Empowering Female Workers

Former garment workers support a sewing cooperative through a nonprofit organization

En español | Emotions churn and tears spill down Petra Mata’s face — just as they did 20 years ago when, without warning, she lost her job at the Levi Strauss & Co. factory. Nonetheless, she continues narrating her story. Now 64, she’s accustomed to the sorrow inherent in her success.

Mata, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, converted rage and sadness into moxie, transforming herself into more than a former U.S. garment worker who lost a job to lower-paid labor abroad. In 1990, she and a handful of other laid-off Levi Strauss workers in San Antonio established Fuerza Unida, and they’ve spent the past two decades making it stronger. The nonprofit organization supports a sewing cooperative, food pantry and learning center as well as community marches and protests. It empowers women, Latinos and an entire community.

“They picked themselves up by their bootstraps and said, ‘Let’s make the best of this.’ And they did,” says Eva Trevino Garcia, project director of the AARP Foundation’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which directs seniors to Fuerza Unida for assistance. “They created an organization that really puts itself out there for people.”

Petra Mata

Petra Mata Stewart Cohen

Mata’s role as Fuerza Unida’s executive director stands in stark contrast to her work at the plant, where she earned $9.73 an hour as a seamstress.

And not just for Texans. After Arizona passed a law allowing police to ask anyone who has been stopped, detained or arrested to produce identification papers, Mata and other San Antonio activists marched to protest the law, which they say could lead to racial profiling. (Parts of the new law have now been blocked by a federal judge.)

Mata’s role as Fuerza Unida’s executive director stands in stark contrast to her work at the plant, where she earned $9.73 an hour as a seamstress. “It was the best job I had ever had. Losing it was like losing the world,” she says. “But I found that this loss brought me into a new world.” When she and the others learned of the layoffs, she says, “it was like a death in the family.”

When the plant closed in 1990, some 1,150 seamstresses were left without jobs — jobs that had allowed many to taste middle-class life despite having only an elementary school education and limited English skills. Salaries paid for houses, cars and furniture. “We had a lot of confidence in the company,” Mata says. “When they told us they were shutting down the factory, we felt defrauded and betrayed.”

Job loss often led to family crises, foreclosures and divorce. But for some, it also ushered in rapid personal transformation.

“I never thought I could do what I do right now,” says Viola Casares, 66, Fuerza Unida’s program coordinator. “I have only a sixth-grade education. At Levi’s, I didn’t get involved in anything. The plant closure opened our eyes.”

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