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Mixtec Artisan Co-op Debuts in Richmond

May 2, 2012

By Christine Stoddard
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Is the indigenous Mexican culture of La Mixteca marketable? A group of Mixtec women in the city’s Manchester district, seeking to assert themselves and make money for their families, is banking on it.

La Cooperativa de Artistas Mixtecas, a new artisan cooperative comprised of five Mexican Amerindians, seeks to empower the disenfranchised Mixtec women through crafting and entrepreneurship. Fluent in neither Spanish nor English, these women come from an isolated town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where their people have been ostracized for centuries.

Since the first Mixtec family came to Richmond 15 years ago, the Mixtecs have largely kept to themselves in a trailer park in Richmond’s Southside.

While the men typically work jobs in manufacturing and construction, the women tend to stay home, caring for their children. Unable to enter the same male-dominated fields as their husbands, the women find themselves unemployed because of the language barrier.

Mary Wickham, program director of the Sacred Heart Center, affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, sought to organize these women after observing their predicament. Many of the women take language and literacy classes at the community center or attend Mass at its associated church.

The artisans practice a form of embroidery that depicts natural and religious symbolism rendered in fluorescent colors. The women specialize in servilletas, or cloth napkins, of various sizes.

Smaller napkins are meant for individual place settings, while bigger ones may be used to keep food warm or add flair to a dinner table. Commonly, servilletas are wrapped around tortillas, to keep them from going stale. A few of the co-op’s servilleta designs include portraits of Mary and Jesus, rows of magenta squirrels, and songbirds soaring over neon flowers.

Since 2011, Wickham has encouraged the women to form a handiwork circle, in which they congregate, to make crafts and socialize.

Now the group is becoming more public, with ambitions of getting their work exhibited and sold. Half of all revenue from their handicrafts goes to the artist; the other half goes to the co-op, to cover material costs and fund future endeavors.

Members of La Cooperativa de Artistas Mixtecas

The co-op project coincides with Sacred Heart’s mission to “open opportunities for economic and social integration, self-realization and community leadership.”

Unlike other local non-profit programs such as Highland Support Project, which assists indigenous women in Guatemala, this co-op helps indigenous women right in Richmond.

On April 15, the co-op made its commercial debut, participating in La Plaza Latino Market, a new event in Broad Rock Park in Southside Richmond, where the Mixtec women sold their servilletas, bottled water and sodas.

La Plaza seeks to unite Richmond’s growing Hispanic community in a monthly Saturday marketplace through mid-October. Richmond organizations such as the Sacred Heart Center, the Storefront for Community Design and the Enrichment Foundation have pooled their resources to make the event possible.

In an effort to draw larger crowds, for example, the Sacred Heart Center runs a shuttle bus from area apartment complexes to the market.

The kickoff event featured gift and handicraft vendors, hot pork and pupusas, and a peppy Zumba class. Meanwhile, the co-op’s artisans set up their own booth, surrounded by their many smiling, long-lashed children.

Reticent in their Spanish and generally shy, the artisans staffed their tables for a few hours, selling more bottled water and soda than they did servilletas. The servilletas started at $15 each, with some costing close to $100. The co-op accepted cash or check only.

“Children become the brokers, the translators,” Wickham explained. The co-op’s appearance at La Plaza marks its formal entry into the Richmond Latino scene. Speaking Spanish becomes more crucial for the Mixtec women now more than ever.

Members of the co-op will appear this Saturday at the 2012 ¿Qué Pasa? Cinco de Mayo Festival at Richmond’s Canal Walk, armed with their festive servilletas and soft drinks.

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On the Web

For more about the 2012 ¿Qué Pasa? Cinco de Mayo Festival, visit http://quepasafestival.com/

For more information about the Sacred Heart Center, visit www.shcrichmond.org.

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Mixtec Indians Face Language Barrier

A Faith Community on the Margins of Society