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Unmasking an epidemic
Las Mascaritas raise awareness of violence against women


12/1/2006

Photo/ Steve Mellon, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Liz Tafel-Hurley of Hampton wears a pin titled Fear, which she imports from Mexico for sale in the United States.   (Photo/ Steve Mellon, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
When she first visited her daughter in Mexico, Liz Tafel-Hurley had in mind neither business nor social cause. But as things transpired, one led naturally to the next, and now the Episcopalian from Hampton, Pa., has both: She imports and sells Mexican-made art and raises funds to combat human trafficking and violence against women and girls. And she is trying to enlist her church locally and nationally to help her.

It all began on a family visit to her son-in-law's native Mexico City. The four family members -- Tafel-Hurley, her husband Kevin Hurley, daughter Ellen Tafel and son-in-law Raul Diaz -- did some exploring together.

"Ellen and Raul took us to the artisans they had met in and around Mexico City," Tafel-Hurley said. "We fell in love with the place, the people and their art work."

Already an experienced businesswoman who founded an office support company in the 1960s and still consults with corporate clients, Tafel-Hurley agreed with the young couple that selling Mexican-made wares would be a fun and feasible enterprise.

In 2003, the two couples incorporated Mi Mexico Artesanias -- soon to be known as Corachol Imports -- an online venture selling ceramics, textiles, glass and pewter items made by the artisans they'd met. The imported merchandise is stored in a warehouse, and the business is run out of the Tafel-Hurley townhouse in Hampton.

Among the featured artisans is Rita Resendiz, founder of Las Mujeres Alfareras Tlallicihuatl, or Women Artisans of the Earth. (The name is part Spanish and part Nahuatl, an Aztec dialect.) Las Mujeres is a co-op studio where women members mix the clay and paints, make and decorate the pieces, fire them in the kiln and support their families with the sales.

Faces of victims

On a visit to the studio, Tafel-Hurley noticed some life-size painted ceramic masks of women's faces. "I asked Rita about them, and she said they were to symbolize the missing and murdered women of Juarez." That's when the American learned that violence against women had become epidemic in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

A number of U.S. companies built plants there to take advantage of low-cost Mexican labor after the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then, more than 400 women and girls have been raped and murdered in and around the city of 1.4 million people. Countless more have disappeared, presumably into the underworld of global human trafficking, where they are forced into prostitution or other forms of modern-day slavery.

Mexican authorities were doing little or nothing to solve the murders or protect the female population, so women and human rights groups started a movement to highlight the national scandal of "femicide" in Juarez and nearby Chihuahua, and to demand action.  Resendiz's masks tapped into their sorrow and outrage.

When the artist said she was using proceeds from the masks to help abused women and that she had become an activist on their behalf, Tafel-Hurley said, "I became interested in how we as a business and a family could help her.

"I asked Rita if she could reduce the molds to pin size," she said. "I thought I could sell them at home and use the money to support organizations that are raising awareness of human trafficking and violence against women and girls."

Resendiz agreed, and Las Mascaritas, or "the little masks," were born. The pins are hand-painted with three different faces: Open eyes symbolize shock and fear, tears mean suffering, closed eyes mean death.

Raising awareness

At first, Tafel-Hurley, a member of St. Brendan’s Episcopal Church in Franklin Park,  sold the masks only at the shows she did around town, explaining their significance to browsers. Then she had the idea of contacting Lisa Berg, director of merchandise at Amnesty International USA in New York, which runs an ongoing Stop Violence Against Women campaign. Would Amnesty be interested in selling the little masks as a fund-raising tool?

"I was happy that they were working with a women's co-op in Mexico and with artisans concerned about violence against women," said Berg. "I thought selling the pins would be a good way to raise money for Amnesty, help the artisans have an outlet and an income and get the message out."

With her consciousness piqued, Tafel-Hurley attended a local anti-trafficking workshop and learned that human trafficking is a problem in this country as well as others. "People don't think it's in the U.S., but it is, right under our noses," she said. "Women and girls in America have been kidnapped and taken out of the country, and women and girls from other countries have been brought here.

"It makes you feel so helpless, you wonder what you can do about it. But the women at the workshop said the first step was to raise awareness of the problem. I hope the pins can be a tool for that."

To learn more about the project or to order mascaritas for use as a fund-raiser in your church, contact Tafel-Hurley at 412-487-3868, http://www.corachol.com/. To respond to this story, write to Episcopal Life or e-mail letters@episcopal-life.org.