statistics seem overwhelming, remember that you can make a difference. You have made a difference. The support of Unique Batik customers has changed the narrative for at least ten kids. We couldn’t express our gratitude any better than they did:

I am grateful to you with all my heart for helping me with my studies and helping me achieve my dreams -- Belinda, 4th grade.

Picture of BelindaCard from BelindaCard from Belinda

I am very happy that I completed the sixth grade. With your help, I will get my diploma -- Filomena, 6th grade.

Picture of FilomenaCard from FilomenaCard from Filomena

I am very grateful to you for helping me in my studies so that I can achieve my goals -- Elena, 8th grade.

Picture of ElenaCard from ElenaCard from Elena

Unique Batik and Fair Trade: Opportunity, Not Charity

Last week, in our first post, we promised you a glimpse into how your purchases from Unique Batik benefit artisans. Although a lot of consumers have become more educated about fair trade, it’s a term with a lot of meaning behind it, so we thought it would be helpful to unpack a little of that meaning by taking a look at the principles of fair trade and what it means to be a fair trader.

The WFTO, or World Fair Trade Organization, outlines ten principles of fair trade in this document, called...10 Principles of Fair Trade. Hey, they’re all about fair trade, not about making up clever titles!

Principle #1 is “Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers.” If you’re a fair trade business, you’re working with producers who don’t have a lot of other opportunities; they are people who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed. But it’s important to remember that “disadvantaged” doesn’t mean stupid, incompetent, or lazy. Many people in this world are born into challenging circumstances. They may not have an education or job opportunities, but given the chance, they can learn good business practices, work with dignity to support their families, and become self-sufficient. That’s what fair trade is all about.

At Unique Batik, we are working with people who have not had the opportunity for a good education. Most of our artisans are women who have been to less than five years of school; many have not been formally educated at all. Ways for women to earn an income at other work are scarce in these communities. They can clean houses, make tortillas, or sell gathered produce at the local market, making perhaps $2-3 a day. By producing the beautiful handicrafts that you love, women artisans are able to work in their homes and have the advantage of combining their household activities with their work. They earn $10 a day for about five hours of work. Sometimes, in order to supplement the household income, their husbands help them at night and on the weekends; they can earn over twice as much with this work as what they earn at their day labor jobs.

What’s the most important thing to the women when they have this extra income? How do they spend it? Educating their children. They want their kids to have the knowledge and the chances that they didn’t have. It’s pretty exciting to see how fair trade work can break the cycle of poverty for a family. There aren’t many other things that can make such a difference in one generation, which is one of the many reasons we believe in fair trade.

The other really important word in that principle? “Opportunities.” Fair trade is about opportunity, not charity. We’re telling you about the challenges our artisans face not so that you will feel sorry for them, but so that you can be impressed at how they have overcome their circumstances to take that little boost they have been given -- and fly. At Unique Batik, we’re not just buying things from producers; we’re working with artisans, many of whom have become our friends, so that they can be self-sufficient. We help build their businesses by communicating about quality control, sourcing better materials, and redesigning products that don’t sell. Our hope, and theirs, is not only to keep up steady purchases and income for our existing artisans, but to grow so that they can hire more artisans.

And, ultimately, change more lives.


Unique Batik: Behind the Brand

What do you get when you combine innovative design with inspirational programs in developing countries? Charmed objects and changed lives!

Here at Unique Batik, we think it’s time to let our fans know about the great work their purchases support, so follow our new blog to meet our artisans, get behind the scenes glimpses of our design process, and learn more about our fair trade business practices. There are so many stories to tell, and we can’t wait to share them with you! In the next month, you will hear from Carmela, one of the artisans behind our beaded jewelry , get an in depth look at our scholarship program in Guatemala, and have a sneak peek at upcoming bags for spring. And that’s just the beginning...

Have you ever liked a brand until you found out about their unethical business practices? Maybe you watched the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh last year, and wondered if any of the things you bought were made there. Think of this blog as an antidote to the daily discouragement brought on by hearing about child labor, sweatshops, and human trafficking. Instead of just talking about the problems, we can focus on the solutions. We think fair trade is an important solution that can alleviate all of those issues and bring lives of dignity and respect to people in developing countries. Every fair trade purchase you make, makes a difference.

Unique Batik is proud of the work we do and of the artisans with whom we work. Many of them face a lot of challenges in life, but they have overcome those challenges to create lives of quality for themselves and their families, and new possibilities for their children. Supporting education and opportunity for kids is a big part of who we are. Every one of our artisans’ children is enrolled in school. We also provide scholarships for other children, help support teachers in a remote village school, and offer nutritional programs for mothers and infants. There is nothing more uplifting than hearing from a child who is excited about getting to go to school, or having a mother say her work making jewelry means her children will get the education she never had.

Doing business in a moral and ethical way is something that happened organically for us. We simply believe that you should treat others in the same way you would want to be treated. Becoming part of the fair trade movement was a natural fit and has allowed us to expand our support for artisans and connect them to you, our customer. Every step of our process is about creating beautiful products, finding the fun and the funky, and doing it in a way that makes the world a better place.

We want to share these stories with you because they energize and inspire us, and we think the world needs more of that. More good news, more positivity, and more discovery. If that’s what you want, keep reading!