Reflections on Fair Trade in Mexico: Manos Zapotecas Weaving Cooperative

Courtney Lang December 4, 2013

In July, Fair Trade Campaigns took 12 organizers from across the country to Chiappas and Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to visit Fair Trade farmers, artisans and producers.  We visited five producer groups that are associated with the various third party labeling organizations in the US. Over the next few months we’ll be sharing one reflection on each the group regarding the state of Fair Trade.  Here is the third of five – be sure to check back in!

By Gretchen Specht – Fair Trade Healdsburg, CA

Forming the Coop

Gretchen, Josefina and Paco in the Manos Zapotecas shop
Gretchen, Josefina and Paco in the Manos Zapotecas shop

This cooperative is located in the ancient rural village of Teotitlan de Valle and is made up of 23 families. The coop was formed when Shelly Tennyson came to the village to volunteer with a group of indigenous women. Shelly became aware that there was no market and a lack of buyers for this craft. She decided the best way to help was to create new markets in the US.  So began Manos Zapotecas.

We first met Francisco Santiago “Paco” and his wife Josefina, one of the coop families, in their shop which was full of colorful and glorious weavings.  Paco weaves rugs and Josefina makes bags,.  Paco also helps all of the coop weavers with quality control and getting the bags ready to export to Shelly in San Diego.

Establishing Roots

Manos Zapotecas is a proud member of the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). Josefina said that because they have the FTF membership they know people see the value in their work and it makes them proud.   Because they are part of FTF the weavers receive a fair wage and are able to work from home on their own looms, which allows them to be with their families. Since becoming a member of FTF the weavers have had trainings on cost benefit analysis and have learned how to set a fair price for their work. Each family sells through the Manos Zapotecas’ website, taking their weavings to the city, as well as in their own places. 

We then walked down the street to another beautiful showroom full of colorful rugs, bags and scarves. This was the showroom Casa Santiago, the workshop and home of Paco’s parents, Porfirio and Gloria. We talked at length with Rocio, Paco’s sister-in-law and his sister Maria Luisa about their work, which is showcased there as well. Maria Luisa says “Each weaver has their own style some prefer traditional designs while other find joy in creating new ones.” Maria Luisa’s favorite bag to make is the “Gloria” bag because to her it represents home. Rocio says, “I am free when I am designing, I love colors and I decide while weaving what it will be maybe a pillow, a rug or a bag”.

Preserving Culture

Paco's parents next to a traditional loom.

Paco’s parents next to a traditional loom.

Most weavers learned from their parents and are passing down these weaving skills to their own children. Some traditional designs include the cornflower, rain, spiral or “greek” which meaning is “life and death, wind and water, we are not only people but spirit”, and diamonds representing the “eye of God”.

The weavers are all very grateful to Shelly for working with them to start Manos Zapotecas. Before they would have to wait long periods of time to sell their goods. Now, they sell many products and often are paid in advance, this helps them with other things like childcare and maybe house cleaning. All of the weavers are able to send their children to school and some have even earned scholarships to University.

Rocio, Maria Luisa and Josefina have all said that they are proud to have people in the U.S. knowing their handicrafts and are happy to be forming this relationship. Josefina says, “When I get an order it makes me very happy and I am excited to get up in the morning to work, I love making bags”.

Rocio told us that she had a dream that one day her weavings would be sold in the U.S and people would like them and buy them. She said she would tell the other weavers this dream and they would laugh. Now, her dream is a reality and she is so happy. I shared a dream of mine that I have had for many years, that I one day would come to meet her  and hear her story. It is part of my job to connect customers with the artisans, which I do buy reading about them. I can now say, I met Rocio, she told me her story and I am honored to know her.


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Courtney Lang, National Organizer | Fair Trade Campaigns

Courtney Lang brings over 5 years of community organizing to Fair Trade Towns USA, building both the Local Food and Fair Trade networks in Vermont. As Local Food Coordinator with City Market/Onion River Cooperative, Courtney worked with local producers, institutions and consumers to grow the local food system and organize a strategic model for community engagement through farm tours, workshops, and local food challenges. Like many in the Fair Trade industry, Courtney was inspired to take action in Fair Trade when she witnessed child-labor first hand in Costa Rica. As a founding member of Fair Trade Burlington, she has worked with economic development organizations, businesses, and consumers to build awareness of Fair Trade among Vermonters. She also worked with a Fair Trade USA licensee, Vermont Coffee Company, as Friend Ambassador where she united the story of Fair Trade to every purchase of coffee.