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Flying by Needlepoint
By Christine Stoddard
Is Mixteco marketable? Maybe. In the hearts of six creative Manchester women, the answer is hopefully.
La Cooperativa de Artistas Mixtecas, a new artisan's cooperative comprised of five Mexican Amerindians, seeks to empower disenfranchised Mixteca women through crafting and entrepreneurship. Neither fluent in 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 Mixteco family came to Richmond, Virginia 15 years ago, the Mixtecos continue to keep to themselves in a trailer park in 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, unskilled fields as their husbands, the women find themselves unemployed because of the language barrier.
Mary Wickham, program director of the Sacred Heart Center/El Centro Sagrado Corazón 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 of the same name. As Mary became more familiar with the women, she learned of their hobbies.
“They make beautiful things.”
The artisans work in a traditional 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 the 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, Mary has encouraged the women to form a handiwork circle. Now the group is becoming more public, with ambitions of getting their work exhibited and sold. 50% of all revenue from their handicrafts goes to the artist; the other half goes to the co-op to cover costs and fund future endeavors.
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 Saturday, April 15, the co-op made its commercial debut, participating in La Plaza Latino Market, a new event in Southside's Broad Rock Park. La Plaza seeks to unite Richmond's growing Hispanic community in a monthly Saturday marketplace through mid-October. Leading city organizations, such as The Sacred Heart Center, the Storefront for Community Design, and the Enrichment Foundation, have pooled 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 kick-off 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.
Naturally shy and reticent in their Spanish, the artisans tabled 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,” Mary explained. The co-op's tabling at La Plaza marks their formal entry onto the Richmond Latino scene. Speaking Spanish becomes more crucial for the Mixteco women now more than ever.
The co-op will next appear at the 2012 ¿Qué Pasa? Cinco de Mayo Festival at Richmond's Canal Walk, armed with their festive servilletas, soft drinks, and babies.