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Mexico: the art of 'living well' passes through women

In our most recent Laudato si' story, we explore a business in Mexico run by indigenous women that combines care for Creation, empowerment of women, and respect for indigenous traditions.

By Sebastián Sansón Ferrari

In the Northern Chiapas forest, Mexico, for twenty years, a group of socially-conscious businesses run by indigenous Seltales women and their families have been working for justice and the protection of their land.

The group is called 'Yomol A'Tel', which means: "Together we work, together we walk, together we dream".

The social innovation coordinator of the company, Erika Lara, is 32 years old, and has a degree in business. Her role is to accompany and train their production partners in the textile process.

The goal of this network of cooperatives, Lara explains, is to promote women’s participation in democratic processes, to give them a voice and integrate them into the economy, and to ensure their autonomy in their own homes.

Their philosophy is lequil cuxlejalil, or “good living," and they aim to optimise social benefit through sustainability and profitability.

Yomol A'Tel' is a community-based way of conceiving work. For them, it is essential to put the human person at the centre and to walk together in performing their tasks
Yomol A'Tel' is a community-based way of conceiving work. For them, it is essential to put the human person at the centre and to walk together in performing their tasks

Among the many members of this 'big production family' is the brand Xapontic, or 'Our Soap'. Since 2007, it has been manufacturing personal hygiene products such as shampoos, soap bars and body cream. The network of cooperatives was promoted by the Jesuit mission in Bachajón, which has been accompanying communities and Seltales families in the area for over 60 years.

In addition, they use the ancient technique of lomillo stitch (checked fabric and yarn) to make handcrafted leather bags, beauty cases, purses, wall hangings and bracelets. Since all women in the area embroider, Lara says, they have decided to preserve this method so that the younger ones do not forget their identity.

Land is more than an economic object

In the context of maintaining these traditional practices, the words of Pope Francis’ encyclical resonate.

In that document, the Holy Father calls for special attention to be paid to indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. In section 146, he makes it clear that “They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed.” For them, explains the Holy Father, “land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”

The employees of these companies work hard and, producing aromatic plants and organic products. They avoid using overexploiting natural resources and using pesticides or fertilisers, taking care to respect and preserve the biodiversity of the local ecosystem.

Lara explains that these methods are essential for the artisanal cosmetics that the Seltales women make in workshops. The aromatic plants are dehydrated and distilled and become part of the cosmetic products. This results in a finished product with a completely natural base and, on the profit side, the income goes directly to the women members and not to external suppliers.

Xapontic is not an isolated entity, but works in a network with other institutions, such as the Society of Jesus, universities, financiers and social investors
Xapontic is not an isolated entity, but works in a network with other institutions, such as the Society of Jesus, universities, financiers and social investors

In Xapontic's creations, the earth, mountains and flowers are represented through the use of their traditional colours, such as black, green, red and pink.

"Nature is the true and only inspiration for our brand," the coordinator points out.

While taking care to preserve their culture, these women have opened themselves up to the application of contemporary techniques, even producing fabrics with more neutral colour schemes.

In this way, as Lara points out, they are slowly entering markets that were previously too difficult for them to enter, perhaps because the target audience was restricted to people who shared their traditions.

Other ways of generating value

In line with sustainable development goals, the company seeks to set a fair price so that women producers and their families can lead a decent life and have sufficient income to meet their basic needs.

Lara also highlights the persistent struggle to reduce the wage gap and achieve gender equality.

But the organisation’s commitment does not stop there. Another of its initiatives is the creation of employment opportunities for indigenous women through its own education system (which does not always involve schools).

This allows them to put down roots in the area and preserve the lives of future generations, considering their values, cultures, and practices, based on their way of being and acting.

Saying that the workers are at the heart of the activity is not just a slogan but a reality: in Xapontic and in these kinds of enterprises, the principles of inclusion, justice, and fairness prevail because they can rely on horizontal organizational and decision-making structures that involve all participants. Each of them has the right to speak in the assemblies, which, in general, are held every six months.

Xapontic draws inspiration from indigenous and peasant principles and values, as well as Maya and Ignatian spirituality
Xapontic draws inspiration from indigenous and peasant principles and values, as well as Maya and Ignatian spirituality

Defending the dignity of women

Lara notes that in Mexico, poverty is 20% higher in rural areas compared to urban ones, and 30% higher among indigenous populations compared to non-indigenous ones.

Behind the migration from the countryside to cities lie at least four reasons: economic factors, education, environmental degradation, and organized violence.

Women aged from 16 to 80 work in the co-operative. In most cases, those under 30 have little or no education, and those over 30 have secondary education but no further.

"These differences have confined women to domestic activities, vegetable cultivation," says Lara. Men, on the other hand, have taken on the role of earning income through selling their products or day labor.

This situation presupposes more power for men, being the primary economic support for the family, but it simultaneously inhibits women's participation in productive activities. That's why, at Xapontic, they fight for equality in a patriarchal system.

"Women are owners and caretakers of the home and everything around it," says Lara. Men, on the other hand, take care of the land and agricultural work.

Nevertheless, some women stand out for their high level of leadership. That's why Lara emphasizes the key role they play in organizing the family and the wider society.

For Lara, who is the backbone of this project, the essence of the female conglomerate lies in engaging in the solidarity economy and promoting "living well."

This is not about idleness or the dolce vita, which . Instead, it's about living in harmony with nature, seeking harmony, which is superior to balance.

"Knowing how to move in harmony—that's what gives the wisdom we call 'living well.' The harmony between a person and their community, the harmony between a person and the environment, the harmony between a person and the whole of Creation."

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28 November 2023, 10:06