Women Artists of Fishing

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The fish scales remind me of flower petals. These bracelets look like leis.

Today I bought some gorgeous handmade jewelry at unbelievably good prices, and my purchase directly benefitted families in need in Mazatlán. This is not a story of charity but rather self-help—a terrific model of women-owned micro-business of the kind that development experts tell us builds strong and healthy communities.

Called Mujeres Artesanas de la Pesca, these twelve local women have officially registered as a cooperative of artisans dedicated to building better families, to personal development, social responsibility and environmental sustainability. They are a strong team of women who have experienced some of the worst that life has to offer yet remain hardworking and committed to helping their families and one another, as well as to growing their outreach and membership in support of our local economy. The day I visited, the women were bustling about, everyone working hard and shoulder to shoulder, so many projects at once that it was difficult to keep track. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We all know that Mazatlán is home to Mexico’s largest shrimping fleet, an industry that employs thousands. The shrimping season, however, can be as short as four months a year. How is a fisherman to sustain a family on four months of wages? Of course, they try to find another job during the off-season, but that is challenging.

A year and a half ago this group of fishermen’s wives joined one of ANSPAC Mazatlán’s classes on personal growth to learn skills and cultivate the confidence and connections to help provide for their families, including education and healthcare for their children. During the program the group developed the idea of making jewelry out of fish scales, and after completing graduation they ran with it.  They have beautiful earrings, bracelets, necklaces and keychains available for 50 to 200 pesos, though they are contemplating increasing their prices.

Their husbands’ employer, Operadora Maritima del Pacífico, set aside a storefront and workshop space for them. The women manage the enterprise themselves; Maribel is the manager and Chabelita is in charge of sales. Jessie is disabled and works from home. They’ve furnished their workspace and sales area themselves and purchased a coffee pot and water dispenser for the kitchen. The group has sold their jewelry at the cruise ship docks, the Aquarium, and the El Cid Bazaar. They are very excited that the State Secretary of Tourism has recently begun purchasing their items—local, socially responsible and eco-friendly handicrafts—for their incoming guests.

The women hope that their project will help discourage illegal fishing and over-fishing as well as encourage others to be more responsible in putting garbage in its place and limiting the use of plastics to protect the ocean and our environment. “The ocean is the heart of our planet,” is one of their sayings.

The company has also helped by bringing in experts to teach the women what they need to know. On the day I visited the shop, Gabriel Aguilar Tiznado, an engineer, was visiting for the second time. He is from Tepic, Nayarit. He first came to teach the women how to cure and dye the fish scales for use in jewelry. This time his task is three-fold:

  1. The women want to dye the fish scales silver and gold, in addition to the bright colors they are already producing.
  2. They want to learn to tan the fish skins into leather, and have already made wallets, keychains and earrings with a gorgeous texture and color.
  3. Perhaps most interesting of all, they are learning to extract collagen from the fish scales. Collagen is the most expensive substance made from fish, costing more than the meat itself, and has been found beneficial for skin, hair, joints, internal organs and, at certain stages of cancer, can be used to inhibit tumor growth.

Soon a Mazatlecan artist who resides in Guadalajara, Tusi Partida, who recently won an award for her artisanal leather shoes, will work with the women to teach them more skills. They are currently looking for a sewing machine and leather working tools, including manual stamps, to help them with this next phase of their project. Below are a few photos that I received of her work.

Working with the wives of their employees is something that Operadora Maritima del Pacífico sees as a social responsibility. They view their enterprise as a family and want to educate everyone from the captain of the boat to the fishermen to take care of our oceans and value them. According to the women, one of the biggest joys of their venture, in addition to the income and learning, is the friendship, the fact that they’ve learned to collaborate and support each other. “Too many women spend time pulling each other down. Here we pull each other up. We are in this together,” one of the ladies told me.

The women use fish skin that is cast off at the embarcadero and even some of the markets around town—tilapia, sole, mahi… Going forward they envision that a husband could get a panga and his wife and kids could make these handicrafts with what they catch, thus producing a family-owned business. In the meantime, they’re dedicated to finding more outlets for their products and to diversifying their product line.

You can visit the Mujeres Artesanas de la Pesca shop between 9am and 1pm Monday through Saturday. It is located near the embarcadero to Stone Island—the one with the fish market, on the port side of the street right across from the Pemex station. The group’s name is on the sign out front.

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

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