Margarita Ruiz, Fall Event 2009

October 24, 2009

It's Time! Scaling Up THP to Achieve a Hunger-Free Future

Remarks delivered by
Margarita Ruiz, State Coordinator, Chiapas, The Hunger Project-Mexico

New York, NY


Good Evening, everyone. I want to thank you all for coming tonight to this meeting. I am a 20-year-old woman, from the San Andrés Larraínzar municipio, in the state of Chiapas. Despite my youth, I am already a married woman and I have a two-year-old son, Luis. I want to thank my husband, Mariano López Pérez, who is present here with me tonight. I also want to thank The Hunger Project (THP) for the opportunity of being here to share with you about my life, the women's cooperative and my community.

To start talking about the women's cooperative to which I belong, J´Pas Joloviletik, I must talk first about my mother, Petrona López. Since she was 15, she was the representative of a community close to Bayalemo, called Kamtealukum

At this time, a woman wasn't allowed to decide with whom she could get married; it's the father who decided it. My grandfather didn't want his daughter to marry before she did something she really liked to do. My mother wanted to have a group of women who could weave and sell what they produced. For that, they would have to go to the nearest city, San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The norm is that women get married when they reach the age of 12, but my mother was still single, even though many men had tried to marry her. In order to be able to get to San Cristóbal de las Casas around 11 in the morning they had to leave the house around two in the morning. As a single woman she could not walk alone, so my grandfather, Pascual López Díaz, walked with her. He always supported her and allowed her to work in whatever she liked.

After time passed, when my mother finally got married, she was 21, and she went to live in the Bayalemó community in the house of her in-laws. But she had to leave her job as representative of the women artisans for a year because my father and my mother got sick. That year went by and she went back to represent the women because during her absence, no one took her place.

Thanks to a program from the National Institute for the Indigenous Populations (INI), a cooperative was founded with around 400 women who had to take courses on what a cooperative was and how it works. At the beginning, there were some group representatives who said, "Let's keep making clothing; some day we will sell them," but others said, "No, it will never work."

Unfortunately, in 1994, INI had a struggle with the Zapatistas who burned the INI offices and, with that, the entire cooperative's documentation got burned. This situation made it hard to look for support with other government programs.

In January 2008, when THP arrived at the cooperative, it was like a stranger. To us, just the name itself of the organization sounded funny and we did not understand why. We used to gather at the day-long workshop far away from home, and when we went back to our community, our heads were filled with words that we did not understand. Many months went by like this and the representatives of the groups of the cooperative did not share the information with the other women back in the communities, but they did talk to their husbands about it.

When a woman is married in my community, her duty is to stay at home and have many children, and she needs to have the fire lighted all the time. This is who we call a married woman. But when a married woman lets the fire die, she is called a bad woman because tradition tells us that the wife is the one who must take care of her husband, the chickens, the children and the home.

The husband doesn't do any domestic work; he doesn't even know what type of work this is, and he just works in the fields. A woman always has to say "yes" to everything, even when she doesn't feel like it. She simply cannot say "no" or she gets beaten. That is the way in the communities. But there are women who dream about getting out of their villages; they even dream of the possibility of going to walk around San Cristóbal de las Casas...but it is very hard to tell their husbands about their dreams because two things can happen: either he accepts her dream or he beats her.

When he does not let the woman go out, she keeps on dreaming about doing more than just domestic work. When the husband does understand these dreams, the woman feels happy... but this lasts only for a moment because afterwards the gossiping, the scolding, starts. It might be that the husband ends up believing the gossip. That is why it is necessary to learn how to receive the gossip, understand it and talk with him in a good way before time passes by. But it is very difficult. It is not easy to find the way to talk to him. When gossip starts, one starts wondering, "What did I get myself into?" or "why did I believe in this, because it would have been much easier if I had just said, ‘no,' and I had not participated with this organization?"

This process is so scary that you end up convincing yourself that they are right. "I do not take care of my family or my home; my duty is stay here in my community." At this moment you already have a big disappointment because you do not have your husband's support; you only have yourself. That is why women at the beginning of this awakening process say, "Yes, let's go," and then, when time passes they start saying, "No, I need to stay here. I can't do it any more." Men are so proud of being men; they were raised like that. Being a man means always being right, means they are the one telling the truth. It is as if they were the only ones with brains, and women just have to accept what they say.

But, at present times, there are already men who have left their pride behind. They start to ask the wife what to do, and how it is going. The woman starts to feel happy because they are starting to communicate. When I say, "communicate," I mean that the woman starts to say what her vision is, she begins to participate in the decision making, and she starts having the man as a friend. Traditionally, in the communities, it is not allowed to have friends, girls or boys, because it is not viewed well. If people found a man and a woman talking and, if they did not belong to the same family, it was assumed there was something going on. People think that the man is a lover, or husband, and they think of you as a prostitute.

People look at the way you stand, the way you walk, the way you act in front of a man. They look to see if you are wearing the traditional clothes, if your hairdo is like theirs or even how you are treating the elderly people. If you start changing something, either you wear pants or make-up or you do not have any respect for elderly people... they think you are living like the kaxlanes. We, the indigenous people call the white people kaxlan because their skin is white, they eat differently, they dress differently, they know how to talk Spanish, and we understand that we must talk to them with a lot of respect so that they can understand us.

When an indigenous woman acts like kaxlan we call her stuck up because it is not her origin. She acts like she does not understand Tzotzil, she does not respect the elders, and it is very difficult to live in both worlds: either you live with pants or you live with the traditional dress. The skirt reminds you to follow the rules.

The elderly people and our parents understand, little by little, that not dressing traditionally does not mean that culture is being lost. As a couple, men and women understand each other because the woman learned to communicate about what she does at each meeting or workshop. In the old times, men and women did not know what a feeling or an emotion was. If you asked them they did not know what it was, but if you pointed out those emotional moments, they discovered that they did exist. But no one taught them how to express themselves. These feelings bring a new sense of confidence for the couple and from there, men begin to understand women, and they let her go. The woman, by having confidence, brings the information and communicates it to her husband. The man trusts her because there is confidence now. We women have learned to express our feelings through education and workshops. At school, the teacher talks to us about our feelings, and the older women learn at the workshops about it because they do not attended school.

In this manner, we women realized we can do more than what we think. This has helped women to talk without fear and to learn the meaning of some words like respect, confidence, dignity, emotion and appreciation, because these are the words we use at THP workshops. Not long ago, for all of us, these words were unknown. This way we can organize better, and this has helped us to have new projects like the vegetable family gardens. They are very important for the indigenous families, because we don't have to spend any more money to buy vegetables and we are seizing the land in our homes to produce more.

Now, we are creating new clothing designs for our embroideries. The women have come to realize that they are producing the same clothing that all the women in the region make. They have started to question themselves about what they will do. At The Hunger Project's workshops, we have created a vision where we have new designs, and this vision is coming true. We have new designs that are not for sale yet, and we need to rearrange the cooperative store to make it more attractive to the public. We are doing this, step by step.

To find new markets we have thought of computers, which we say is like a TV, because that is what we understand about it. We didn't understand how it works but we knew that we could sell or do things through it, so we all said, "let's sell on the computer." The Hunger Project explained to us how to use the computer, take digital pictures and send things by mail, and then, we opened an account on Paypal and eBay. We uploaded a lot of pictures but after some months, we realized that the benefit of selling through eBay wasn't that big, because of the fees they charged. Then we decided to see who could create a website for us, and we found out that the Commission for Indigenous Population (CDI) could create it. With THP support, we now have our website, and we are currently working with them to enable the virtual store in the website.

Because of my work with THP, I am now traveling outside of Chiapas. Before, the women would do nothing if I wasn't there, but they realized that if some day THP leaves, they would stay the same. So now they are doing things by themselves: taking pictures, thinking other ways to promote their embroideries and even taking care of the legal papers of the cooperative. This is a very big transformation happening with the women.

I want to share with you that our last breakthrough is that the cooperative has its legal papers again. We are very excited because we did it ourselves. Finally, I want to tell you that you can be sure that in Chiapas we will end hunger, step by step and quickly, and yet, at the same time, with respect, dignity, trust, confidence, emotion and appreciation.

Kolabal....Gracias....Thank you.