Guatemala is a hard-luck case. It's survived dictators, earthquakes, hurricanes, the United Fruit Co. and, just this past month, the eruption of Pacaya volcano just outside its capital, followed by tropical storm Agatha's torrential rains and mudslides. More than 40% of its population are indigenous Maya, more than 75% of whom live in poverty. But the small, profoundly beautiful Central American country has a champion in Lynn Persson.
Persson is the founder of Terra Experience, a socially and environmentally responsible shop (and website) that carries the torch for fair trade goods. She and her husband, David Ward, an astrophysicist/oceanographer turned antiques dealer, have been making yearly trips to the Guatemalan Highlands since first visiting there 15 years ago. Now retired from the Department of Natural Resources, Persson has made lasting connections with the women and men in the many villages in the area, and has committed herself to raising their standard of living.
Persson started off encouraging Mayan friends to weave their village's traditional dress into doll clothes ($25), sized to fit American Girl-style dolls. She's now expanded to a collection of intricately woven blouses called huipiles ($40 and up) that make stunning wall hangings, textiles, scarves ($10-$20), table runners, jewelry, carved statues of saints, vibrant paintings ($20 and up), books and more. Her inventory takes up a large corner of the crowded first floor of Stony Hill Antiques (which houses her husband's business) and spills up the stairwell in a flood of dazzling colors and patterns into five more rooms on the second floor.
Much of what you'll find comes with a tag identifying the maker and the village where she or he comes from, further cementing the local/global relationship, and her website has profiles and photos of many of the artisans. It also has links to other Madison fair trade businesses, as well as ways you can assist in Persson's special mission to help keep young rural girls in school.
The city council recently declared Madison a Fair Trade Town (the 16th in the nation, and the first that's a state capital). Persson and Terra Experience embody the spirit behind the fair trade movement. Mayan artisansin Guatemala are the better for it, as are we.