Traditional Oaxacan dresses hang at MARO's market.

OAXACA CITY, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–When Hermelinda Aurora Martinez Rios was recently asked about the damage caused by the tourism downturn here, she drew a finger across her neck. “One thousand percent,” she said, “totally.”

That’s hit her women’s cooperative hard. This year the Women Artisans of the Oaxaca Regions–called MARO, for its acronym in Spanish–marked its 15th anniversary as the city’s most successful craft cooperative.

Before MARO, many of its members were selling their goods on the streets or to middlemen and shops that offered them little profit for their wares. “Many used to sleep on the floor,” Martinez Rios said. “Now they have a bed. They have a phone, a small car. They learn to go to the artisan’s fair. It’s another mentality, a different life.”

Today, Martinez Rios–a third-generation leatherworker and one of 81 founding members of the cooperative–manages a 30-room market. Artisans sell colorful weavings, ornamental black- and green-glazed pottery, hammered tin mirrors, Day of the Dead figures and traditional clothing directly to tourists from around world, especially the United States and Western Europe.

The cooperative has given women in one of Mexico’s poorest states access to the potentially lucrative international crafts market. But for the past two years it has had little to celebrate.

In 2006, a teacher’s strike in Oaxaca City grew into a five-month uprising against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Protesters occupied the city’s central plaza and were met with violent state repression. Several people were killed, including U.S. journalist Brad Will, who worked with the New York Independent Media Center.

Many of those involved in the revolt were indigenous women like those who make up MARO’s membership. “The large majority of women most active in the uprising,” says John Gibler, author of “Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt,” to be published by City Lights, “were from the most marginalized sectors of Oaxaca’s rural and urban society.”

43 Percent Drop in Tourism

Since the uprising–which was heavily covered in the international press and prompted the U.S. State Department to issue travel warnings–foreign visitors to Oaxaca City’s hotels fell to 118,000 in 2007 from about 169,000 in 2005, a 43 percent decrease, according to Oaxaca’s state tourism office.

Jeffrey Cohen, an anthropology professor at Ohio State University who studies the causes of migration from Oaxaca, estimates that by the end of the summer of 2006 the city had lost millions of dollars and business was off by 80 percent.

Since then MARO members have only managed to hang on by paying expenses–rent and utilities–from a savings fund to buy their own building.

Martinez Rios, who is deeply religious, attributes their survival to God and optimism. “We are always positive. We say, ‘We’re going to sell a lot of stuff.’ We were always able to manage, thanks to God, who steered the boat.”

Despite that optimism, Martinez Rios says that MARO cannot survive a second collapse in tourism. With the cooperative’s savings depleted, the group has no cushion to ride out more hard times.

Oaxaca City Still Restive

In May, another teachers’ strike clogged the city’s main plaza, with hundreds of people–a roughly equal number of men and women–camped beneath tarps and tents, day and night. Their demands included a pay raise, increased funding for educational resources and improved facilities. The teachers’ occupation of Oaxaca City’s plaza ended peacefully after about a month, but periodic marches and protests continue.

The 2008 tourism numbers have yet to be released, but anecdotal evidence suggests tourists are returning to the city. Martinez Rios says that business has been better this year than any time since the 2006 protests.

But for Martinez Rios the strike was a reminder of Oaxaca’s ongoing political instability, rekindling fears that protests and state violence would cause MARO to lose their tourist customers again, just as business was beginning to show signs of rebounding.

If MARO’s market fails, its members will again face the tough realities of the solo “artesania” industry.

“The craft market is cyclical,” Cohen said. “Styles, tastes change and poof, a once-good market is gone. . . Incomes are often not great from crafts,” he said. “And, with the exception of a few real entrepreneurs, craft production is always hard.”

Lynn Stephen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and author of 2005’s “Zapotec Women: Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca,” agrees.

Although there are some producers of highly-specialized crafts–such as high-end wool textiles–that can earn as much as $10,000 to $20,000 a year, she said, a much more common income is $1,000 or less. “I know women who, if they’re lucky, are selling 10 to 12 pieces and making $700 to $800 a year, and that might be on the high end,” Stephen said.

Cutting Out the Middleman

MARO’s members know this all too well. In the years before the cooperative, many sold their goods directly to tourists on the streets of Oaxaca City. But when the city government cracked down on street vendors, the women were forced to sell to middlemen, shopkeepers and re-sellers at lower profits.

“That is the reason given for almost anyone I’ve ever talked to who is in a weaving cooperative,” said Stephen, whose research focused on artisan weavers. “They often receive less than half of what they could get if they sold it themselves.”

Recognizing that the effort to clean up Oaxaca was hurting the livelihood of the female street vendors, Heladio Ramirez Lopez, then the state’s governor, urged the women to organize and offered an interest-free loan funded by a state female-empowerment initiative. The cooperative used the loan to rent a building in downtown Oaxaca City and to promote their fledgling business.

Before the cooperative, Martinez Rios said, the profits of stall-keepers at the city’s central market were often many times that of the artisans who supplied them. It was common for a piece that would have gone for a couple dollars on the street to sell for a third of that to a middleman, who would then mark it up by five or six times the price paid to the artisan, and nearly double what she would have made on the street.

Martinez Rios deftly avoids questions about who is responsible for MARO’s–and Oaxaca’s–troubles.

She doesn’t care about politics, she says, just the cooperative.

“In 2006, Oaxaca was like foam,” said Martinez Rios, her weathered hands rising, showing the work that she still puts into making sandals. “But because of the political problems, everything collapsed.”

Freda Moon is a freelance journalist based in Leon, Nicaragua.

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MARO’s photos of crafts on Flickr

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