Courtney Lindahl started her career in the fashion industry. Shortly after her 1997 graduation from Fort Osage High School, she started selling shoes and later, worked in the human resources departments for such high rollers as Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.
So maybe what she’s doing now isn’t really so far afield.
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Lindahl has started an on-line business selling clothing and handicraft to help the artisans make a living in one of Mexico’s most impoverished areas.
“I wanted to give back,” Lindahl said. “I know it sounds cliché but I felt very fortunate for all I was able to do in New York.”
Lindahl grew up in Independence but now makes her home in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico. When she’s not teaching English, she spends her time off searching the villages for clothes, home décor items and jewelry for her website, Chiapas Bazaar.
The idea, she said, is to provide an income for the artists there and also to help them preserve art of the Mayan culture.
Chiapas is one of the most economically disadvantaged states in Mexico. According to SIPAZ, the International Service for Peace, 16 percent of workers in Chiapas have no income and 26.5 percent of homes have no running water.
Chiapas has the highest illiteracy rate in Mexico, with almost 18 percent of people 15 years old or older unable to read or write. SIPAZ is a joint project of the United States and European and Latin American countries to prevent socio-political violence.
The major business in the area is the farming of mangoes, pineapple, corn, avocado and fruits, she said. Organic coffee is also one of the area’s big exports. But many people are left out of that economy, she said.
“If you don’t grow something and you don’t work for the government it can be hard to find your way,” said Lindahl.
The website opens another option for people skilled in handiwork to make an acceptable living, she said.
Lindahl buys their work and then resells it online. The villagers set their own price, she said.
“They know what their time is worth and what their materials cost,” she said.
Lindahl spent 10 years in New York’s fashion district shortly after graduating from the University of Missouri- Columbia. But she didn’t go straight from the glamor of Fifth Avenue to Chiapas. Along the way she joined the Peace Corps.
Her first assignment was in Moldova, working with kids on their English and leading workshops. It only lasted eight months, though. Lindahl suffered a broken ankle after falling on some ice. Peace Corps rules required a volunteer be sent home if he or she couldn’t return to work after 45 days, she explained.
Lindahl had met her future fiancé, Mauricio Bonifaz, during a one-month trip to Mexico between New York City and the Peace Corps. They’d stayed in touch. So she decided to go down to Chiapas.
Wandering the villages for crafts started as a hobby for Lindahl and Bonifaz, a civil engineer. She launched the website in March.
Bonifaz said the site will preserve traditional Mayan patterns and textiles that have been slowly disappearing.
“Courtney has opened a window for Chiapas people who do this work,” he said. “This is an opportunity the arts in Chiapas didn’t have.”