Indigenous Mayan women proudly show off their bright, century-old traditional looms, exploding with colors and textures. Around them, women from across the globe sell handmade jewelry and garments.
On Nov. 19–20, the 13th annual Austin’s Women and Fair Trade Festival will bring together women who create their own goods to share their products. The event will be held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and features eight different fair trade vendors.
Festival coordinator Cristina Gonzalez said it’s important to preserve the vendors because they have large cultural significance to their respective home countries. Jolom Mayaetik, a native women’s cooperative participating in the festival, uses ancient techniques such as backstrap loom weaving and natural dyes, both of which would later be taken over by modern textile production.
“The patterns that they place on these shirts are symbols that trace back before colonization,” Gonzalez said. “They have a deep cultural meaning behind them.”
Jolom Mayaetik incorporates modern technology such as sewing machines and pedal looms, allowing a younger generation of women to access the textile culture. Gonzalez said they try to create a niche for vendors who are often put out of business by larger corporations.
“Jolom Mayaetik is also starting a program where they teach younger generations about the symbolism behind the weaving,” Gonzalez said. “Involving the young generations helps that so they won’t lose that part of their identity.”
The Austin Tan Cerca Foundation works to empower women economically by allowing them to receive all of the benefits from their cottage industry. Co-founder Josefina Castillo said fair trade allows person-to-person interaction between buyers and makers and connects women in remote places to buyers in the U.S.
“It’s a way of sharing conversations with the vendors and getting to know who is making your products,” Castillo said. “This is part of our economic justice component. It’s a way to promote alternatives to free trade.”
Gonzalez said NAFTA, a free trade agreement, was seen by many to have had adverse effects on Mexico because of its lowering of standards and regulations and an increase in foreign investment. Drafted in 2015, a new free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was introduced that raised tensions between advocates of free trade and their opponents for its perceptual similarities to NAFTA. Although the deal has not been actualized yet, there is much controversy surrounding it. Sam Rines, an economics advisor at Texas-based advising firm Avalon, said he thinks it will have adverse effects on Mexico by lowering the influx on trade.
“With 70 percent of its exports headed to its northern neighbor, part of Mexico’s need to join the TPP is to defend its share of the U.S. export market,” Rines said.
In the future, Castillo said she believes fair trade can be a solution to past free trade deals that have harmed Latino communities.
“We are always trying to promote fair trade because we think that free trade has only damaged the quality of life on both sides of the border,” Castillo said.
Gonzalez said she hopes fair trade overtakes free trade in the future.
“I went to a free trade delegation and got to see the effects that NAFTA had on the Texas-Mexico border,” Gonzalez said. “If people were to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is an exploitation of communities,’ it has to come from people stepping up and saying something.”