At the cobblestoned corner of 4 Norte and 4 Oriente, 400 indigenous women sell their work. Embroidered shirts, jewelry, paper hangings and other traditional handcrafts fill shelves and line walls. Craft shops are no rare thing in the historic downtown of Puebla, Mexico and tourists flock through the streets clutching plastic bags stuffed with gifts and trinkets, searching for authentic goods and cheep deals. Among these stores, however, Sihuameh Puebla Crafts Cooperative is unique. The cooperative offers authentic, beautiful and well-made goods, but for set, fair prices and the craftswomen, themselves, clerk the store.
Maria Jimenez, craftswoman and cooperative leader, invites me into her family’s apartment just around the corner from 4th and 4th. She makes mole, anticipating a visit from her son’s padrino, while chatting about her experiences working with the cooperative.
“Organizing into the cooperative lets us give the correct value to our work,” says Jimenez. The woman work together to determine a fair price for their labor, taking materials and time into account. The hard part, then, is making sure that all of the women adhere to the pricing when selling outside of the store. “I used to sell by myself, too,” says Jimenez. She explains that, before, all the artisans sold individually to tourists coming through their communities or to middleman who took the wears and sold them at marked up prices and profited from the labor of the woman. Jimenez understands the allure of selling at a less expensive price, under bidding the competition. She also knows that the women of Siuamej must compete with craftswomen outside of the coop.
Standing next to a gas stove, she turns chile, coves and cinnamon on a metal plate laid over one of the burners and slowly, patiently, waits for them to heat. “I am proud that, 13 years later, we are still working together. We have our differences, but we work them out,” says Jimenes. And the cooperative is growing. “Woman see that being a member is better for them, that the cooperative works, and they want to join.”
Pulling the chiles and spices off the heat she smiles, shy and sly. “If we were at home [in her native village where she spends half of each month] I would do this differently.” Then she laughs and dumps the food in a blender. “This is faster, but the mole is not as good as when you use a metate.” She makes the motion of grinding the large, rounded stone against another flat surfaced stone.
Similarly the women of the Sihuameh Cooperative learn to adjustment for the tourist population. It is not just control over sales that women gain from membership but, also, technical support around understanding the clientel. For women who live far away from tourists it can be helpful to have the cooperative share information about what those tourists want. For example, while they are still made by hand and with traditional dyes, the coop started to make shirts with larger sleeve holes in order to accommodate the larger size of many foreigners. Also, besides the store in Puebla and the tourists that come through small towns, Siuamej has begun to export wares through a few stores in the US. Membership allows women access to a bigger market.
All this is important but, says Jimenez, in order for the cooperative to work, “It starts in the home and then the pueblo and then the strength of the cooperative moves into the outside world.”
In the end, Jimenez hands me a spoon to taste the mole, complete with caco, onion and tomate, that bubbles on the stove. It is rich and sweet, spicy and slightly bitter, just as it should be. It is the result of an old, old art that, like the work of the Sihuameh Cooperative members, is still perfect for a modern audience.