When Maria Conchita Pozar González talks about her hometown of Ocumicho, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, she does so with affection—and a particular fondness for the local clothing.
“In my town, everyone walks around wearing bright, embroidered clothes and dresses,” she told me in Spanish, pointing to her own bright teal blouse and the intricately woven flowers on her apron. “It is a small town, so everyone knows everyone. It is a beautiful place.”
Ocumicho is home to the Tarasco, indigenous people from northwestern Michoacán who are more commonly referred to as Purépecha (which is actually the name of the endangered language they speak).
When Pozar left her home ten years ago, at the age of 17, she came to California and settled—as Purépecha migrants increasingly have— in the small town of North Shore, an unincorporated community abutting the Salton Sea on the southeastern edge of the Coachella Valley.
Her immigration story is familiar. Like millions of others, Pozar left her country in search of a better life, a task that seemed insurmountable in Ocumicho, where traditional tejido (embroidery)—a craft over 700 years old—is the primary export and source of income for locals.
“It is hard to make a living in Ocumicho,” said Pozar. “Everyone knows who the best dressmaker is, so everyone goes to them. That dressmaker can have a waiting list up to one year long, leaving no room for the rest of us.”
Now 3,000 miles from her childhood home, Pozar has room to practice her craft, and is even being recognized in her new community for it. Pozar and her mother, Natividad González Morales, are at the forefront of an effort to preserve the ancient art of tejido—and with it, Purépecha culture and tradition—in this remote desert region of California.
Numerically, the Purépecha are a minority within a minority in the United States: while there are around 200,000 Mixtecos (another indigenous group native to Oaxaca, Mexico) in California, there are only about 200,000 Purepecha left in the entire world.
An estimated 2,000 Purépecha now live in the eastern Coachella Valley, which stretches from the City of Coachella to the Salton Sea, and they are drawn mainly by the prospect of work. Agriculture is, by far, the main industry here—the Coachella Valley is the fifth largest producer of agricultural goods in the nation—and most Purépecha earn their living in the fields.
Last year, Pozar and her mother González were selected by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) to represent their community in an apprenticeship, which made it easier for González (who was visiting her home state and unavailable for comment) to spend more time teaching Pozar, further deepening her knowledge and technique of la aguja maravillosa (the magical needle).
A grant from ACTA also allowed Gonzalez and Pozar to host a series of workshops at their homes, free of charge and open to the community. The first wave of workshops were so popular—40 women packed their homes for each class—that they expanded to a second series.
“Natividad and her daughter Maria Conchita are what we call cultural treasures,” said Russell Rodriguez, a Program Manager with ACTA. “Women like them are not only central to culture in their [new] immigrant communities, they are carriers of ancient knowledge. What was really exciting is that they also managed to create a sense of belonging and purpose for so many others. When people can gather, and there is food that they know, and they hear sounds and music that you know, it can really be a powerful thing.”
Despite the fact that more than 90% of eastern Coachella Valley residents are Latino, Purépecha migrants here experience a fair amount of discrimination, not unlike the way indigenous people experience racism and discrimination back home in Mexico. As a case in point, most Purépecha won’t be seen in public wearing their traditional embroidered clothing, to avoid being singled out.
That shared experience is what made the tejido workshops all the more meaningful. It wasn’t just a space where community members could learn traditional weaving or clay-figurine art—it was a place to talk, openly and safely, with other Purépecha.
“What we couldn't have guessed is the solidarity and unification around community issues that resulted,” said Pozar, a slight woman and mother of a 6-year-old.
Every Friday for a year, she said, the workshops would begin with typical pleasantries and jokes. (In Purepecha tradition, the student learns to train their needle how to embroider. Every time a pupil made a mistake, they joked that their needle was at fault. “It is of the utmost importance that you care for your needle. It is the heart of your tejido. If you drop it or bend it in any way, you must start over, and teach and train its replacement,” warned Pozar.)
Week after week, the women—most of them mothers in their 30’s, with school-age children—came together to learn. And just as a garden of embroidered flowers began to spring up around the workshop, their conversations took a turn: The women began to talk to each other about the racism they experienced in their community; about how they dared not wear their traditional dress in public, save for special occasions, like family weddings; about how their children cram into overcrowded school buses with no air conditioning, on dangerously hot days in the Coachella Valley, only to arrive at even-more-crowded classrooms.
“These workshops were so important to the women. They provided a space to get together and relax in a safe environment and to de-stress from the week,” said Erika Ramirez Mayoral, a facilitator and community liasion between ACTA and the women in North Shore. “All the women felt like they were learning and participating in something beyond the art. It truly was beautiful community building, in its rawest sense. Everyone became friends and relationships were strengthened between neighbors and community members. It made us accountable to each other.”
Encouraged by one another, tejido workshop participants started attending school district meetings, and becoming more civically engaged. They started dreaming and creating a vision for North Shore, one that included things that most people take for granted: sidewalks, speed bumps, a park big enough for more than one family to play in after the sun goes down (their current park has no electricity), and a school.
The workshops were funded largely by ACTA, which provided the materials and snacks for workshop participants. When the grant ended, so too did the materials needed to sustain the workshops.
“I loved attending the workshops with my familia and being in the presence of a strong hermandad (sisterhood). But what I loved the most was seeing my mom light up and share her true self with the other mujeres (women) in the group,” said Triny Rios, 25, a graduate student and lifelong resident of the Coachella Valley. “[It] was a one-of-a-kind space. Seeing my mamá so grounded and with a sense of purpose is what makes workshops like these so needed and important. I wish they would never end.”
Whatever the future holds for the tejido workshops, Pozar expects the civic participation and community organizing it sparked in North Shore to last. For her part, Pozar is encouraging local Purépecha women to take the long view.
“My best advice is to start now—to get involved now. Because change seems to happen every 3-5 years,” said Pozar. “It took North Shore that long to get a bus route. Imagine how long the school district has to hear our voices before they give our children AC instead of WiFi on their 15 minute commute to school? These are basic human needs, and we deserve to be heard.”
To learn more about ACTA’s Master Class Program, or to donate, visit www.actaonline.org.
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be HeardJournalism Fellowship.
Esperanza Mendez is a blogger and community advocate in Coachella, CA.