SEQUIM — Put a bunch of Sequim women together, set them down in San Cristobal de las Casas with the Mujeres de Maiz, and you get light.
This is what two Sequim teachers, Martha Rudersdorf and Judith Pasco, learned last summer in San Cristobal, a city in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico.
The women are inviting the public to the third annual dinner celebrating the Mujeres de Maiz tonight (Saturday) at the Sequim Prairie Grange Hall.
Mujeres de Maiz — “women of the corn,” their staple food — is the name of a sewing cooperative Pasco has visited annually since 2006.
Saturday’s event is a dinner of traditional enchiladas en mole, rice, beans and dessert, plus a silent auction of art and handicrafts from rural Chiapas.
It’s also a fundraiser for the Mujeres de Maiz Opportunity Foundation, a nonprofit organization Pasco founded three winters ago.
The organization is named after the Mujeres cooperative based in Zinacantan, a village in the hills outside San Cristobal.
As Pasco came to know the women — and as she learned of their struggles with poverty, early pregnancy and domestic violence — she was inspired to start a fund to provide secondary school and college scholarships.
This has been a breakthrough year.
In addition to eight scholarships for women in their teens and 20s, the foundation has funded eye examinations, glasses and three laptop computers.
And this Christmas, Pasco plans to bring the first of many solar-powered lights to Zinacantan, where the women earn their living sewing and weaving in shacks with little or no electricity.
“We’re going to do a test run,” with the $60 lights, Pasco said. They provide 12 hours of illumination after four hours of exposure to sunlight.
If they work the way Pasco hopes, she and the foundation will invest in dozens more.
Linda Finch, a member of the foundation board of directors, came up with the idea of searching for solar-powered lights. Finch is a math teacher at Sequim High School who traveled to Zinacantan in summer 2007.
Last summer Rudersdorf, who’s taught art in Sequim schools for 15 years, invited the children and women of rural Chiapas to a two-day art class.
She and her longtime friend Sarah Fitzpatrick, an artist who lives in Denver, decided to make it a self-portrait exercise — and it bloomed into an outdoor workshop.
When Rudersdorf and Fitzpatrick arrived at the house where the class was to happen, they found 18 students, one dim light bulb and three tiny chairs.
So they moved out into the sun and made benches out of boards. The women held their drawing materials on their laps while the smaller children sat on the ground at low tables.
“They came to me with very little, if any, drawing experience,” Rudersdorf said, “and they ended up feeling proud for what they were able to accomplish.
“They struggled and giggled and worked hard, just like any other eager student.”
Pasco, meanwhile, marvels at how her small group of Pacific Northwestern women have connected with the people of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.
“We’re partnering with the cooperative, not just serving them,” Pasco said.
She paid tribute to her board of directors, which includes Finch, Rudersdorf, retired educator Patricia Lang, Federal Way teacher Carol Bell and Olympic Cellars co-owner Molly Rivard.
Collaborating with them, Pasco said, reminded her that much work can be done when each woman feels free to share her ideas.
“A really small group can make a difference in people’s lives,” Pasco added. And each trip she makes to Chiapas gives her “a reality check.”
“We get very upset about things like computer problems or gas prices,” she said. “We have little idea what it is to not have any of that stuff to start with.”
At Saturday’s dinner and auction, Pasco will lay out an array of weavings, clothing, decorations and other handmade gifts from the women of Chiapas.
Gifts from Chiapas
A violet-blue shawl like those worn in the village markets will be among the auction items, as will several wheeled carry-on suitcases donated by Rick Steeves.
Pasco wrote to the Edmonds-based travel maven and asked him for a contribution to the Mujeres fundraiser.
Also on Saturday night, Pasco and the foundation board will unveil greeting cards bearing the self-portraits from Rudersdorf’s art class.
The portraits evoke the connection between two communities of women: one living beneath the Olympic Mountains, the other amid the mountains of far-southern Mexico.
For Rudersdorf, making art with children in Chiapas affirmed that connection, even if her students speak languages she has yet to master.
“The more I travel and find ways to spend valuable time with those of other cultures,” she said, “the more I see that, at the core of our beings, we are all the same.”
The evening will include a program about El Dia de los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s celebration of loved ones who have died.
The Mujeres de Maiz dinner and silent auction will begin at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Sequim Prairie Grange Hall, 290 Macleay Road.
Admission is a suggested donation of $15, but no one will be turned away.
For information, phone 360-683-8979.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at [email protected]