The seamstresses of Fuerza Unida gather in their sewing cooperative center.

The seamstresses of Fuerza Unida gather in their sewing cooperative center. (Photo Courtesy by Esmeralda Baltazar )

Former Levi’s workers create own line, with a social justice spin

When the Levi Strauss jeans manufacturing plant in San Antonio closed down in 1990, more than 1100 workers were left to find a new job. Some found low-wage work in the hotel industry, others had to take on two jobs just to make ends meet. But two of the plant’s former workers, Petra Mata and Viola Caseres, turned their misfortune into opportunity.

Mata and Caseres decided to start start turning the tide toward social justice by starting their own local denim fashion line called El Hilo de Justicia, which translated into English means the “thread of justice.”  Today, the group celebrates a dream come true:  their very own home-grown jeans label that empowers women. The sewing cooperative is part of a larger community empowerment organization called Fuerza Unida, that runs several other social justice initiatives such as environmental and economic programs.

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“When Levi’s closed, we were scared because we didn’t know what to do. All the practice we had was in making jeans,” Mata says. “We had a dream that one day we would come out with our own jeans. We had the material and the ideas and so we started making samples.”

Viola Caseres (left) and Petra Mata (right) back in 1990 after the Levi's factory closed down. (Photo Courtesy by Esmeralda Baltazar)

Viola Caseres (left) and Petra Mata (right) back in 1990 after the Levi’s factory closed down. (Photo Courtesy by Esmeralda Baltazar)

The idea of putting a social justice spin on their jeans line was born out of what the women say are tough conditions in the garment industry.

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“You have to think about where the jeans are coming from and have a conscience about what the workers want and need,” says Mata.

After years in the making, the sewing cooperative officially unveiled its Jeans for Justice line at a  fashion show last September. The gala, which was attended by 350 people, showcased the hand-crafted jeans with some of the displaced Levi’s workers and their daughters and granddaughters modeling the clothes. It also helped serve as a fundraiser so that the Fuerza Unida seamstresses could get better equipment and move into a larger space by 2014.

“We invited everyone in San Antonio to come,” Mata recalls.

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The group of seamstresses at Fuerza Unida started out as a handful of original craftswomen with some of their granddaughters. But as the word spread more people were eager to help out. According to Caseres, although there are only three women who make jeans day in and day out, there are many volunteers who work with the group.

One of the seamstresses works at Fuerza Unida. (Photo Courtesy by Esmeralda Baltazar)

One of the seamstresses works at Fuerza Unida. (Photo Courtesy by Esmeralda Baltazar)

The community has helped out in more ways than just making the jeans. After attending the fashion show, a group of students from a nearby college were interested in helping with the business side of the initiative.

“After the fashion show people were very interested to see what we were doing. Now we have a group of students doing the marketing and trying to help us research the places where we can sell it,” Mata says.

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Although Mata and Caseres say it can be hard to compete with bigger and more well-established jean brands, the true differentiating factor is their focus on justice and hand-tailored clothing. Caseres says that their products have been well received in the community. Caseres has heard feedback from many women think that the Jeans for Justice brand is truly unique and weaves together an affordable price tag and fair practice with a style that is tailored to fit the Latina body. The Hilo de Justicia cooperative sold 15 pairs of jeans in the month of April alone.

“We see a lot of older women coming to get the jeans because they fit well and it something that’s comfortable. Women over forty really wanted jeans that fit right and to their body,” Caseres says.

The women of El Hilo may have had early successes, but they haven’t stopped looking toward the future. They eventually want to sell their products online, expand to other cities, and add more full time workers.

“It’s difficult, it’s not easy to raise money. But I think together, all of us, we can do it and maybe take it to another city,” Mata says.

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