Empowering Women with Education and a Lucrative Sewing Project (Sylvia Gregory — Part 3 )


 Their challenges are different from ours so they’ve developed differently.

 Their natural intelligence is huge just like any other group of people, right? I feel it’s really important that schools take children who are six years old down to Mexico or the Third World, in the inner city, even. To witness what’s going on — that kind of life. The children wouldn’t be expected to do anything particularly. They’d play with the other children and learn that way. Then you could develop curriculum in the fall around what did they learn, so that we develop some consciousness about this world of ours! People can’t help it that they don’t have the information.

Yeah. So, let’s get back to you. I just want to say that in the years since you stopped living in Teosinte, it’s been a presence for you ever since. And you have gone back many times.

 Yes. I had to go back, once we organized our work with the community to do projects that they wanted done, to coordinate with the people who were in charge of those projects on the ground.

Now, you were funding these projects with Women’s Empowerment Partnership and your own money.

 We were funding the projects, yes. Some of my own money but most of the money was from donors, really. [And American dollars go a lot further in the Third World.] We had about a $30,000 annual budget. We had a scholarship program for youth who wanted to study at high school and university. And we didn’t require anything but an essay. They would write why they wanted to study and we weren’t gonna exclude anybody based on what they said, but we asked them to think about how could their education serve the community and the people in general.

So, what the community wanted was economic development, they needed some funding for the last part of a project that was funded by the European Union. To pave the two worst sections of road to get in and out of town so that it wouldn’t constantly fall into the canyon. They had this grant from the European Union and somehow the prices went up by the time they finally got it finished. And it was labor of Teosinte men who also got paid to do it which was really good because it gave them an income. And then they also had to build bridges over these rivers, so we helped with some of that tail end funding. It wasn’t a lot but we did help with that.

And then we supported the health team. There was by then a female health promoter, Elena. She had studied in intermediate and advanced health promoter classes so that she could treat simple infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, urinary infections, whatever, that kind of thing, with basic antibiotics and things that she knew how to do.

Who supplied them?

 The Catholic Church. The Catholic Church supplied the training and many of the medications, but then the Catholic Church lost their funding for the medications so they couldn’t continue to do that all the time. So, we supplied everybody who had a daily medication need, like they had a seizure disorder or they had congestive heart failure or they had whatever it was. Schizophrenia,   whatever. We brought all the medications and much to the credit of [a health provider in Oregon] they gave us the medicines at wholesale price which was hugely helpful.

After the war ended in ’92, the United Nations had brokered a peace agreement between the guerrilla army and the Salvadoran government. Each side had to sign what they were going to do to make El Salvador a more just place. Economically, politically, and socially. So when the war was over there was no longer any income for people who were doing jobs. The Europeans and the Catholic church had supplied small stipends to health promoters, small stipends to teachers who were teaching the 12 year olds and so on. The principal and so on. So, they could continue to do the work, otherwise they needed to go work in the fields, okay?

So that funding kind of dried up so we carried on with Elena’s salary, cause she’s a widow of the war. And she’s one of the finest health care providers I’ve ever met. And she’s barely literate. She always wanted to be a nurse or a doctor but her parents could only afford to send her through 3rd grade. Her husband was killed by the death squads. Many of her children were, but she had five remaining children to raise as a widow of the war. And she’s this extremely humble person who has a visionary compassion and she was on call 24/7 for any emergency in town, and all birthing emergencies, and most all the births. All the births in town she did. And many of the births in surrounding communities

 They would call her at two in the morning and it was two hours to walk. These communities weren’t accessible by road — two hours walk up the hill at two in the morning, OK. And she would run up there and do whatever. She was so amazing because she was so spiritually centered. She never had a single infant or maternal fatality. And she knew exactly when to get this person out of there now and get the pickup in town, which we paid for, health emergency funds to fund that trip, and the hospital costs and stuff to get that person to a maternity hospital or whatever hospital. Where they could be taken care of.

How did they drive there? Did they have a 4-wheel drive vehicle?

Yes, 4-wheel drive and two of the men in the community were taught how to drive so they would drive it. And because there’s the formal system and the informal system in Salvador, they had to buy their license on the black market. [laughs] They’re not gonna be able to read a driver’s manual and pay a fee — it’s gonna be more than their annual income — to get their license in the capital and then do a driving test. So, the informal system takes care of things. Yes, you have a license — 60 bucks on the black market. [light laugh] That’s how you have to do things sometimes. And I have come to appreciate that. We don’t have that here. And it makes things very hard for people here who are poor. So anyway. [light laugh]

These two men learn how to drive and so Elena would wake ‘em up and on they went, you know, to the hospital. And then she would advocate for that patient at the hospital. And I so appreciate her. We had a person, number 1, who wasn’t corrupt. Who wouldn’t steal funds from what we sent down there. She did perfect accounting for the money. And she always was there for everybody and so I felt like she was well worth a salary and we paid her $50.00 a month at first, then after when things became more inflated, we paid her $100.00 a month. And it made it so we could stay there.

 And then we also had a little stipend for people who were over 65, who were elderly, who had no money, who were dirt poor. And their children aren’t any better off either. And then we did economic development with the women. That was very educational for us, because you don’t have to talk to men about machismo and that women should have rights and blah blah blah. You don’t have to do any of that. If you economically empower the women, they’re the only ones with income and so they can do it. Now, here’s an example.

 If you empower them economically, where they have a job that they make an income. We got this grant from an international foundation again to do a textile project. It involved two cultures. In other words, Guatemalan Mayan women were weaving this cloth on backstrap looms by hand, and then the women in El Salvador went there, it was a 12-hour trip to get there on the bus, it was two or three days. Okay. And then they have to stay overnight and then they have to choose the cloth, buy the cloth, we paid twice market value for it, in order to empower the weavers.

 And then the women in Salvador would take the cloth back and we in the States would order product and then we would sell it here, at like fairs, and church women’s groups and wherever we could. This project taught me a lot about where people are who have never been educated. We take so for granted our education. Even primary school.

Primary school teaches you to think abstractly. And you learn in school that there’s a form here and you can have a column that says ‘date.’ And you can have a column that says, you know, ‘how many sacks of corn do we have.’ ‘How many sacks of corn do we give out?’ Here’s how many sacks of beans we had, how many we gave out and now we have this many left. That is incomprehensible to an adult who has never been literate, never been educated. Cause we don’t understand that they don’t see that. This is a piece of paper, they’d tell me. This piece of paper, it doesn’t stand for anything.

 So it was very difficult for them to be able to read my faxes — all in Spanish. We had codes, the codes for each type of fabric, each color, everything, of fabric. And they had the code and the Mayans in Guatemala had the codes. So, we would write down “we need so many of this type of product” in this color and blah blah blah. But they didn’t have any idea how to fill an order!

 So, one year I went down and tried to teach them how to fill an order. It took a day and a half of trying to teach them how to fill a simple order and we had already taught them when we started the grant how to do the accounting for the project. And one of the more educated women did that for the group, right? And then it was open books that anybody could inspect so that we don’t have corruption going on.

It took us a day and a half and only about half of them could figure it out, even after that. But, they finally got it. Finally, it got organized such that we would get what we ordered. Except like if we ordered 50 of such and such a thing, we might get 2 or 3 of those, and then get 60 of something else. [light laugh] It was just always learning. They couldn’t help it. They were doing their best.

Like me with electronics.

 Or like me, even worse than you, with electronics. Oh, I hate them. So mystifying! But anyway, the project was immensely successful because it did raise their incomes, it taught them a really good skill, cause we required them to sew according to market standards. And in the grant that we got to start the project, a Mayan tailor from Guatemala came to teach our women how to sew on treadle sewing machines that the government of China provided them in the refugee camps. And they brought back on the buses. Isn’t that incredible?

These treadles are so amazing. They are the most amazing machines cause there was no electricity in town or anything like that, plumbing or anything. So anyway, the women were sewing and they were very upset with us because we required them to do it with such quality. But we told them we can’t sell it if it’s not that quality. And it was good.

 One little interesting point is that in the traditional society of Mayan culture in Guatemala — 54% of the population of Guatemala is pureblooded Mayan — and in their culture they do everything like it’s been done for the last 2000 years. So women weave and men sew. And never will it change. Because Ron [a mutual friend of ours who imported clothing made from beautiful Guatemalan cloth] tried eight times to teach the Mayan women to sew. Because most of them were widows and didn’t have anybody to provide for them, and every time he did he was accosted by the Mayan males saying they weren’t gonna allow that and so he couldn’t do that. He would get death threats from them. [laugh] So, he finally gave up.

And he had to hire Mayan tailors to sew the cloth into product that he marketed, right? Because he can’t just sell cloth, you know. It was quite something.

Did the Guatemalan men want to be employed?

 I don’t think it was that. It was a cultural thing of the religion that the women weave, the men sew. Period. We’re so used to a transitional society that we don’t understand that, see? And Ron didn’t understand that either. Why don’t you want the women to learn to sew, they’re widows? Well, [light laugh] because. And there are advantages to traditional societies. Everybody knows their role, they know exactly what they’re gonna do when they grow up, okay?

 Things don’t change. I mean, there’s disadvantages, too. But, it was very interesting to me. So, anyway, this very humble Mayan man came, he’s all of maybe 4 foot 11 in size [light laugh]. And he taught the Salvadoran women [who were not Mayan] how to sew.

They were paid by the piece. They make a backpack they get so much money. They make a fanny pack they get so much money. They make a set of placemats they make so much money, and so on. To further empower the women, the tasks that you had other than production were rotated among the women so that not just one person did all of the non-production things, right?

 So it came time for this one woman, a very oppressed woman and totally illiterate, and her husband, illiterate. Very wonderful people, nine children by that time, and she was probably 33 or something? Anyway, her husband forbade her to go to Guatemala to get the fabric when it was her turn to go. And so she explained to him that she had to go. It wasn’t like a choice. And he said, “Well, I forbid you to go.” Cause he was worried that she would go off with another man.

The men think that these women who are grinding corn and hauling water and firewood and cooking and washing clothes and tending the house and tending the kids are going to have time and desire to go out and find somebody else. Anyway, he forbade her to go. But she went. Because she was the breadwinner in the family. Because the women’s wages had gone from $5.00 a month to between $75 and $150.00 a month. Depending on whether they were full or part time and it was up to them whether they wanted to work full or part time.

What a difference.

 Yeah. Huge difference. And it was making such a difference that the men wanted to come into the project and they called me up here, the men did, asking if they could come in. And I said, “You need to ask the women. It’s their decision.” And they unanimously voted no! What do ya know! [laughs]

So this woman went to Guatemala and he found out that no, she did not run away with another man. So it was okay with him then. It was okay with him when he found out it wasn’t really anything worrisome. So, we did that economic development project and then we expanded the workshop building for the women in the textile project so that we could employ more women. We employed about 15 to 20 women and they supported quite a few people in the community because they supported their whole family. So, it was a project that was helpful and even though our non-profit is no longer selling the product here, they are still going with it.

Once my job as a physician assistant kept me working way into the night because of the computerization of medicine, I could no longer do all the work I was doing and sell product. I had to give that up. But, we did it for a long while, probably 7, 8, 9 years, I don’t know. And then the women got a contract with somebody to sew school uniforms. So, it’s given them an ability to make some money.

And they still have these treadle machines.

 They have treadle machines but now they have electricity but it’s not always on. The community lobbied the government for nine years and finally got electricity. But, it’s not a lot of electricity. And so we got serger machines for the women, electric serger sewing machines, which are the ones you use for sewing clothing because they sew five threads at a time so you can make a hem without having to stitch it by hand. And a man who was on our board showed ‘em how to put them together. And got ‘em all up and running.

And then we did a stipend for elderly people. We did a health project. And we did the scholarship program. We funded an economic development project for several families that was an egg producing business. Then some infrastructure projects. And fixing everybody’s teeth. Oh yeah, and we sent funds down for them to purchase their land. Because in 1993 the Salvadoran government was supposed to have compensated the former owners of repatriated communities’ land and given titles to those lands to these communities, that was part of the peace accords. And they didn’t do that.

So the former owners came back demanding their land back and these are not rich people, they are just a step above in wealth where the returnees were, you know. This is not good land, okay. This is mountain land. So, anyway, so these guys came with 80 head of cattle and run over their crops in order to drive the point home.

And so the men of the community rounded up the cows and took them back to them and said, “You know, it’s not your fault and it’s not our fault. The government did not do what it said.” Well, they kept doing it. They kept bringing back the 80 head of cattle. So, they had an all community meeting on August 31, 1993 which means from the youngest baby to the oldest person in the community to decide what to do about this because they were gonna be evicted. And they had not a dime. They decided to buy their land cash up front! [laughs] Okay?

So the guys with the 5th grade education became the land negotiation team. They had other people on teams to go find these owners. There were 30 owners scattered all over everywhere. In Central America, in the U.S., some of them were someplace else, and so they would have to take all day with the community vehicle to find one relative of an owner to set up, “Could you please give them this message that we will try again.” Cause there’s no telephones or anything.

 So anyway, in a year and a half they bought 900 acres. [laughs] And they organized to do it! I couldn’t believe it! And so we sent down $17,000. And that bought about a third of their land. And then Torensio and Alice [international volunteers who had worked in Teosinte with Sylvia Gregory] sent another third and then the people did the fundraising for the last third. There’s nothing they can’t do. I mean, they’re so good at organizing.

Well, they’ve learned now.

 I mean, O my gosh! Who would’ve thought?! Would you think you could buy 900 acres if you started out with nothing? You know, there’s nothing they accept as a barrier. It’s really incredible. They really did a fabulous job.









About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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1 Response to Empowering Women with Education and a Lucrative Sewing Project (Sylvia Gregory — Part 3 )

  1. WL Roberts says:

    Love your interviews so much! Sylvia Gregory, I admire you greatly.


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