AMEALCO, Mexico, May 9, 2011 (IPS) - Reina Pérez, an Otomi indigenous craftswoman in the central Mexican state of Querétaro, skilfully embroiders "grecas" or traditional design motifs in threads of many colours, on fabrics that will be used to make dresses, skirts and blouses.

"A piece of embroidery work can take me a week to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the order. A tablecloth or a set of place mats may take longer," the 37-year-old woman told IPS at her home in Yosphí, a village of approximately 1,000 people in the municipality of Amealco, 200 kilometres north of Mexico City.

Pérez, who learned the art of Otomi textile embroidery from her mother and grandmother, is one of 820 native craftswomen from 18 Querétaro municipalities who take part in a project named "MäKA", which means "holy" in the Otomi and Ñähñu languages.

The project was launched in August 2010 by the government's System for Comprehensive Family Development (DIF) in Querétaro state, which runs eight programmes including "QuéArte", under which MäKA was founded.

The clothing line created by designer Alejandro Medina and the native embroiderers has already been presented at fashion shows, with their second collection of 440 garments made of linen and a very lightweight, fine-woven gabardine being modelled with great success at Fashion Week Mexico, the country's biggest fashion show, in November 2010.

Carolina García, the coordinator of "Qué-Arte", told IPS: "The craftswomen were making napkins or blouses, and we thought of ways of helping them earn a steady income."

At first the project consisted of 40 craftswomen. The participants receive a monthly package of materials with the cloth, thread, and the design to be embroidered.

DIF workers take the orders and materials to the craftswomen's villages, and the embroidered cloth pieces are sold to DIF's three stores at prices of between 12 and 37 dollars each. MäKA is a not-for-profit association, and the income is reinvested in purchasing materials, expanding the project and including more craftswomen.

Clothing items are finished at a workshop, also belonging to DIF, where the garments are assembled by another 14 women.

MäKA's goal is to provide the women with secure jobs, good working conditions and fair pay, with the added benefit of being able to work from home and continue to care for their children.

The indigenous population is variously estimated to make up between 12 and 30 percent of Mexico's 112 million people (the smaller, official, estimate is based on the number of people who actually speak an indigenous language).The rest of the population is mainly of mixed Amerindian and Spanish ancestry.

The 62 native ethnic groups in the country suffer discrimination, marginalisation, and high unemployment and poverty rates, and indigenous women are disproportionately affected, according to the 2010 National Survey on Discrimination.

According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, about 60,000 Amerindians live in the state of Querétaro, belonging to the Otomi, Chichimeca, Pame, Jonace and Ximpece peoples. Their main occupations are growing maize and beans, and craft work.

Rosa Andrés, a 57-year-old craftswoman, told IPS: "I think I'll finish this piece in two days. Now that they bring us the materials, we don't have to pay for bus tickets. They said they would bring us the new packages this week," she said as she put on her glasses and began to embroider.

Andrés has four sons and two daughters, one of whom is also working with the MäKA project.

The payment each craftswoman receives from DIF depends on the amount of work she produces, but the average is 25 dollars a month. The women make extra income filling orders from the Casa Queretana de las Artesanías, a state-run store selling arts and crafts from all over Querétaro, and from private buyers.

The Otomi women tack the outlines of their people's unique and delicate ancestral designs, passed down from generation to generation, onto the fabric, and then embroider them in colourful cross-stitch. Pérez said, "The MäKA project values our embroidery, and our stitching skills have improved, especially among the younger women."

In an area where a large proportion of men leave to find work in large cities or in the United States, and where alcoholism and gender-based violence are all too common, the project seeks to guarantee economic self-sufficiency for women, as a first step to independence.

Pérez calls the craftswomen together when the packages and orders arrive, and they all meet again later to deliver the work, a simple form of self-organisation. "We all feel better than we used to, those of us who used to work at embroidery and those who did not. Now there are advantages for ourselves and for our families," she said.

Before the project got under way, every craftswoman produced and sold her work individually, usually on street corners in the city of Querétaro, the state capital, where the police would move them on and confiscate their merchandise. "Now we are safer: we can work at home, look after our family, and we save on all the previous expenses," Andrés said.

There are some 6.8 million craftworkers in Mexico, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). They face difficulties in financing, tax incentives, marketing and distribution.

Eduardo Maurín, head of Expo Home Artesanal, a platform to promote the crafts business, told IPS: "We believe there is a great deal of talent among the artisans, but not much in the way of support and few places where they can showcase their crafts and make contact with local and foreign buyers." The organisation holds an annual crafts fair in the northwestern city of Guadalajara.

To overcome these problems, a bill on promoting crafts making before the Mexican Congress includes the creation of a Mexican Crafts Institute (IMART) and a parliamentary commission to monitor policies in this sector.

The National Fund for the Promotion of Crafts (FONART), an agency of the Secretariat (ministry) of Social Development, is also planning to expand its virtual store to facilitate the showcasing of creative arts and crafts on the internet.

MäKA is planning to take its line of clothing to the United States and Portugal, where potential buyers are interested in its products. DIF is already working on the paperwork required for exporting the goods.

"The project has been successful. The craftswomen are seeing results, and they have learned a great deal," said García, who highlighted the fact that the women "are able to preserve their essential dignity, continue to look after their families, and achieve economic independence."

MäKA is considering branching out into jewellery design, taking advantage of the wealth of stones like opals, onyx and marble in Querétaro state. The first stage would be to make earrings, necklaces and bracelets. The craftswomen would design and execute the decorations.

"We don't know if we will be given jewellery work; there are a lot of other people who also need the project's help," said Pérez, who has three daughters and a son, and whose husband has practically lost his sight because of a detached retina, leaving her as the family's sole breadwinner.

"We could never have imagined that our work would be distributed and sold in so many faraway places," Andrés said with pride and a smile, never dropping a stitch of her embroidery.

IPS