By Melody Mendoza
Twenty two years ago, Petra Mata and more than 1,150 workers were left without jobs after the South Side Levi Strauss factory closed.
“That day, they called us to the middle of the plant and they said they have to close down,” Mata recalled. “There were a lot of new brands in jeans so they said they weren’t selling that much.”
Workers were quickly displaced and weren’t given time to prepare emotionally and economically, she said.
Levi Strauss continued to shift production overseas to cut costs ending in eight more plant closures since the one in 1990. The last two plants in San Antonio closed in 2004, according to a story by Associated Press.
“But we didn’t sit down and cry. We get up and say we need to do something about it,” Mata said.
Since then, Mata and other women are turning their anger into something positive in the development of Fuerza Unida, a sewing cooperative that began from the closure of Levi Strauss.
In the same effort, Fuerza Unida is hosting Trenzando Comunidades, a fashion show fundraiser, to raise money for a bigger facility, Mata said.
“We need more space because we want to create more jobs,” she said.
Mata was one of five women who sat before press Nov. 12 in the “conference area” of Fuerza Unida, which also serves as the kitchen, offices and workspace. The press conference was held to announce the rescheduling of the show, which was cancelled because of inclement weather in September, to 6 p.m. Nov. 17 at Texas A&M-San Antonio.
Esmeralda Baltazar, planning and development coordinator, said Fuerza Unida collaborated with A&M-San Antonio after a long-time desire to establish a relationship with a local four-year university. With the building of Main Campus Building on the South Side and their need for a large space, she said it was the right time.
Baltazar said there are about 10 tickets left. Sponsorship seating on the first two rows are filled with seats ranging from $1,500 to $7,500. General admission seating costs $50 for one ticket and $85 for two tickets.
On the day of the press conference, evidence of seamstresses’ hard work in preparation for the show could be seen all around.
The small building was divided into office spaces, an open area with couches, tables and appliances, and work space hidden with clothes. About four sewing machines in the workspace were crowded by shelves of folded clothes and hanging garments. Guayaberas, a popular Mexican clothing style, were displayed on mannequins.
Employees of Fuerza Unida in conjunction with community leaders of The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative and Acción Texas are not only raising money but have also come together to end injustices like the displacement of Levi workers.
The fashion show will feature denim items by four local designers on 25 volunteer models from the community.
South Side artist and designer Monessa Maria Esquivel spoke of her involvement in the fashion show.
Esquivel’s collection of denim is called La Colección Linaje or Lineage Collection. She said it’s a young line for spring 2013 and uses salvaged Mexican textiles and hand-dyed, stretch denim. Some of her collection includes her hand-drawn work, silkscreened by hand onto the denim.
A graduate of Southwest High School and former student of Palo Alto College, Esquivel has been able to exercise her talents in her childhood neighborhood.
“This was probably the first time I had the opportunity to work in the neighborhood I grew up in,” Esquivel said. “When I found out more about the organization, it was very important to me to give back to my community here.”
Patricia Castillo, executive director of The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative and master of ceremonies for the fashion show, has been a longtime supporter of Fuerza Unida.
She said The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative has supported Fuerza Unida’s work in the community because it is “about helping women, uplifting women, strengthening women’s capacity for supporting themselves and supporting their families.”
She said the initiative works against family violence and helps women in violent relationships.
“So many women stay in a violent relationship because of the lack of opportunity and the lack of skill,” she said, adding that Fuerza Unida offers women an opportunity to get out of violent situation and gain skills.
Castillo said she even supports Fuerza Unida in her personal life because she is humbled to see how the Levi workers who suffered a horrible blow were not set back.
“It did not get them down,” she said. “It strengthened them.”
Castillo also said when her dad was alive, she said she would buy him guayaberas. Castillo was wearing a poncho-like top made by Fuerza Unida seamstresses. The black garment had multicolored threads woven to create bright-colored stripes that contrasted against the black.
Castillo said wearing clothes made by Fuerza Unida is upholding tradition and culture; “the stuff that we want to make sure doesn’t die out. We keep it alive by us wearing it; by us supporting the effort.”
And the effort not only includes making clothes. The sewing cooperative is just one of Fuerza Unida’s programs.
Baltazar said Fuerza Unida has a summer youth leadership program, a food pantry that feeds the community, a community garden that grows home remedies and memberships for adults where community leaders are brought in to talk about local topics like workers rights, housing and financial literacy.
Baltazar said the evening will begin with dinner at 7 p.m. with food by La Familia Moreno Catering and mariachis will play. The show will begin about 9 p.m. on a runway in the courtyard of Main Campus.
And as the women of Fuerza Unida and community members gear up for Saturday’s big event, Mata tries to shake off the nerves.
“It’s a little scary. You don’t know how the city is going to take it,” she said of their designs. “But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”
Even with the injustice she’s experienced — not only in the closing of Levi but in her attempts at following the American dream as a cook, maid and seamstress — Mata said she won’t be quitting any time soon.
“I still have a lot to give,” she said. “My health has been kind of low sometimes, but my mentality and my brain and my ideas and my satisfaction that we can help others is still there.”