Meet Veronica!

Veronica is our main business partner in Taxco, Mexico! 

Veronica with her 14 year old daughter Fernanda. (Veronica's husband works at the local University.)

Veronica with her 14 year old daughter Fernanda. (Veronica's husband works at the local University.)

This is where one can find Veronica between 10am – 7pm almost any day of the week: behind mounds of sterling silver in her shop.  She’s a keen business person.  Not only does she sell her brother Marco’s work, but she has some of her uncle Thomas’ and some silver from various others.  She also has some silver from Italy in her shop and some interesting rocks and stone masks. 

Veronica’s no slouch.  Her first floor silver shop is enduring difficult commercial times.  If I understood correctly, the rent for a shop like Veronica’s is over twice that of a “normal” home that is rented in Taxco.  (This is true for us in our Manhattan store, by the way.  Veronica's store and our store on Poyntz have prime locations which, fairly, call for higher rent.)

I’m a fan of google’s translator.  It has enabled Veronica and me to visit this week and although it’s a little off, we can almost always understand one another.  It’s a communication miracle, I tell you!  Dane is probably extremely thankful that I have google translator too because now he doesn’t have to speak for me :)

Dane and Veronica got along famously. They could understand one another pretty easily and it didn't seem to tire even when we had banking transfer problems.

Dane and Veronica got along famously. They could understand one another pretty easily and it didn't seem to tire even when we had banking transfer problems.

I've longed to understand the financial situation of “regular” folks in Taxco.  Veronica has been kind to share with me some general financial information as we’ve corresponded this week. 

First, the minimum wage in her area of Mexico is less than $5 US dollars a day.  I commented that the minimum wage in the United States isn’t a living wage and wondered what a living wage would be in her area of Mexico.  She complimented my good question (star!) and started going through a typical month of bills.  For a “normal” family of four each month, it costs around $120 for groceries, $77 for living bills, $58 dollars for rent/mortgage.  It costs $88 a year for a younger child’s school uniforms (every school seems to wear uniforms) and $35 for food and transportation each month. If a child does anything extracurricular like Veronica’s daughter Fernanda who takes classes in English, another $80 per 2.5 month session is tacked on to the budget.  Older kids who have to go to a boarding school for what we would call high school have a much larger expense. 

If two people work at minimum wage for a family of four, there is no way the kids would be going to school or that the family would enjoy “normal” living.  Obviously the USA and Mexico share the problem of not paying a living wage as a minimum wage. 

Artisans like Marco get paid by the piece just as they do here.  Some days stretch on when Marco doesn’t have work.  Some days he sits for hours on end working to fulfill an order.  (He’s currently working on an order for us!)  Shop owners like Veronica get paid (or not paid) depending on sales… just like here.
Veronica and Marco have two additional siblings who both live in Chicago and sell the silver Veronica ships to them.  Their silver business is indeed a family business!  Including us at Connected now too… and you if you like beautiful silver jewelry :)

Cheers to market access, fair payment, children who are able to go to school and gorgeous silver!

Meet Marco!

When Dane was in high school, he had the option of taking Spanish or a class in agriculture. Dane was a town kid so the decision was easy – he took Spanish.  This decision is one for which I’ve been very thankful!  Decades later, I’m still reaping the benefits of Dane learning Spanish.

For instance, Dane could take us around Taxco, Mexico, and ask good questions about the makers of the silver products we were swooning over.  Because he was able to communicate with people pretty easily, we knew who we did not want to work with (those who had reliable market access already) and were able to sleuth out those with whom we are delighted to partner… like Marco!

This is Marco, his wife Adriana, and their three cuties: Kenya (14), Uriel (9) and Misrain (five months:).

Marco has been making beautiful things out of sterling silver since he was nine years old. Around that time, he stopped going to school and honed his silver skills with his father who learned from his father who learned from his father.  

Sterling silver is the only game in Taxco.  It is known as the “sterling silver capitol of the world” even by people other than themselves.  They have loads of silver in this region and thanks to a few folks leading the way, they mine the resource and work with it beautifully.

Marco graciously took Dane and me to his home where he has his workshop.  We followed him to his roof where he commented with heartfelt pride that his city is beautiful.  We agreed.  With a sweep of his arm, he told us that half of the homes before us were like his: dwellings and workshops.  He was not exaggerating.  

Many, many people are talented with silver in Taxco.  We were lucky to find Marco through his sister-in-law who works at the hotel where we were guests.  Marco’s sister Veronica owns a shop that sells Marco’s work as well as others like her Uncle Thomas.  (I’ll write about Veronica and Thomas soon:)
The value of Mexico’s peso has dropped in value over the last three or so years.  I need to read more about what all has happened to make this be a critical time, but it seems as though crude oil consumption and price, the health of China in trade, and the election of President Trump and his new administration’s rhetoric and direction have made the peso lose ground in relation to inflation.  Whatever all the reasons, the current state of economic stability in Taxco is clear: resources are scarce.  

Taxco relies on tourism and September is a rainy month.  Many said it feels colder in September in this mountainous region than in December because of the daily rains.  Our hunch is that violence, or the perception of violence, is impacting tourism in general also.  

Silver, in Taxco at least, stays at a pretty consistent price.  It doesn’t matter how much worth the peso loses, silver remains relatively steady.  This is bad news for local silversmiths.  When we visited Marco last week, he didn’t have any silver with which to work because sales were down.  He hadn’t had any raw material for some time.  

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Sweet 14 year old Kenya goes to school from 7am – 1pm.  She does well in school and would like to go to something equivalent to our high school next year, but it would be a boarding school in a town over an hour away.  She aspires to be a doctor which will mean another step to the University after her three years in boarding school.  Uriel seems to be a creative and fun kid who might be considering working with silver himself.  The baby, well, the baby was just precious.  I’d gladly hold this little sweet-pea any day!

We feel fortunate to find Marco.  He is a talented and dedicated artisan.  We are also glad to find him because we believe in education and hope that our purchases help his kids get to do what they aspire to do.  May it be so!  We’ll sure try our best!

Tickets... Passport... We're on our way!

Although I would have liked to have gotten our new website launched by now, I’m glad for this one and only reason that it’s not ready: I can share this rather unusual happening here.

We connect with producers through 50+ Fair Trade companies currently.  Although ordering from each is different, we order specific products in specific quantities so weren’t not usually surprised when we open boxes.  Sometimes colors or sizing are different from what we expect, but we know who made the products and have an idea of what they will be like.

The Wednesday before last, Carri messaged me and was excited about some of the new jewelry that had arrived.  She was surprised that there were some things made by a different company included.  I went into panic mode.

You see, one of the companies that I have loved buying from for years, and have repeatedly spoken of as an exemplar for how Fair Trade can function beautifully, made a move months ago to join with a company that is not a part of the Fair Trade movement.  They, however, are continuing on with their own producer group and were welcomed into the World Fair Trade Organization that has slightly different criteria than our North American Fair Trade Federation. The company’s representative and I visited on the phone and through email and I felt comfortable continuing to buy from them.  They have done and continue to do a great job with their producers!  There was no reason to worry.  

When Carri said that there were products from the new parent company in our box of Fair Trade, I started freaking out.  I scrambled to a computer to see if I had missed something on the company’s website and had just ordered poorly.  Nope.  Nothing noted what products were made by the other company.  Then I started searching for the indication that they are still a part of the Fair Trade movement and realized that they are not. 

Did I mention that we LOVE the products from these makers?  

I called again and now have learned that the new parent company’s jewelry is going to be sold on the same site as our beloved group’s jewelry.  Those pieces are made in a factory in Thailand that is ran by “a really good guy” and he even has child care available on their premises...

Now, I’m not doubting that this chap is a really good guy.  The parent company has excellent charitable practices so I hope they are good to their producing partners.  But I’m cynical.  This man lives in a developing country.  Business is hard enough in a stable country!  What if he gets in a bad spot?  When people become desperate, they do things they might not normally do.  His group is not a part of a Fair Trade system and what it boils down to is that I trust systems.  I want a reputable system in place just in case something happens and a business chooses to not follow the best labor practices.  

We at Connected are ONLY retailers to ensure that people who are marginalized for whatever reasons have a way out of poverty.  We want to provide an ongoing market so that they can have as much stability and upward movement as possible.  We don’t want to have shelves with pretty jewelry that we can’t say with as much certainty as absolutely possible that the producers were paid well, treated well and have an ongoing way to keep selling their goods in this model.  Fair Trade is what we are all about.  If this wasn’t the case, I’d just be substitute preaching and our house would likely be a lot cleaner.  

Dane speaks Spanish well, thank goodness. He's filling out our paperwork while I lollygag... I think this is a foreshadowing of the entire trip that is before us :)

Dane speaks Spanish well, thank goodness. He's filling out our paperwork while I lollygag... I think this is a foreshadowing of the entire trip that is before us :)

So, eleven days after that initial message from Carri, Dane and I are currently flying into the heart of Mexico.  We will land in twenty minutes, take a public bus down to Taxco to try to develop our own connection with a family group who can make classic styles of beautiful silver jewelry.  We won’t have all the fun designs anymore probably, but that’s a loss I’m willing to accept if it means we can be confident about the labor behind the jewelry.   

We could definitely fail!  I’m not an importer.  I’m just a retailer, so this might not work.  We’re willing to give it a shot though.  And, I’m delighted to have five days with my husband.  We’re feeling quite privileged to spontaneously go on this adventure.

We’ll have internet access while we are in Taxco, we’re told.  It may or may not be functional all the time.  ;) If we are able, we’ll post through our social media sites while we are away.  Perhaps we can take this journey together!  I hope so.  I also hope you have a good week wherever you are, friends!  Thanks for reading this wordy post!!

**Special thanks to my Mom & Dad for allowing our boys to stay with them, my sister who is lending a hand, and Kyle with Sara Blackburn who is nannying for us when the boys go back to school.

Amazing Friends of Amazing Friends

Fair Trade brings like minded people around the world together.  Sometimes it is through the short business chain of producers, importing partners and retailers.  Sometimes, as in this case, it is through friends of friends of friends.  

When we first moved back to Kansas almost four years ago I was told by numerous people that I should meet Summer Lewis.  Summer is from Manhattan, Kansas, and that anyone would think we are alike is a major complement to me.  She has worked for Equal Exchange, the Asian University for Women and is now a consultant on international development projects, with a focus on coffee and gender.  She's lived more than half her life abroad and currently resides in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Check out her consulting company for a major boost.

From our friends in common, Summer and I became facebook friends.  She kindly shared something about our store and one of her friends from her time at the Asian University for Women took note.  Summer introduced us; one in Kansas and the other in Bangladesh.

I have never met Summer or our now common friend Azmina Karim in person, but I know that I admire and respect these ladies.  They are each talented go-getters, I tell you.  

Azmina speaking at Harvard University with Connecther.  Harvard is connected with the Film Festival.   

Azmina speaking at Harvard University with Connecther.  Harvard is connected with the Film Festival.   

Azmina works as a program director for Connecther which is an organization focused on projects by and for women in oppressed places.  This is not a post about Fair Trade, actually, but about a woman who is empowering other women in the same places where many of our products originate.
Azmina’s English is amazing as you can read for yourself in this blog post that she has shared with us.  

Enjoy, friends, and thanks for being interested in what we find compelling ~ Amy Kay

Every single time I have attended a photo exhibition or art exhibition or film fest, I remember my utmost desperation to find a female name underneath the photo credit or the artwork. Visual art is a highly flexible tool that crosses cultural and linguistic barriers, and can be adapted to all abilities. Its power lies in its dual role as both art form and way to record facts. Despite such advantages women in our society do not have much of an access to describe realities, communicate perspectives, and raise awareness of social and global issues. 

Performance art is predominantly male dominated in a society like ours. Why wont it be like that? In a society where, there was an urge to reduce the age limit to marry off girls, girls do not have freedom and resources to get education or they usually don’t have a voice in the society, it is a dream to think women can come to this field. A field which is open to curve your own path. I cannot stop myself from imagining a society where we get to hear women telling us story about our culture, society, reporting us back on whats happening around them.

It is not too difficult to imagine that, especially when you see so much untapped potential around you.  A vision of a world in which everybody has the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story led me inspired to start of this fundraising.

Since 2013 as I started working closely with Connecther, every year I have witnessed and watched some incredibly well captured films. These films capture how women’s life is affected by war, urges of girls who wants to continue their education despite all the hardship they have to go through, the concept of beauty in girls eye, how sports can empower women, lives of sex workers working in brothel in Bangladesh (shared here).

A film focusing on the difficulties of street based sex workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, produced by a student from Asian University for Women.

When you see such powerful representation of storylines and stories, you must be thinking what is stopping these stories to come out, why don’t we get to see or hear it more often that this.

One answer is lack of resources and accessibility of these resources by girls in our society to enhance and nurture their skills. Past few months I have been relentlessly working to reach out to people so we can raise some money to buy few cameras to give out to the students of Asian University for Women to assist the students make more wonderful films. These films made by our students portray issues like gender discrimination, violence against women, child rights, achievement of women, women empowerment and many more such crucial matters. 

The Asian University for Women is an institution founded with a mission to provide an internationally recognized undergraduate program for women. The institution is geared towards empowering the new generation to strive towards higher education, and seeks to create critical thinkers who will be passionate and committed to their country and people.

Students eagerly learning in their film making class.

Students eagerly learning in their film making class.

Currently, there is a high level of interest by students at AUW in film studies. In particular, many students are passionate about using filmmaking and photography to bring to light social issues. These projects would allow students to work on films that deal with issues of social and environmental concern around the world and to use the opportunity to share their ideas and innovations.These films and photographs portray real life stories and scenarios of Asian region.

With your help we can reach to people overseas and make them aware of the issues and achievements of Asian women and at the same time would be able to reach our cause of support these talented young women. 

Your one initiative may lead to raising awareness and helping these young women to achieve something greater. Currently, I am working to raise $300 so we can reach our goal of buying two camera by the end of May, to have those equipments up for grab and let student work during summer. Please join us in this great initiative. 

~Azmina Karim studied at the University for Peace for a masters in Gender and Peace Building.  She has three sisters, six nieces and nephews, and parents whom she loves.