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The Cooperative Power of Women

by Holly Yasui, Center for Global Justice

This time of year, the countryside of Guanajuato is lovely, filled with greenery and wildflowers. But this beauty masks a devastation that has visited nearly every rural community in our area: the loss of livelihoods due to trade agreements that favor large enterprises over small farms and home-crafts; the exodus of workers to low-paying jobs in the U.S. (about 1.5 million from Guanajuato, out of a total population of 5 million); the disintegration of families under extreme economic pressure without access to education, funds or resources that would enable them to improve their conditions.

Ana María Ramírez, 38-year old mother of six from the community of La Cuadrilla, relates how her family has broken up: "My son went [to the U.S.] when he was 16. He's going to turn 20, and I haven't seen him for four years.… My husband doesn't forget us, he sends money, but I would trade the economic benefit for having my family together. We miss them very much, and I worry about the dangers of crossing and living there. If there were more sources of work here, maybe they wouldn't go, and that would be better for the family."

Lack of Economic Opportunity

Ana María is a member of a unique cooperative organization of 104 rural women, Mujeres Productoras, who are struggling to address the problem of lack of economic opportunities in the countryside. They are young, middle-aged and elderly; most are heads of households, and all are from the lowest income levels in the state. They not only take care of their homes and children, their animals and agricultural plots, but also, in their "free" time, make products to sell in order to earn much-needed cash. Based in eleven rural communities around San Miguel, the primary areas of production of Mujeres Productoras are basketry, preparation of products made from nopal cactus, and sewing of clothing and home furnishings.

The organization began in the 1990s with informal groups of friends and relatives working together in the rustic manufacture of handcrafts. Realizing they would never be able to earn enough to feed their families by piecemeal production and selling through intermediaries, they began to organize and become acquainted with women in other communities facing the same problems.

Says Ana María: "It is a moral support for me to be with the other women; it strengthens me." Her colleague, Isabel Delgado, from the nearby community of El Guerrero, adds: "it's difficult for one woman to accomplish anything, but all of us together, we can accomplish many things. We've learned many new techniques and methods working with Mujeres Productoras."

Yolanda Millán, from the community of Juan Xido, has been a driving force in the awakening of consciousness and linking together of women in efforts to improve production and marketing of their handcrafts. In 2002 Mujeres Productoras established itself as a Rural Assocation Ltd. with Yolanda as its legal representative. The women began to analyze their needs and apply themselves to finding solutions: procurement of raw materials, equipment and workshops; technical and administrative training; attendance at crafts fairs and events.

That same year, with the help of Guanajuato Institute for Women, Mujeres Productoras opened its own retail store, YA TSEDI BEHÑA ("The Power of Women" in the indigenous Otomí language of this area). A milestone in the development of the organization, the store enabled the women to sell their products directly to the public, thus taking an important step toward self-sufficiency.

The Power of Women

"YA TSEDI BEHÑA serves many functions," says Yolanda. "Most importantly, it gives us a permanent retail presence in San Miguel. But it's also through the store that we've been able to reach out to other women, who come and ask if they can sell their products there. It's a symbol for our unity for us, a place where we all come together, if not in person, in terms of the work we do."

The work of Mujeres Productoras has also altered the social dynamic within families and communities. Husbands and sons take care of children while wives and daughters attend meetings, training programs, and crafts fairs. With these activities, women build their "capacity to transform themselves, make decisions and proposals, and change not only their living conditions but also the relations of inequality in which they live," says Yolanda. "These women are good examples for future generations, both sons and daughters."

Returning to the ever-present issue of migration and it effect on the family, Jovita Pérez, of the community of San Isidro notes, "My husband doesn't go [to the U.S.] any more because that just makes things worse. You have to pay the coyote, and it's dangerous. Then, whatever he sends only covers debts, and that's how it goes every season. So we decided to start producing here. Our children help too. Sometimes we don't sell, and then our morale goes down, but we keep on because it's better that we're all together, working together."

Mujeres Productoras received a series of grants from the Department of Agriculture to construct workshops and to purchase a computer and a vehicle - the latter a godsend given the long bus-rides and walks that the women used to have to make in order to reach San Miguel or other communities. The problem of selling their goods, however, became critical when YA TSEDI BEHÑA's lease expired. But thanks to the generosity of Sr. Ezequiél López, owner of the restaurant El Mesón de San José, Mujeres Productoras re-oppened its store in September, 2004, in the courtyard of the restaurants, in front of the Plaza civica, where the group celebrated the new store and its organizers.

For more information: Yolanda Millán (Spanish:, or Holly Yasui (English:

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