In the mountains of south Mexico, the Nahua villagers of Tlamacazapa (population 6,200) earn a meager living by weaving palm baskets, an ancient art preserved over centuries. The village context is characterized by acute poverty; high illiteracy; overcrowding with malnutrition and constant illness; water and soil contaminated with lead and arsenic; and inadequate sanitation. The setting is further complicated by alcoholism among men; social norms of violence, fear and macho attitudes; and a rapidly encroaching drug culture.
Atzin is a non-profit humanitarian organization registered in Mexico, with a charitable sister association in Canada. Atzin assists rural people, particularly indigenous women, to attain better life opportunities, stronger cultural wellbeing, and greater self-sufficiency with more peaceful governance. Starting in 1997 and emerging gradually in response to community needs, Atzin programs cut across four integrated sectors: Health and Healing; Income Generation for Women; Community Education and Literacy; and Environment, Water and Sanitation. The programs are based on principles of social participation; investigation with action; and environmental and economic sustainability. Today, each program has many activities run by local women with technical assistance from Atzin including,
- Education: children study in an open-air education program taught by local young women who use a small group, active learning approach, with a breakfast program as well as afternoon tutoring for schoolchildren who are failing their grade level. Also, a literacy program for women, 14-70 years of age.
- Health: A dental and oral health program two days/week, run by a dentist and two local dental promoters. Children under 13 years old attend at no cost while adults receive subsidized dental care. Midwifery: Trained village midwives offer a full range of safe motherhood services, and act as liaisons with government health services.
- Special Needs: children and adults with early stimulation exercises; home visits; accompaniment to hospital and appointments; food supplementation for malnourished; assistance with transport, medicines and consultation costs.
- Environment, Water and Sanitation: Distribution of ecological rocket stoves with education regarding use. Monitoring of water quality and quantity; construction of household dry toilet and rainwater harvest tanks as well as community water projects at three schools; past investigation into quality of soil, cooking pots, palm dyes.
- Income Generation: cooperatives of palm weavers; sewers and quilters.
We concentrated our work in this one setting because of its sheer complexity and a growing recognition that this village is a microcosm of our world situation, constituting a unique situation for action and reflection. Every advance has been hard won under difficult circumstances. In broad strokes, our social and technical accomplishments to date include:
1997-2000: Establishment of presence and trusting relationships using simple “bridge” activities. Development of knowledge of village context and dynamics. Water samples taken in 2000 revealed arsenic and lead.
2001-2003: Gradual development of small-scale programming activities coupled with environmental action-research. Formation of strategic alliances, local, regional and international.
2004-present: Build up of evidence of environmental contamination and toxic exposure in village water, soil, clay cooking pots and palm dyes. Elaboration of programs in four sectors with ongoing training of village promoters. Formation of Yotlakat Non Siwatl in 2009, a village-based organization of local women dedicated to continuous learning and the management of all programs in Tlamacazapa, with technical assistance from Atzin. Establishment of Arte Siwame (Women´s Art) in 2009, a small business selling products made in Tlamacazapa, with all proceeds for Atzin programs.
To creatively draw attention to the local situation, we have implemented special cultural and media projects. For example,
- Walking Together, a 14-minute documentary produced by The National on CBC Canada (2006);
- Reweaving a Life Art exhibition featuring paintings and palm that toured Mexico and Canada (2006-2008);
- Reweaving a Life DVD (2010);
- Tlamacazapa Weavers of Life Photography exhibition by Rodrigo Cruz. Toured in Mexico 2010-2013;
- Kokonemeh Children of Tlamacazapa Mexico, a reading and activity book (2010 English; 2012 Spanish).
- Tlamacazapa sin agua 5 minute TV report by FOROtv Mexico (January 2013).
- Iguatlanesti Here Comes the Dawn (November 2015). 55 page book with colour plates described the precarious lives of the women weavers and their families in Tlamacazapa, using art, photographs and stories.
- We are Your Future: Creativity and resilience among women weavers of palm of Tlamacazapa, Mexico, (2013-2017) featured master printmaker, Alejandro Aranda from Mexico, and watercolourist, Ray Dirks from Manitoba, joining with women weavers of palm from Tlamacazapa, Guerrero, Mexico. Toured in Mexico and Canada.
The Bottom Line. Chronic exposure to low levels of multiple metals and toxins creates a “toxic synergy.” At high risk is the malnourished weaver or child who weaves dyed palm, uses well water, lives in a dirt floor hut, and cooks in a glazed clay pot. Our integrated approach supports risk reduction and community development, incorporating attention to social processes as well as to the technical aspects of poverty, insufficient water, inadequate sanitation and environmental contamination.
Susan Smith, Director
Atzin Desarrollo Comunitario, A. C.
Cuernavaca, Morelos, México
(52) (777) 310-5577.