Handcrafting in Belize

Before fully exploring her affinity for textiles and design, MayaBags founder Judy Bergsma worked as a filmmaker for many years. An admirer of indigenous cultures, she traveled the globe and even lived among the Aztecs and Mayas of southern Mexico. “Native peoples are always considered the lowest on the totem pole,” she regrets. “This is true in Belize as it is in Mexico.” A passionate environmentalist, Bergsma has always had a fascination with developing alternative models to lift people out of poverty while simultaneously saving the environment. It was on one such environmental mission in 1999 that she first found herself in southern Belize, transfixed by the region’s physical beauty—and also its destitution.

Not long afterward, Bergsma founded MayaBags with the hope of empowering impoverished Maya women while also reinvigorating the ancient Maya arts of backstrap looming, embroidery and basketry. Many of the artisans she now employs have never had an opportunity to earn an income, let alone share ownership in a company. (MayaBags artisans now own 42% of the enterprise.)

The project has required Bergsma to wear many hats over the years—designer, manufacturer, confidante, parent and diplomat among them—but her dedication has made a tangible impact in the communities her organization supports. During the decade MayaBags has been in business in Punta Gorda, the once rampant practice of street begging has declined as steadily as the quality of traditional hand-skills has improved.

Bergsma spoke to Indagare about the challenges and triumphs of her deeply fulfilling work, her favorite pieces from the current MayaBags collection and the magnificent biodiversity of Belize.

What first brought you to Belize?

In 1999 I went to Belize with the Long Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy to determine an international partner for our chapter. It wasn’t long before our first joint initiative with the Toledo Institute for Environmental Development (TIDE) was under way. Together we established a targeted educational fund for the children of gill netters in the Port of Honduras. Gill netting is a harmful fishing practice in which fishermen string their nets at dusk and lift them out at dawn. As many fish die and even begin to rot within a few hours of becoming entangled, the only marketable fish are the small fraction caught during the last two hours before the nets are pulled up. With the nets in place all night long, creatures like turtles and manatees are trapped and killed unintentionally. We offered high school scholarships to the children of any gill netter who would agree to give up his nets. It was the first time this kind of program had been implemented in Belize, and before I knew it, I was traveling there every three months to monitor its progress.

When were you inspired to launch MayaBags?

I didn’t understand the level of poverty that existed among the Maya villages until I stayed with a Maya family on one of my trips. As I helped my hostess with her work at the village store, my eyes were opened to the harsh reality behind the picturesque thatch huts with wooden walls and clay floors. As I was leaving at the end of the weekend, the sister-in-law handed me a piece of embroidery that was stunning. I had never seen anything like it. I boarded the plane back to New York thinking, ‘What else can I do?’

That December, I found myself saddled with a large quantity of fabric leftover from an event at my son’s school, and I had my ‘Aha’ moment. I have always hated wrapping holiday packages; it tends to be a last-minute thing, it takes hours, and you end up awake until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning the night before Christmas. I thought: what if we make reusable hand-embroidered Christmas bags? So I went back to Belize with $1,500 in my pocket and launched the project with six women. Our first Christmas bags weren’t much to look at, but a darling friend bought them, and we ended up with $4,000. We kept at it, and eventually we were creating exquisite hand-embroidered Christmas bags, which led to beach bags, swim bags and yoga bags. By the time we expanded into handbags, our staff was up to about forty-five.

How does MayaBags meet the particular needs of the artisans it supports?

Maya women live much the way they did 2,000 years ago. Their lifestyles are very traditional, and their husbands are often quite demanding. Our artisans can work at home, earning an income without compromising traditional household duties like cooking, cleaning and caring for children. In addition to paying the women an hourly salary for the goods they produce, we pay for their roundtrip transportation to and from Punta Gorda whenever they pick up materials or deliver stock. This affords them a free trip into town to do their shopping and run errands. We maintain a very strict commitment to fair trade, even when it is not easy to do so.

What is one of the most significant challenges you’ve had to confront?

Developing a common language of creativity has been an enormous challenge. Ultimately, our women are artists, and they cannot execute something with which they cannot identify. They are marvelously talented at combining color, but understandably, they have no sense of fashionable color. They’ve never been into a department store, and they have no idea where their products are headed. I take them fashion and home decorating magazines, and though their eyes get huge, they can’t read the copy, and they simply don’t relate. They’ve never seen many of the things that you and I see everyday. We exist worlds apart.

What kind of growth has MayaBags experienced since you sold your first Christmas bag?

Scaling the business at the proper speed has been an ongoing challenge. It wasn’t long until people heard about what we were doing, and everyone wanted to be involved. We are now working with a total of ninety women in nine different villages. We wish we could be in all of the villages, but in order to ensure an equitable distribution of work, we’ve had to be careful not to dilute the amount of work that one woman gets.

When did you first realize that your undertaking was changing the lives of Maya women?

When I first began working with these women, they would accompany me as I ran errands around town. Though they would follow me almost anywhere, I couldn’t get them to set foot inside the bank. It was an inscrutable space. When I tried to persuade the Bank of Belize to offer introductory financial training, it refused, unable to fathom that Maya women would ever open their own accounts. However, with the help of a Yale intern, all of the women ultimately requested their social security numbers and government IDs, opened savings accounts, and learned to manage their banking independently. This was a milestone for us.

How has your own aesthetic evolved as a result of your immersion in Mayan culture?

I’ve fallen in love with Maya glyphs and Maya mythology. The Mayan language is pictorial, and its glyphs are exquisite. For example, the earth is represented by a fat turtle, and when you see the acolytes of the moon goddess beating the turtle, that means thunder. Part of our mission is to help Maya women carry forward their cultural imagery.

What is your favorite MayaBags accessory for travel?

If, like me, you’re the kind of traveler who likes to maximize your last day at the beach, our waterproof swim bag is a travel essential—wonderfully functional and much more elegant than a plastic baggy. Throw your wet swimsuit in your bag before heading to the airport, and you don’t have to worry about the rest of your clothes getting wet. All of our purses are designed for travel; they fold and collapse into a neat, thin package for easy suitcase storage. When you arrive at your destination, you simply shake them out.

Where else have your travels taken you in Central America and how is Belize unique?

We’ve traveled throughout Central and South America—Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia. Belize, though barely the size of Massachusetts, has the most biodiversity by far. As you venture down its Caribbean coastline, high ridges and pine forests give way to southern rainforests. In fact, the Toledo district, where MayaBags began and where the majority of pure Mayas live, marks the beginning of the rainforest for all of Central and South America. The region is home to jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, lizards, riverfish, herons and egrets. It is a magical place to go birding and hiking; the trails are spectacular, and the guides are quite good.

What advice do you have for first-time visitors?

Chan Chich Lodge

in the north is not to be missed, but if you’re at all interested in getting the cultural mix of the country, consider spending some time in the south. It’s a lot less developed than the rest of Belize. Punta Gorda is a very poor little town, but to me it’s like Long Island’s East End used to be, with its local businesses and kind people. There’s a beautiful resort in the Toledo district called Copal Tree Lodge ( that offers reef diving and some of the best fly fishing in the area. I like it because of its expert birders. Guests have access not only to ocean and rivers, but also to the Maya villages.

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