In Mexico when you meet a friend after a long absence, you say, “Que Milagro,” which means, “What a miracle.” When I first heard this I didn’t understand. “Meeting friends is a miracle?” I soon learned that this greeting, both simple and profound, is a portal into understanding a bit of the mysterious Mexican soul. As we look at the story of how rug hooking came to Mexico, we see that it is nothing short of miraculous.
In the mid-1990s a group of expats in San Miguel de Allende were searching for ways to help local impoverished women. Ted Mclaughlin, a Canadian antiques dealer, suggested rug hooking, perhaps thinking of the success of Grenfell rugs. Little did he know that within fifteen years rug hookers from all over Canada and the United States would be donating carloads of wool and supplies and purchasing those hooked rugs, bringing thousands of dollars a year to the people in the small village of Agustin Gonzales.
Mujeres en Cambio was launched from that conversation. Their purpose was twofold: First, to provide scholarships for girls since public education is not free in Mexico. Second: To teach a profitable craft to rural women, thus increasing their families’ income. Local artist Gerry Gill offered to teach the first rug hooking classes. Pakina Langensheidt, the mayor’s wife, arranged for a classroom, and with this small beginning rug hooking landed in Mexico.
So that you can fully appreciate this project, let me describe the village of Agustin Gonzales. Typical of thousands of villages in Mexico, it is 6500 ft above sea level, fourteen miles from San Miguel de Allende in the central Mexican mountains. The climate is a semi-arid, and the 100 families living in there are subsistence farmers. They grow food to eat, mostly corn, beans, and squash.
A typical day begins with grinding dried corn into masa with a stone matate. The masa is flattened into tortillas, the staple of their diet that is cooked on a fire. Into these tortillas they fold beans and nopal cactus. If the family has goats or chickens, cheese or eggs are added to the tortillas. They don’t have any cash for the extras, like bus money, toilet paper, school expenses, clothing, electricity, and—that most important item—seed for crops. Meat is a luxury, as are doctor and dentist visits, pain medication, first aid materials, and a thousand other things we take for granted.
Most of the women in the group are married and their husbands work as farmers. Some men work in construction in San Miguel de Allende, where they make around $75 to $120 per week. With the current economic crisis, many jobs are gone. Men frequently go to the United States for work to support their families. They often have no choice.
Now we come to rug hooking. Imagine what it must be like for a woman who can decide to stay home with her children to make a rug that will sell for $65. This is a miracle: In one sale, she can earn almost what her husband earns in a week. Imagine now what happens when a woman sells many rugs, or one big rug for $500 US. This is the equivalent of a month’s wages from her husband. Rug hookers in the United States and Canada donated the wool, so her expenses were minimal. Imagine as she enters her small two-room house with its one light bulb and has this kind of money in her hand. I know they pray to their saints for help, but I know they also give thanks to their hooker sisters north of the border who bought their rugs.
Medical issues are the single largest burden for impoverished people. For example, Oralia’s son is in remission for leukemia. Twice yearly they travel by bus to the clinic in Leon, an hour away, for tests. Petra’s husband was handicapped 25 years ago from a spinal injury suffered in a car wreck, so she is the sole supporter for her family. Boni’s brother, who was the farmer of the family, broke his leg and after two years still cannot do the rigorous work of plowing the fields with oxen. In Mexico, if you do not have the money up front for medical treatment you do not receive it. But the miracle of money from rugs sales is saving the day.
The challenge? Continued sales. This is my constant concern. I know these people can continue to make their way in the world without our help—they have lived through some very tough times. But this is a great opportunity for them to have a better life.
The Dream? Currently there are twenty-one rug hookers in the village, but the entire village could become rug hookers. I would love to see more people in their community involved. With more sales and creative ideas for related products, it is possible. Rug hooking could impact the entire community of over 1000 people: Men would not have to go north. Families could stay together.
There must be something about rug hooking that attracts people with big hearts. However, analyzing why this miracle is happening is beyond me. I simply say, “Gracias a Dios.” Thank God for our supporters, for they are making a huge impact on a small village in the middle of Mexico.
For information on how you can be involved contact: Charlotte Bell at 512-447-2150, or www.rughookproject.com