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.

Homemade Mobile Home

img_7509UPDATE 2 FEBRUARY:
Greg and I took Octavio to the doctor’s appointment that DIF had arranged. That doctor ordered an x-ray of his leg and gave him two boxes of pain medication. DIF wants to enroll Octavio in Seguro Popular, so he can get insurance and, thus, get care. However, he does not know his birthday, and it will take weeks to get a birth certificate and get him registered. Greg and I therefore offered to take Octavio to get the x-ray done, just so he could know his options and not have to wait so long. He will still get his birth certificate and register with Seguro Popular. The x-ray doctor recommended no surgery be done as all was healed, but said Octavio needs an insert in his shoes so he can walk better. He also needs a good cane, if any of you have one. We then took him to get the insert, but were told he needed a prescription from an orthopedic. One happened to be next door, so we took Octavio there. That doctor agreed that no surgery should be done. We will pick up the inserts today, and have a gently used pair of shoes for Octavio as well. We are hoping DIF will get him the medicines he needs and the inserts on an ongoing basis (every four months). I am hoping the kind ladies from Ojalá who so graciously offered to help might pay for the care he received yesterday; I’ll submit receipts to them. If you have a job that Octavio could do for you: painting, garden clean up, etc., he is very eager to work.

UPDATE 31 JANUARY:
I was able to get DIF involved. Dorita came out to interview Octavio, take photos, and approve him for a medical exam. They confirmed he is of sound mind, not on drugs or alcohol, and wants to get his life back. Greg and I will take him tomorrow and hopefully we can proceed towards treatment. Octavio will need official identification, which he does not have. That starts with a birth certificate, from Durango. So, after visiting the doctor, we will head to the Unidad Administrativa. A group of ladies from Ojalá has kindly offered to help with at least some of the medical expenses, depending on what they are. Please keep your fingers crossed!

This morning I drove past an amazing sight—a bright yellow and red metal box, supported by cement block and the wheels from a wheelchair, which very much looked to me to be someone’s home. It had an angel hanging in the window, was made from recycled materials, and stood out to me for its ingenuity and joy. I called out hoping to find the owner, but no one answered.

The thought of who lived there haunted me all day, so this evening I decided to go back for a visit. Greg and I took some soda and water, as well as some money. Sure enough, there were two people there this time around. Could a couple be living in that homemade mobile home?

No. The owner, creator and resident of this practical beauty was the man, Octavio Castillo Silva. We found him intelligent, well-spoken and open to talking with us. We were told the lady with him, Martha, does not live there. She was a very different sort of person.

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Octavio Castillo Silva

Octavio comes from a rancho in Durango state. He came to Mazatlán in 2006 with four of his ten siblings. He tells us he loves it here, and was doing fine until two years ago when he was hit by a car. After the accident he spent eight days in the hospital, but couldn’t afford the surgery required to fix his leg. He showed us scars on his head and a misshapen left ankle wrapped in an Ace bandage. The leg looked very painful, and Octavio walks with a pronounced limp. He gets around with a cane that he has made out of recycled material.

Unlike many who are down on their luck, Octavio did not complain. He asked us for nothing. He told us he’s lived in his mobile home on the property behind Torre Azul and Banjercito for about two years. The owner has given him permission to stay there in exchange for cleaning up the lot. Octavio is excited because he also has permission to park cars there during Carnavál, and split the proceeds with the owners.

He explained that since the accident he has not had enough money to rent a room. He finds it difficult to find a job due to his injury. To get by, he collects recyclable material. He’s so enterprising that he assembled his home entirely out of recycled wood, plastic, metal and canvas. He is very proud that the walls are well-insulated: three layers thick, with four windows on either side. Octavio told us he stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer. When the cars drive by there’s a nice breeze. The roof of his home has both plaster and two layers of lona/canvas. He used the parts from a wheelchair to make his home movable. He bathes in the corner of his home, and has a makeshift mattress down the center.

Octavio sleeps during the day so that he can go out collecting recyclables at night. The trouble is, while he’s gone people steal his things. So, he’s taken to locking everything inside his shelter. He even locks himself inside while he sleeps, because he’s had trouble with “rateros.” He proudly unlocked his home to show us the inside, which he has appointed with care. Click on any photo to enlarge it or to view a slideshow.

Octavio would love to work for a living wage. Might you know someone who needs a security guard? Or who would donate medical assistance? Perhaps one of our readers is a surgeon who would donate her/his services, or would pay a surgeon to mend Octavio’s leg?  Here is a short video we recorded:

If you’d like to help Octavio out in a smaller way, I’m sure he could use food and drink. He’s made an outdoor kitchen for himself. When I asked him if he wanted anything, he said no, things just get stolen.

I will make sure that DIF knows about Octavio, and I plan to talk to my doctor to see if he might help him. We will keep him in our prayers and take him any leftovers from now on. God bless this creative, optimistic, hard-working soul! And thank you for your help.

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UPDATE 31 JANUARY:
I was able to get DIF involved. Dorita came out to interview Octavio, take photos, and approve him for a medical exam. Greg and I will take him tomorrow and hopefully we can proceed towards treatment. Octavio will need official identification, which he does not have. That starts with a birth certificate, from Durango. So, after visiting the doctor, we will head to the Unidad Administrativa. A group of ladies from Ojalá has kindly offered to help with at least some of the medical expenses, depending on what they are. Please keep your fingers crossed!