Belize. When you think of the small Central American country, images of beaches, blue oceans, and tropical drinks with mini-umbrellas floating on the top come to mind. Thanks in large part to features in swanky publications such as Vanity Fair and celeb tourists like Diddy, the previously untapped nation has become the vacation destination du jour for those in the know. Beyond the beautiful coral reefs and super-tan-potential beaches, the country has a rich history rooted in the indigenous peoples of Central America who ruled the region centuries ago, namely the Mayan people. The ruins of massive Mayan temples are popular destinations in the country, and as tourists descend from the stone structures after a long climb to the top, many of them stop to look at the tables of homemade goods that the existing Mayans (still alive and well, albeit in very small populations) have crafted.
One of those tourists was Judy Bergsma, a woman who came to Belize for a relaxing vacation and left with a business plan in mind. Enchanted with the simple products that the Mayan women created by hand, Bergsma soon discovered that the conditions these women were working in were not as enchanting. The country of Belize is still a third-world country, and a huge amount of the indigenous peoples–including the Mayans–fall victim to cultural and economic discrimination. Many of the women are dependent on their husbands for any type of income, and as a result often remain in less-than-healthy relationships because of their lack of financial freedom. Bergsma realized that with a bit of help, these women would be able to utilize their skills in order to become income earners and develop a greater sense of economic independence.
After much planning, financing, and a whole lot of patience, Maya Bags was born. The company works in conjunction with over 70 women in the Mayan villages to create various collections of stylish handbags and home accessories. The handbags features designs that blend natural themes with historically Mayan images–motifs of local animals such as butterflies and birds are popular designs. Bergsma provides the women with quality fabrics, such as the Belgian silks and durable cotton/spandex blends that many of the bags are made of. The combination of high-end fabrics and natural elements involved in the production of the line ensures that each bag is environmentally sound and sustainable for years to come. In addition, the women undergo extensive design tutorials and receive assistance from high-end visual design professionals such as Izabel Lam. The result is a collection of cute, practical, and unique handbags that are stylish enough for the fashionista on the go, but still remains to the rich cultural history of the Mayan people.
As far as economic independence, Bergsma has generously been able to ensure that the Mayan women, in addition to earning fair market wages for their work on the lines, own 42% of the stock in the company. The line of handbags, sold at both Barneys Co-Op and The Museum of Natural History in NYC, is doing remarkably well and the Mayans involved have come to understand the importance of economic independence for women living in third-world countries. Bergsma’s vision “to help build the self-esteem and independence of Maya women by helping them become income earners in their households” is a tangible goal that is closer to fruition each day.
Look out for the bags at a Barneys near you, and trust, they are the perfect cute accessory for rockin’ with a sundress this summer!
- Vote! Vote! Vote! Pretty Please
- International Women’s Day 2010
- Derek Lam Handbags @ Barneys.com
- Political Roundup: Recovery.gov
- The Current State of Affairs: Economy In Crisis