Through the Oakwood School Chiapas Project, the past seventeen years students from Oakwood School have been selling artisan products from these cooperatives in Los Angeles, at the Mercado La Paloma (established by the Esperanza Housing Corporation), at Oakwood events, and at arts festivals and fairs throughout the city. The students’ solidarity and service in this work has been crucial for the survival of the cooperatives’ micro-economy, as well as an educational and enriching project for both the students and the women. Oakwood teachers and students have dedicated time, creativity and hard work to help more than 200 Mayan women sell their handmade products for a fair price with dignity. Over these years, also, over 300 students have traveled to Chiapas to visit villages and meet directly with representatives of the cooperatives.
Training courses have been essential in providing technical and educational help in the women’s process of organizing. For three days every other month, women from the cooperatives have traveled to San Cristobal to meet, make collective business decisions and take classes in areas such as finances, computers, dyeing, and sewing. The women also bring their village’s products to send to Los Angeles, and they receive payment sent to them from the Oakwood Chiapas Project (the total is now over one million dollars). Carmen Cano, the project’s one full-time staff person, works tirelessly to give the workshops, advise the cooperatives, manage sale contacts and visit the communities.
In Chiapas, the indigenous people have endured a long history of exploitation, whose emblem is the “coyote” — the middle-man who travels to the villages to buy products for a pittance, reselling profitably in the city. A principal goal of this project has been to provide tools for women, already organized in cooperatives in their villages, to provide a space for them to meet and work together, and to find markets with fair prices.
Each day, within the deeply green jungle traversed by turquoise rivers, and on mountain-tops, tucked between the mists of clouds in the highlands, Mayan women rise at four or five in the morning. They prepare posol, a cornmeal dough, for their husband to bring with him to the cornfield that day. She grinds the corn by hand for 2-3 hours in order to make the tortillas and posol. A woman typically spends more than five hours a day making tortillas, the sacred staple of the family’s diet. During the day she also walks far to fetch water and fire wood, cooks for the children, tends to the animals, washes clothes in the river, cleans the house and has food ready for her husband. Many of the women also participate in vegetable-growing collectives and church events, and have other responsibilities on the community level. It is a testimony to their dedication that women with this amount of work also spend hours managing their cooperative and embroidering.
“The idea was to create a space for these women…to meet other women in similar situations”
In March 1999, Niki and Carmen initiated the training course, “Walking Toward an Autonomous Economy,” to address the needs they had detected while working with women’s cooperatives in the communities for several years. The idea was to create a space for these women, who had been isolated in their communities, to meet other women in similar situations, and learn and work together. The women are Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal, and so they are from different regions and cultures in Chiapas. As the cooperatives developed more organizing skills, the goal was that they would come to administer and manage this network. The course also served as a way for women to learn to travel, and to manage their way in San Cristobal, where they buy raw materials and make contacts.
When the first representatives came in 1999, it was difficult for most women to speak Spanish, many could not read and write, and it took most of the first year to cover the basic marketing skills involved in running a business. The courses focus on administration, finances, design, artisan techniques like dyeing threads with plants, promotion of products (making silk-screened tags and pamphlets), sewing and computer training. One segment of each course is dedicated to a topic directly related to the women’s lives, such as reproductive health, women’s rights, or indigenous rights. Now, eighteen years later, the women travel with confidence, give presentations to the public in Spanish, make catalogs, and send e-mails. The quality and design of their products have improved, and in 2000 the cooperatives formed a network to cut costs and sell their products together, calling themselves “Women of Corn In Resistance.” In 2002, after a 11/2-year process, the network of cooperatives obtained legal status for exportation purposes.
These steps may not seem grandiose, but given the obstacles these women face, and a traditional culture which restricts them to home and village, to organize a legitimate business where they are able to resist exploitation has been a long, and an inspiring, process.