By Katherine O’Donnell
Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Merida 2001. Merida marked the beginning of a decade of my experimentation with conference sites as textile markets for the Mayan women’s weaving cooperative, Jolom Mayaetik, Chiapas, Mexico. In 1998 when I first met members of the cooperative in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Jolom was marketing textiles in a little shop and sending textiles home with friends. I, too, became part of the friend network. I initially began developing marketing ideas for the campus where I teach. We had Salsa and Solidarity and Fiestas; I linked with Pastors for Peace and other US organizations. I also helped create a Fair Trade store in town. Later, my marketing with Jolom expanded to the AAA and five years of training and sales at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.
Merida offered the opportunity for the cooperative to drive, bring lots of textiles, and present at the conference. In subsequent years, we worked with the SFAA staff and moved from hallway tables to an exhibit booth in the bookselling area. While a booth cost the cooperative money, it offered security and allowed us to lock the items in the room for the night rather than schlepping them back to our rooms as we had done for years. Selling at the SFAA also meant cooperative members could stay with me in a hotel. Finally, Jolom and I began to think of the SFAA conference as an anchor site to create tours and local sales related to the conference. For example in Seattle, Celia, the president of the cooperative, came by train from a tour in Vancouver, and met me outside of Seattle. Then we travelled to Whidbey Island for sales set up by my sister. Next, we came to the conference site, and later, I dropped Celia off at the train station for her return to Vancouver and further speaking and sales opportunities in Canada and I returned to New York.
For me, selling textiles at the SFAA represented economy of time and travel as I would be coming to the SFAA anyway and I could meet my compañeras there instead of Chiapas. We could catch up, talk, plan, eat, sell, present, and attend sessions. While the SFAA was smaller than the AAA, the facilities were cozier, the fees were much more reasonable, and the crowds wanted to talk and share their stories from the field.
Another strategic reason for marketing at the SFAA meetings involved the membership getting paid. As has been noted by Christine Eber (1993) and others, regular, timely payments to weavers has been a nagging problem for cooperatives and Jolom Mayaetik was no exception. Initially, I expanded the number of major conferences where we were marketing to spread out potential earnings across the year, the AAA in fall, SFAA in spring, and the International Folk Art Market in the summer. When costs became prohibitive for one conference, and the other was juried each year and, therefore, tenuous, SFAA became the largest selling event that I did with Jolom during the year.
Finally, the SFAA became the place for the women to test out their speaking, selling, Spanish, and accounting skills. Jolom is proud that it trains its members to travel and when the SFAA returned to Merida in 2010, the two Jolom members who staffed the booth and shyly spoke at a session had travelled out of Chiapas for the first time to sell at the conference. They were convinced that they could not speak and that they had nothing of interest to share at the conference. It took two evenings of dinner encouragement to convince them to leave the selling at the booth, their primary obligation to the cooperative, and speak a few words.
Over the years, at the SFAA conference, we have created a marketplace community at our booth where clans of Chamula blouse wearers, San Andrés tapestry fanciers, wool purse people, and new mothers looking for striped Yochib shawls to carry their babies, highland-Mayan style, can meet. This is also how I have found my anthropological home.
Why Direct Marketing?
One of the premises of Fair Trade involves engaging the consumer in a dialogue about the production process and the relations of production. Direct marketing has allowed us to tell the Jolom story. That story is one of collective struggle and vision, women’s leadership, and cultural survival in the context of harsh economic and political realities. As Rosalinda Santiz Diaz (2012), former Jolom Mayaetik president and currently the first indigenous director of Jolom’ s sister NGO, K’inal Antzetik, wrote for our recent SAR/SFAA seminar on Artisan Production and the World Market: Collaborating in Theory, Methods, Practice,
If you make people aware and understand what the process of a cooperative is, that makes the people understand and participate and buy and become aware that it is better to support a cooperative and they stop thinking that what we are producing comes from a factory.
Why a cooperative?
Jolom Mayaetik was founded in 1996 by indigenous Mayan women weavers as an independent, autonomous, and women-run organization. Their mothers were involved in earlier government-run cooperatives since 1984.
One distinct locus of Mayan women’s struggle for autonomy, economic justice, and political rights is within cooperatives led by indigenous women. In Jolom Mayaetik, women and their allies are creating solidarity economics and political mobilizations for gender equity and developing young leaders to represent their collective organizing efforts in local and global arenas. This cooperative space allows elected leaders to assert their leadership in the context of the women’s collective vision.
The cooperative is more than an organization for weaving; it is also a place for the women to learn autonomy, decision-making, representational leadership, and public speaking. Rosalinda (2012) notes
I think that being in a cooperative is good because it is a way to learn not just weaving but selling at a better price and also I think that it isn’t just that, but also to get to know other work that isn’t what you always do on a daily basis. Also, to be in a cooperative means responsibilities and obligations for each artisan to fulfill, even having a position, which also means a lot in that the women artisans can make decisions and think or see what the situation is in the cooperative. I also think that it has served for each artisan as a space to learn among themselves because if they sold individually without being in the cooperative, then the women wouldn’t learn to go out of their homes, not even to get around alone and they would always be in the house. Before, it was the men who went out to sell and the money didn’t make it back home and now the women themselves are the ones who go to the bank and return and I think it is a good alternative to be in a cooperative.
We have tried to make sure people know where the products come from, who makes them and why they produce them. In each product there is a label that permits the buyer to have an idea of where the product comes from, and even if they don’t know the women, at least they have an idea of what is the cooperative and that it is the idea of the women.
For the young women who are moving from the confines of a traditional, homogenous village to the city, the cooperative is also a support system and a refuge from the racism of Ladino society.
Structural Violence-The Impact of Globalization
Mayan women and their families experience tremendous economic hardship and extreme marginalization as indicated by high rates of malnutrition, illiteracy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, poverty, and tuberculosis. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state. While Mayan women have always woven, their increased production is in direct relation to men’s decreased earning capacity, the loss of land for crop production, falling wages, falling crop prices, cost of living increases, male migration and immigration, and rising poverty. Jolom Mayaetik has succeeded in increasing its production and has expanded its marketing in the U.S. It has also succeeded in developing a popular new line of textiles. To deal with the continued steady decline in male earnings and increased cost of living in Mexico, the cooperative has increased its external marketing.
In the context of increasing poverty, economic destabilization, militarization, violence against women, and land expulsions in Chiapas, Mexico, the grassroots organizations of Jolom Mayaetik, a Mayan Women’s Weaving Cooperative, and K’inal Antzetik, a multiethnic non-governmental organization, have been working for over a decade to create justice for indigenous people through the empowerment of women. The development of an autonomous women’s cooperative with young, Mayan leaders, and the creation of a Center for Women’s Training & Development is remarkable.
During the last twelve years, international, domestic, and cooperative-related crises have rocked the cooperative but these women have prevailed. Most explicitly, the 2008 crisis resulted in an eleven percent drop in sales revenue for Jolom. In the next few years, Jolom failed to win a juried place at the International Folk Art Market which meant the loss of the largest income event of the year. These issues led both the co-op and K’inal to reconfigure their marketing strategy, develop new products, diversify markets, delimit products, and increase distribution within Mexico. Maintaining equilibrium of earnings across highland communities became centrally important.
Rosalinda (2012) contextualizes the economic constraints more specifically when she describes the impact of corn and bean shortages and coffee harvesting on weaving.
When it is time to buy corn, for example, then they have to put a lot of pressure on themselves and you have to sell your crafts wherever you can to buy the corn, well, the and maybe what you produce doesn’t cover everything and they have to do it even at night because what their husbands earn isn’t enough and they automatically put pressure on themselves.
[Women weave more] around March, April when the cornfields are starting to flower, and some even sooner, depending on the family, if they have some corn and are waiting for the corn to mature, then around September or the start of October, and they are selling their products wherever they can but they are dedicated to it because they have to buy the corn. Right then they can sell their work for pretty cheap in order to buy the corn. And they know that it is with the crafts, they know what they have to do is overproduce their crafts in order to have a better income.
When it is time to harvest coffee some women stop weaving or the same women who have coffee and crafts both also stop weaving textiles because they dedicate themselves to cutting the coffee and they look for those jobs because they pay them every day and they go out of the community because the pay is immediate and then they can use it for what they need and also sometimes to buy corn.
For the members of Jolom Mayaetik, weaving is important economically and culturally as their traditional dress and language are parts of their identity. The members of Jolom recognize the gift of their grandmothers’ cooperative organizing and weaving knowledge and they intend to pass on both. Patterns are also part of their heritage and the cooperative has begun to collect the traditional designs of each village’s oldest weavers and record the meanings associated with patterns.
Our work is woven from many threads. In response to the query, “Can you do more than take photos,” Jolom Mayaetik and I have been engaged in a long developmental process which I term the solidarity continuum. It begins with alignment, proceeds through accompaniment, and results in the goal of economic solidarity (O’Donnell 2010; 2013). Like weaving, the process moves back and forth. The weaving of solidarity, unlike the cloth made by the weavers of Jolom, is much more variable and imperfect as we lack the templates of cultural memory and practice. As Rosalinda (2012) puts it
When you have a challenge, you can compare it with the most difficult weaving. For example, when you are little and you learn something simple and if it doesn’t turn out well, you undo it and repeat it as many times as needed and it is the same as in school, or in any kind of work.
The U.S. and international solidarity network works on generating income as well as awareness about human rights, indigenous women’s leadership and cooperative practice, and our collective role in challenging inequity. The Jolom story in global context informs the marketing of their textiles. Our economic solidarity literally translates into markets for fine textiles and, therefore, into income for the cooperative’s members and their families as well as opportunities for public education and squarely locates our lives in the context of the shared impact of global economic apartheid and the security, human rights, and sustainability challenges we all face. By supporting Jolom’ s alternative development through Fair Trade textile sales, we work with them to make decent wages, develop young leaders, and preserve the unique, Mayan cultural heritage of backstrap loom weaving.
For Rosalinda (2012), international solidarity or the network serves the purpose of increasing transnational understanding and cooperation.
I think it is good because people in the network were in the process of understanding the work of a cooperative and these same people can promote and get out the word about our cooperative’s work. They are supporting us because they are interested and it is important for them and in their lives and they help promote the work of the cooperative and have earned places to sell Jolom’s products and I think this is a very good way to keep marketing so the women’s work becomes well known and because they believe in a fair price and you want the women to be in the very best situation.
While Mayan women have woven for thousands of years, their collective organizing, increased production, and innovation represent their response to political and economic marginalization. When we align with Jolom Mayaetik, we work with them to promote indigenous rights, economic justice, women’s leadership development, and cultural preservation.
Eber, Christine and Brenda Rosenbaum. 1993 ‘That We May Serve beneath Your Hands and Feet’: Women Weavers in Highland Chiapas, Mexico. In Crafts in the World Market. June Nash, ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press: 103–112.
O’Donnell, Katherine. 2013. (In press) “Poco a Poco- Weaving Transnational Solidarity with Jolom Mayaetik, Mayan Women’s Weaving Cooperative,
Chiapas, Mexico” in H. Fitzgerald (ed.), Going Public. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
O’Donnell, Katherine. 2010. Weaving Transnational Solidarity- from the Catskills to Chiapas and Beyond. The Netherlands: The Brill Press.
Santiz Diaz, Rosalinda. 2012 SAR Interview.