Our Work with the Women of Miramar: My Reflections
Judith Lockhart Radtke
I met the women of Miramar, Oaxaca, Mexico on a January morning in 1998 when I first visited the village as a board member of Grassroots International to see projects being done with women by a group they funded. One of these women, Sara, became my mentor in a twelve year relationship which changed the face of weaving in the village. I returned to her hearth several times and at one point lived with her and her family as I struggled to learn Spanish. It was Sara who introduced me to the weavers, although she was not a weaver. She served as historian, cultural anthropologist, link to the municipal officers, solver of problems, a link to the weavers as my trusted friend and her companion.
Through and with Sara the weavers and I developed a model for development which enabled these women to move from makers of clothes for themselves on back strap loams to members of a functioning cooperative which now sells their highly skilled work in Oaxaca, the US, and probably as part of an international weaving marketing co-operative. In February, we transferred to the ownership of their own cooperative business totally independent of the Circle of Women in Boston and El Circulo in Oaxaca. To celebrate this we held a fiesta on Valentine’s Day.
I wanted to share with you some reflections on our twelve years in Miramar.
I had looked at development projects around the world accompanying Oxfam personnel to China, Senegal, Kenya, Cambodia and Thailand. I also got a credential in direct entry midwifery. I’d hoped I would find a place for myself where these skills along with my curiosity, experience building programs and a psychotherapy practice could widen my contact with and commitment to women and their growth in the developing world. What I didn’t count on was the challenges of learning a language at this age. My first venture was with my partner Pia Scognamiglio, a Swiss midwife in Oaxaca working in the barrios with women’s health. This eventually ran into difficulty with the medical community but by then it was 2001 (12 years ago). I returned to Sara saying, “I need to borrow your daughter who speaks Mixtec and go see a group of weavers in Nuyoo.” Her reply was, “We have weavers here—I’ll arrange a meeting this afternoon.” With this she bounded off to the town loud speaker and within two hours I was meeting with 5 older women all wrapped up in their woolen weavings. This conversation resulted in a request that we explore working together on marketing their work. They became the Mixteca Weavers of the Circle of Women, now the “A Kuvi ichinuu/Raiz del future/Root of the Future” cooperative and the rest is history.
OUR DEVELOPMENT PHILOSOPHY:
DEVELOP THE WORK ON THEIR AGENDA
2.AVOID creating dependency
3. STAY AWHILE
4. Paulo Freire: The people KNOW WHAT THEY NEED and WANT and how to get it. This means indigenous people must be directly involved in program planning, needs assessment and solutions. There are problems when Northern definitions of problems and solutions are imposed. Edith “Don’t tell me you have a solution if I haven’t told you I have a problem .”
5. Jean Baker Miller: Women develop best in situations of MUTUALITY AND RESPECT.
6. The Mixtec way of decision making is by CONSENSUS.
WITH THIS UNDERSTANDING OF WOMEN AND DEVELOPMENT WE BEGAN OUR WORK TOGETHER
First, I learned to LISTEN to them as they struggled with how to sell their goods. We looked at their work to develop a stronger product.
They also needed to develop markets for their weavings outside the Miramar area.
Second, they told us they couldn’t wait to get paid until they sold their goods. Selling “on consignment” would not work for them nor would the usual “microenterprise” model.
They needed someone who was fluent in Spanish and literate to keep track of their inventory and finances. Edith, the daughter of one of the weavers joined and was paid by them to be the administrator.
Third, came skill training.
They needed to learn to dye their wool.
They needed to learn Spanish if they were to be marketers.
They were excellent weavers but they needed to understand what would sell…cotton, wool, large pieces, smaller pieces AND THEY COULD GET BETTER!
They needed skill training in flecos/fringes and they learned during an exchange with a group of Zapotec women back strap loam weavers.
Fourth, they needed to establish an organization which fit with their culture. They came up with the THE WISE WOMAN MODEL. They trained two new weavers and decided to become a cooperative.
THE ROLE OF THE CIRCLE OF WOMEN IN THIS DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
The Circle of Women is actually two nonprofits. One in Boston, a US 501c3 with a council of friends. This is the funding agency that also served as an advisory group. The other a Oaxacan, A.C., nonprofit assumed responsibility for the work in Mexico paid for by grants from the US nonprofit. I served as the volunteer Executive Director of both organizations.
The Circle of Women provided the resources for the weavers’ skill training. We organized seminars on organic dyeing organic dyers from Teotitlan. Two weavers from the group visited the US to better understand international marketing. We provided the weavers a capitalization loan so they could pay themselves and purchase raw materials—which they repaid in 3 years.
The Circle of Women secured funding for a bilingual literacy program and developed our own curriculum, “Learning with all your Senses.” Patty Tovar taught the elderly women for three years using indigenous teachers whom she trained.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WOMAN TO WOMAN
1. It is very seductive for “do gooders” to bring their own needs, and let their wish for success and satisfaction get in the way of good development. This can be very racist, imperialistic, and destructive. The hope was always that what we shared (our homes and privilege) were enabling—spring boards for their own well-being.
2. It has been very interesting to watch the welcome into their homes and their welcome into mine develop. The weaving commercialization committee in particular stays with me quite a lot and vice versa in the homes of their families. Over the years there has been a move to a feeling of genuine companionship leaving behind any condescension or expectation of servility . Maybe helped early on at our home when the women hopped up from the table and started to do dishes and my husband bounded to the kitchen to take over saying,” Guests never do dishes in my home.” They scattered! It got passed around as one of “our stories by Edith” who never picked up another dirty dish until about a year ago when he wasn’t present. Meantime, “When Judith comes to visit, we eat chicken” became a custom in Miramar.
RESPECTING THEIR WISHES
As our work developed, more outsiders began to visit Miramar. There began to be resistance to too many “outsiders” in their village. They asked us specifically not let any students come with a lot of personal questions. EVALUATIONS, not done by our staff, had to be ruled out because the women found them intrusive. Our final evaluation will be done by a Mexican educated in the US whom they know well.
They also decided not to take over the Mexican nonprofit and organize themselves as a cooperative instead. This was disappointing to me but, it was not my decision, and soon realized their thinking was right for them.
We made mistakes—these tended to be in the area of jumping ahead of them in organizational matters, not consulting enough, or assuming. It was in this area that a lot of conversation took place over the years. As they got more self-assurance and learned we weren’t going anywhere they became much more direct in their ideas and we learned to listen better. My worst snafu was assuming the women would pay for the visas of their two participants to go to the US. They did but they let me know they had not expected this and weren’t happy. I owned my high handedness and every one was given a chance to express their opinion. I offered to repay when Reyna, one of the master weavers said, ”We were able to afford it and it is now spent. You should stop worrying, we have learned we can afford more than we think. We like to be consulted.”
Using the philosophies of Paulo Freire—get the people to describe what they want to do and how they would do it if they could, and of Jean Baker Miller —women grow best in community and that meant all of us Americans, Mixtec, and Mexican, we stayed a while and listened. The bottom line is as Edith stated, “Don’t tell me you have a solution, if I haven’t told you I have a problem.”
Our Work is done.
To enable the cooperative going forward, the Circle of Women Boston has raised funds for a “rainy day fund” for the women to use as they see fit to develop new projects. They have negotiated for the funds to stay in Boston. They will call for them as needed. They did not want the money to be held by them because “monies cause problems in the village.”
Their first project is to involve young girls in the community who have children to become weavers. Master weavers will work with two girls each and they will be paid a fee for teaching them.
Second, the women negotiated with us to do at least one sale a year in the US.
Third, we will stand by to consult as needed.
Thank you for all your wisdom, guidance, and support over the years.
We learn...all the time and everywhere: A report form the We Learn Conference in RI.
Patricia Tovar, PhD., Director of Projects
It all started with an email from Judith Lockhart Radtke, in which there was a link to a web page which presented the research of women from different places around the world, working in the field of literacy, in relation to social rights, gender violence, and the arts. Immediately I felt a great affinity for this group and what “We Learn” offers. I wanted the challenge to participate in this annual conference. Shortly after Mev Miller had accepted our participation and from that moment began the preparation of travel (visa arrangements, tickets etc) and at the same time I began to imagine many things around this experience: how many women would be there? from where? what they will they think, and how will they respond to our work?
One night before the conference, we had dinner at
Kate and Howard Kilguss house. The cold and snowy day contrasted with the warmth and friendliness of our hosts. We talked until late, it was interesting and encouraging the way they wanted to know the details of our literacy project and I learned a lot about American culture in only one night.
The next day we arrived at the University of Rhode Island. I loved the city: clean, quiet the nineteenth century looking . Upon arrival, we saw in the work schedule, the time of our conference workshop: "Reading with all the senses." By then, Agustina, Lynne and I began to feel the nervousness of the responsibility involved in appearing before an international forum. Everything happened gradually: first the breakfast, and geting to know conference participants, then searching for our room and waiting for participants. This was exciting to see them arrive-- women of different ages, different nationalities, all with much experience in the field of education, such a challenge was in front of us.
I decided to start talking about the cultural and historical context in which we have worked for more than three years developing our program. This part was very interested to them, there were questions all the time and environment was becoming increasingly participatory, increasingly active. During the introduction of the scheme of our method of work, all the questions were about how to apply them in different contexts, in that moment I realized the importance of our work. I realized that "to read with all the senses" as a method, that could be used in different cultures and could help many more women from different countries and different ages.
At the end of this experience and after spending two weeks in a multicultural country like the U.S., I can say the greatest learning, was to prove that the dedication with which we have worked for years in Miramar, has produced results that transcend the local level. Working with art as a way to explore identity and the production of images as a line of work are contributions that can support the growth of women in many other places outside of Miramar. Literacy is an enjoyable process and profoundly human. Thank you for this learnning to the Circle of Women and to We Learn.
THE MIXTECA WEAVERS HAVE AN EXHIBITION AT MUSEO DE TEXTIL OAXACA !
November 14, 2009 - March 15, 2010
In addition to their beautiful work, there are demonstrations of backstrap weaving and portraits of the weavers by photographer Tom Feher (Tom is working on an album of the story of the weavers to be published in 2010). There are also dolls, drawings, and writings from the literacy program in which eight women took part.
WATCH A FILM ABOUT THE WEAVERS: CLICK BELOW
VIEW PHOTOS FROM THE EXHIBIT OPENING:
THE EXHIBITION AS AN EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE
By Patty Tovar, PhD, Director of Programs
When the Oaxaca Textile Museum invited the Circle of Women to put on an exhibition of the rebozos, other textiles from Mirarmar, and dolls created by the women who participated in the reading and writing workshop held by the Circle; this sparked a whole new educational experience for them and for the Circle of Women as well. This experience allowed all involved to work, learn and grow together.
We started out by going on a field trip together to the “community museum” (one of the so-called museos comunitarios there are in small towns in Oaxaca) of Teposcolula. The exhibits on display in this museum touched on the ancient Mixtec worldview, which the weavers were able to see and recognize in such artifacts as an ancient calendar and descriptions of rituals surrounding corn and death. The women were all fascinated by the exhibits and tremendously curious about these depictions of their cultural heritage. They were especially moved by seeing how similar the ancient metates (woven straw mats used in the household) were to their own that they had woven. They were so touched by the sense of continuity with the past that the exhibits had given them, that not only were they soaking up every word on the tour around the museum, but when they left they took a bit of soil from the premises with the comment that it was sacred soil.
After this field trip, we did a slideshow of sorts with pictures of different sorts of textiles produced in different parts of Mexico. This was a kind of mini-course designed for the weavers to be exposed to different techniques and styles of weaving , but also to different uses for weavings and the significance that weaving has for different cultures in the country that practice it. They were particularly interested in the huipiles (long, shapeless dresses traditional to women’s attire in all regions of Mexico) and in the symbols used to decorate them in different parts of Oaxaca. These symbols are not merely decorative, each has a particular meaning and they have always been a means for indigenous cultures to keep a record of things of significance to them; a kind of a collective history through art.
Out of this moment came the idea of possibly expanding the weaver’s range of products, and maybe even attempting to reinitiate the production of the Huipil de Miramar (each community in Mexico has its own version of the huipil). At first many of the weavers felt rather unsure of themselves, but after having tackled some table runners and scarves, they felt energized and started creating new color combinations and varying their patterns. Some of these new weavings were shown to the director of the Oaxaca Textile Museum, and also to the curator who has considerable knowledge about local textiles. When they saw and felt the weavings from Miramar, they were impressed by the beauty and intricacy of the weavings. The curator commented that the wool rebozos are unique and are not produced anywhere else. As far as the new weavings were concerned, the cotton weavings were deemed to be expertly woven and dyed with añil. Petra’s weavings were selected as the loveliest. Both the director and the curator were impressed and have grown increasingly interested in the Miramar weavers’ work.
The work planning the layout of the exhibition and encouraging the weavers to create special weavings just for the exhibition began in May and is still ongoing. We held various meetings where we talked about what it means to have an exhibition and why it is important to exhibit your work. We also talked about how you put on an exhibition, so that the weavers could understand the process and feel invested in it, and hopefully create their best work! At the same time we were researching and digging into local memory for traces of the antique textiles of Miramar. We requested pictures of Mixtec textiles from the Oaxaca Textile Museum, and used them to consult with the weavers who clearly remembered the original Huipil de Miramar patterns and symbols. They also remembered and identified special bags that used to be used to carry corn and tortillas. This has surely been a significant find for the group.
Presently we are finishing up with the preparation of the weavings to be exhibited. We are presenting wool rebozos dyed with añil; a wool poncho dyed with añil; cotton rebozos dyed with añil and encino; woven centerpieces; mercerized cotton bags in bright colors; two huipiles with original designs from Miramar; and a tortilla bag which corresponds to the ancient design. We will also have a 40 –year-old huipil on display, a corn bag made 30 years ago, and a malacate used to thread yarn with. These belong to the weavers and they used them many years ago.
The montage will be set up in order to recreate the very personal world of the weavers, using objects from their past and present that hold particular significance for them. We will be showing all of the dolls created by the weavers and telling each one’s story. We will also be showing some sewing that was done as part of the health seminar. This is all done in an effort to show how all of the projects work together and complement one another, and how these projects carried out by the Circle of Women affect the women of Miramar and contribute to improving their lives.