Sequim, Port Angeles women raise money for Mexico center

SEQUIM — A small band of women in Sequim and Port Angeles share one desire with a women’s cooperative in rural Chiapas, Mexico.

They want to show their daughters and granddaughters what’s possible for them as modern women: a college education and a self-determined life.

And on this front, 2011 is starting out well for these women, known as the Mujeres de Maiz en Resistencia.

The name means women of the corn — Mexico’s foundational food — in resistance to any form of oppression.

Here on the North Olympic Peninsula, Judith Pasco of Sequim and five longtime friends and colleagues formed the Mujeres de Maiz Opportunity Foundation five years ago.

The nonprofit has since raised enough money to award high school and college scholarships to 19 young women and to help the Mujeres cooperative with computers, eyeglasses and enrichment classes for children.

The foundation is based on the principle of listening to what the women in Chiapas want for their communities.

The cooperative’s members, some 120 indigenous Mayan residents of towns outside the city of San Cristobal, are weavers, seamstresses and artists who sell their handiwork to travelers — and who hope to expand their markets while staying independent.

Create a center

Some years ago, the women of the cooperative, including Juana Hernandez Gomez of Zinacantan, a college student, told Pasco and the foundation board of their ultimate hope: their own center in the city, where all types of classes would be taught for children and adults and where their clothing and other art could be sold.

The benefits of owning a place, instead of remaining at the mercy of a landlord, were clear to the foundation directors.

What was uncertain was how to find a suitable building and the money to buy it.

Then, late last year, Mujeres liaison Maria del Carmen Cano Alvarez discovered a house for sale close to the center of San Cristobal.

The price: 900,000 pesos, or $75,000.

The 2,800-square-foot space is ideal, Pasco said; it has classroom space and a garage that could be turned into a cooperative store.

Securing a bank loan wasn’t practical. Interest rates are at 12 percent and higher, Pasco said.

Instead, the cooperative would need to make a down payment of $37,500 by the end of January and pay two-thirds of the purchase price before taking occupancy.

Fundraising

Pasco and the Mujeres board shifted into capital-campaign mode, with each board member plus many other local supporters of the foundation donating toward the seemingly steep sum.

As of this week, $33,200 has been raised, Pasco said.

“We had been putting money aside for the last two or three years,” and then when she sent a fundraising letter out, the response was strong.

The Mujeres foundation has built its support base in part through its annual El Dia de los Muertos dinner and auction, an evening of traditional Mexican food and handicrafts at the end of October.

And while that event draws a crowd hungry for tortilla soup and authentic art, Pasco also takes small groups to Chiapas.

Local supporters

Several of the Sequim and Port Angeles residents who have traveled with her are now enthusiastic supporters.

Last month, Dr. Gene Turner of Port Angeles was part of the group Pasco escorted to San Cristobal and the surrounding villages.

At the women’s rented workshop space in the city, Turner gave a program on child development, spoke with mothers about their kids’ health and played his harmonica while the children ate lunch.

Turner, who served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador in 1968, has continued to study Spanish; he had opportunities to use it in his 30 years at the Peninsula Children’s Clinic.

This first trip to Chiapas, he said, was an eye-opener.

“Judith [Pasco] did a wonderful job of organizing it,” Turner said.

The two weeks “showed us the big picture of life for the Mayan descendants, from the rich to the poor.”

The women of the cooperative are resourceful in making the most of the rented classroom space, but the place is “overcrowded and just not adequate,” Turner added.

In the meantime, Pasco and Mujeres foundation Treasurer Linda Finch, both retired schoolteachers, are giving in to their tendency toward optimism.

Teachers start each new year with new hope, said Finch — and she’s seeing that in full flower among the women in Chiapas.

“Having a place to call their own will give them a more optimistic outlook . . . and what they earn will go to the women” and not to paying rising rent to a landowner.

The Mayan women “are extremely resilient and extremely intelligent; they take advantage of every situation to better themselves,” Finch added.

Legacy for daughters

The center, if the women do buy it, will be part of the legacy they leave for their daughters.

By running their operation with educational programs and a store offering their handmade goods, the older women will be role models, showing their girls they can lead lives of their own choosing.

Finch, having just retired from teaching math at Sequim High School, added that she’s “downsizing,” as in reducing her material stuff.

So the women in Chiapas are role models, living simply and valuing education, their natural environment and relationships.

“They are an inspiration,” Finch said.

If the Mujeres foundation reaches its goal of $37,500 by Jan. 31, the next push will be toward the $50,000 that will enable the women’s cooperative to move into the new place.

The rest of the purchase price must be raised by the end of the year.

To learn more about Mujeres de Maiz and the efforts to establish the center in San Cristobal, visit www.MujeresdeMaizOF.org or phone Pasco at 360-683-8979. Since the foundation is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, donations are tax-deductible.

________

Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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