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Chiapas Cooperatives Promote Social Justice and Sustainability

Chiapas Weavers Cooperative Does Business on Own Terms

By CHARLENE M. WOODCOCK Special to the Planet (11-19-04)

Berkley Daily Planet

Women from a Chiapas weavers cooperative are visiting Berkeley this week, sharing stories about their craft and their struggle to preserve their traditions, and to do so independently. Celerina Ruiz Nu~ez, president of the Jolom Mayaetik weavers cooperative, will speak Sunday at the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park from 2-5 p.m., 1275 Walnut St. The event is free and open to the public.

What strikes one first about Chiapas is the beauty of the landscape, its dramatic mountains, the rich green of both wild and domesticated plants-hillsides as well as flatlands covered with fields and gardens of corn, coffee, bananas, orange trees, and flowers.

The intensity of the natural colors is picked up in the brilliantly colored traditional clothing, still worn by most indigenous women and girls, but less so now by men and boys. And the vibrancy of the Mayan languages is the next revelation. The hundreds of Indian languages once spoken in California are lost. But in Chiapas, the aim of the Zapatista communities is to ensure that their children are educated bilingually.

They value their Mayan languages. They want their children to be able to add Spanish to their native language, not be forced to abandon their own language if they are to be educated.

A 1996 video showing Mayan women in their beautiful traditional huipiles marching through their village with banners celebrating International Women' s Day was, for me, a revelation and a catalyst. These women, for generations subjugated not only by their government but by fathers and husbands, had somehow connected to the international women's rights movement, far from the modern world though they are.

The images sparked my determination to find out what was happening in Chiapas, what the Zapatista uprising was all about, whether it had helped to embolden these women from a deeply traditional and patriarchal culture to express their solidarity with women around the world.

The novels of B. Traven and conversations with an ethnobotanist friend who'd worked in Chiapas had aroused my curiosity about this beautiful country, whose natural riches had caused it to be plundered and many of its native people virtually enslaved during the colonial period and after Mexican independence as well.

A trip arranged in 2000 by the Oakland-based Chiapas Support Committee (www.chiapas-support.org) brought me to San Cristo'bal de las Casas, where I came to know members of Jolom Mayaetik, a cooperative of some 250 Mayan women weavers who in 1996 withdrew from the government-sponsored weavers cooperative to take the marketing, accounting, and sales of their work into their own hands.

At the time, many of their members lived in communities that the Mexican military was harassing daily with roadblocks, overflights of noisy, frightening helicopters, and other forms of intimidation-all because these communities were sympathetic to the Zapatista movement.

They had decided that, poor as they were, self-government offered the possibility of improving education and health care in their communities and would allow them a measure of dignity lacking in their relations with the Mexican government.

The Jolom Mayaetik cooperative's members create beautiful traditional work and they are also developing new designs with appeal to markets in the U.S. and Europe. Members are given the opportunity to learn accounting and business management. They elect officers who represent the cooperative on trips to cities in Mexico as well as to the U.S and
Europe.

The president of the cooperative during my initial visit in 2000 is now completing her B.A. at the University of Southern Mexico in San Cristo'bal de las Casas and preparing to attend medical school.

Charlene M. Woodcock, a retired UC Press editor and Berkeley resident of 37 years, is working to help establish interest in the U.S. for the work of Jolom Mayaetik.