Yesterday, I wrote about what an amazing experience I had at my cooking class in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, but I wanted to do a supplemental post all about the woman who made it so awesome — Anita.
As Anita served us the meal we had cooked for ourselves, she began to weave together the story of her life for us.
The Story of Anita
Anita’s mother was paralyzed during Anita’s birth from a labor-induced stroke. Her mother remained hospitalized with stroke complications for three years, leaving Anita and her 3 siblings essentially motherless. By a near miracle, Anita’s mother made a recovery and was released from the hospital, although she would remain in a wheelchair the rest of her life.
With 4 children in the home, Anita’s father struggled to make ends meet. Anita, although the youngest, grew up as the caretaker of the home, responsible for cooking, cleaning and taking care of her mother. She was also expected to weave with a back strap loom in order to make some extra money for the family. Anita never really had the opportunity to go to school full-time because she was responsible for a majority of the domestic work.
One day when she was about 12, Anita was at the market purchasing vegetables when she noticed another young woman selling tamales to tourists. It sparked Anita’s entrepreneurial spirit. She went home to her mother and asked for 2 quetzales, approximately 50 cents, which was week’s income for the family. She laid out her plan to earn 3 quetzales by selling bananas for a small margin at the ferry dock where tourists arrived in town. Her mother, doubtful in her daughter’s ability, reluctantly agreed to let Anita try it since the girl hardly ever asked for anything of her own.
Anita returned home that day with nearly 10 quetzales from her fruit venture, proving her natural business intuition and drive. She was determined to prove herself.
From that day forward, Anita was an entrepreneur. She continued to sell fruit to tourists. Through her interactions with them, was able to teach herself English over a 3 year period. A local businessman noticed that she was getting pretty good at speaking English and was also knowledgeable of the local area. He hired her on as a tour guide, where she developed self-confidence and pride in her work. She finally felt good at something.
Anita began saving up money to pay her way through high school and onto college, where she dreamed of getting a degree in tourism management. No one in her family had ever lived outside of their indigenous village; yet, Anita moved to Guatemala City at age 18, paying her own tuition and rent.
The struggles certainly didn’t stop there. Being from an indigenous village, Spanish wasn’t her first language and her accent was easily identifiable. She was harassed and discriminated against by her peers and professors, who would tell her she was a stupid village girl, incapable of succeeding. Also during her time at college, she fell in love with a man and unfortunately, she became pregnant at 19 years old.
Once the man learned of her pregnancy, he abandoned Anita, disappearing into the abyss of the city, leaving her as a single mother. Unable to support herself after her son was born, Anita was forced to return to her village to be in close proximity to her family. She resumed her work as a tour guide and picked up weaving again.
She sold her weavings to the tourists she guided, making a pretty good salary. The other women in her family and village took notice of her success, and started coming to her to sell their goods. They looked up to her, saw her as a role model and a good salesperson who could help them all earn a small wage.
While fulfilling, Anita always knew she wanted more than this. She dreamed of owning her own business. She quietly formulated a business plan in her head, and waited — waited for a day when she would catch a break.
That day finally came in 2014 when she met an expat who agreed to take a chance on her. She pitched her business plan – to start a women’s weaving cooperative that would teach basic weaving to tourists and sell them traditional Mayan fabrics in a small shop. He helped fund her venture, purchasing a building with a first floor shop and second floor apartment space for Anita.
At age 25, Anita’s cooperative opened their shop in late 2014, employing nearly 20 female weavers, including 6 of Anita’s family members. All of the women were able to earn a fair wage, while also sharing their cultural traditions with visitors. Anita translated the weaving process into English and let tourists try out the back strap loom. Soon Anita and the other women were able to start a savings account – access to their own money — something none of them had ever had before.
In early 2015, Anita approached her business partner about a new business venture she had dreamed up. From her years of cooking, Anita knew was a damn good cook, and wanted to share this traditional Mayan cuisine with tourists. She proposed offering cooking classes to visitors. There was no other operator in this market, and she knew she had a solid business plan.
Cooking on the vacant rooftop of her apartment building, she started small, only offering lessons in the afternoon cooking 1 dish. The kitchen was rudimentary, with few supplies and no place for people to sit and eat. She collected a few initial reviews on TripAdvisor (all 5 stars by the way), and she slowly added bits and pieces as the business gained momentum.
By the time we enrolled in her class, Anita had been in business for 9 months, expanded to two lessons per day as well as a visit to the vegetable market, and she had acquired two banquet tables and chairs for guests to sit at. She said that we were the largest group she had taught yet, and her business is now the number one attraction in San Pedro on TripAdvisor.
It took Anita nearly an hour to tell us this story as we ate our meals, but there wasn’t a second of it when I was captivated by her life. The pride beamed out of her as she spoke of her business and its effect on her family. Tears came to her eyes as she thanked us for sharing in her life and being a part of her success. She was so grateful, so humble, always saying that she just wanted to help more people and give more people in her community an opportunity.
Reflections on the Cooking Class
I can easily say that this was the best experience of our trip, because it was real; it was authentic; it was meaningful. Anita spoke from her heart and cooked from her heart, opening up her home to us and sharing her traditions. I walked away in awe of her accomplishments, inspired by her story, and empowered with a reinvigorated hope that even a single person can create change.
I share this experience for two reasons:
- Because Anita is a badass #girlboss who I am proud to have met.
- Because supporting female-owned businesses abroad (and at home) can generate meaningful, small-scale, sustainable change in a world that desperately needs an inclusive economy equally accessible to all.
I know Anita’s story of success is a rare one, yet her story of struggle is a common one throughout the world. Guatemala, as with many developing countries, struggles with major gender disparity and inequality, often leaving women economically, socially and/or emotionally dependent on a rigged patriarchal system of disempowerment. In a world with so much negative news about women, I was honored and happy to meet Anita, who goes against the usual tropes of development and proves just how successful an individual woman can be when given a opportunity.