Mujeres Alfareros de Tlahuac (Women Potters of Tlahuac) has it origins in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. At that time many people not only lost their homes but their livelihoods as well. There were efforts by both government and NGO’s to rebuild and replace employment that had been lost, which included encouraging the founding of employee-owned cooperatives.
Then 20-something Rita Resendiz was one of those who had lost her job. She had recently moved to Colonia Roma, near the city center and one of the neighborhoods heavily impacted by the disaster. While still living in a tent shelter, a man by the name of Dr. León Valencia, was looking for people who would be interested in using a ceramic kiln on his property to learn to make pottery and start a business. This appealed to Rita and a few other women. They were all young, with neither any idea of how to create ceramics or run a cooperative, but decided not to let that hold them back. Resendiz says that decision changed her life forever, as she never went back to her studies.
Unfortunately, this first co-op lasted only five years. The original organization made everyone equally owners and workers, and angry disputes eventually led to dissolution.
The group divided up the property, and with her part, Resendiz started over. She was not dissuaded from the co-op model, nor from the idea of an organization dedicated to helping women socially and economically. Resendiz formed a new cooperative, whose ideological purposes are enhancing women’s social and economic positions in Mexican society and even within their own families. The other is to conserve and promote the cultural value of Mexican handcrafts within Mexico. She is frank about why her focus is on women’s issues: her experience with men in various facets of her life has been mostly negative, in part because she feels they do not take her or her opinions seriously.
The second organization is the one that still exists today. It started with only three women, including Resendiz. Instead of staying in expensive Colonia Roma, Resendiz bought land in then-isolated Tlahuac borough in the southwest of what is officially Mexico City. The reality was that it was a world apart in the very early 1990s. It was still rural, with few paved roads, fewer stores and almost non-existant public transportation. People lived by the raising of livestock, and there was no infrastructure to support a ceramics workshop. Very slowly the workshop was established and then began to grow. By 2006, it had reached a dozen or so members. But changes in federal government policies pulled support for artisans in training and marketing. The workshop suffered, lost members and even suspended operations for a time. Since 2012, the situation has improved and today the co-op has 4 women who are dedicated to it full-time.
The workshop’s repertoire today is a far cry from the very simple pieces they produced in the beginning. In the latter 1980s, much of the time was spent learning the basics. Over time they have developed signature products and styles in high-fire ceramics (fired once at 1280C) using clays from several states in Mexico. Various shades of blue are dominant here as this pigment works best with high-fire techniques. Red can be seen and occasionally other colors.
They are still dedicated to experimentation and new ideas. They have worked with Georgina Toussaint, a textile artist and anthropologist. While Mujeres Alfareras had always used traditional design elements, Toussaint taught them their histories and meanings. Many of these have pre Hispanic origins. Resendiz says this gives the women pride as they feel they are doing their part to keep their heritage alive. The use of traditional elements does not mean stagnation. The workshop works to diversify, update and innovate their product lines, working with various clays, glazes and pigments as well.
Their products are classified under three different lines. The first is utilitarian pieces: cups, plates, bowls etc. The second consists of decorative pieces such as flower vases, tiles with images painted on them and decorative masks (hung on walls). The last are those created with an artistic purpose in mind. One example is a set of faces done in 2002 as a protest against the femicides of Ciudad Juarez. Another is a ceramic chair draped in textiles by Georgina Toussaint, which was part of the Arte/Sano exhibit of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. All of these pieces are made for exhibit competition and may or may not be sold. All members participate in the making of items of all three lines. One reason behind this is that Rita does not yet know who will take over the cooperative after her, but whoever does needs to understand all aspects of production.
Most of Mujeres Alfarera’s sales are through a built-up client base who return time and time again to place orders. Many of these are special orders for items such as personalized plaques, mugs, plates, for individuals and for events. They also travel to various handcraft fairs, but in particular like to work with events related to women’s issues. A small amount is sold in stores, such as the government FONART outlets. They have sold abroad, mostly through the Novica organization. Interestingly enough, the main economic challenge for the workshop right now is not having enough orders but having enough hands. They are looking for new members.
Rita Resendiz is the leader of the cooperative and its main driving force. She is quite unusual. She decided when very young to become independent of her family, moving alone from Mexico City’s northern suburbs into the center of the city proper. She remains a fiercely independent woman, never married or does she have children. She considers the co-op and her shelter dogs to be her children. She even has limited contact with the rest of her relatives, something highly unusual for women (and even men) in Mexico, even in modern Mexico City.
Another of Resendiz’s passions is rescue dogs. The workshop compound also served as a shelter for up to 20 dogs at a time, and even a few cats through in. When Resendiz moved to the area it was still very rural. Dogs could run around freely in relative safety, and even survive pretty well without owners. The rapid urban sprawl into this part of the Valley of Mexico has made life extremely difficult for street dogs, similar to the rest of city. The change has occurred only over 20 years, and people’s attitudes towards animals have not caught up. Dogs are considered similar to livestock, things to be owned and disposed of if not wanted. Spaying and neutering is rare here, in part because of finances and because the idea of dogs (and cats) as part of the family is rare.
The cooperative does what it can to change the situation, using resources they generate themselves through ceramic work (as well as maintain themselves). This includes feeding, spaying/neutering and finding permanent homes for the 20 dogs they can have on their compound at any one time and feeding many more that are on the street. Rita says that when money for the dogs is tight, they offer workshops in making and firing ceramic pieces to the public, charging only a bag of dry dog food.