Cooperative Free Men And Women

Claudio Castaño from the Cooperative Hombres y Mujeres Libres (Free men and women): “If we do not help each other, nobody will”.

By Carlos Noro  / Fotografía: Jorge Sebastián Noro. Corpus Comunicación y Diseño Audiovisual. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The history of Hombres y Mujeres Libres is closely connected to the identity of Claudio Castano, one of its founders, who politely sat down with us to discuss the past, present and future of this textile-oriented cooperative which operates from the headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Sentimiento (Mutual Feeling Association), located in the Chacarita neighbourhood in the autonomous city of Buenos Aires.

Claudio, alongside his wife Veronica Pelozo and a further six associates (Marcelo Garcia, Marta Alvarez, Diego Areco, Walter Silvia and the brothers Lucas and Lorenzo Monasterio), have been in the area for seven years, beginning projects related with production as much as on the integration of people who have been deprived of their freedom. Perhaps this is why he becomes moved as he recollects the origin of the cooperative’s name. “I did not know I was going to be free again and was there for the birth of my son. We had already agreed on the name Tahiel, which means “free man” in the Mapuche language,” he explains. “When I recovered my freedom at the first meeting we began to think about a name and the first that arose was “Cooperativa Hombre Libre”, “cooperative free man”. A lady added “free men and women” and it stayed there as the final name, connected in some ways to my son’s story,” he continues. “Here we feel free. It’s part of our lives. We know what we want and where we are going,” he concludes, moving on to the dialogue section of the interview.

Do you remember the first time you thought of forming a cooperative?

It was when we were still with Marcelo (Garcia) at the Marcos Paz prison. I can’t forget that moment. We had expressed it to the General Director of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the first response was negative. They said: “not in here”. Marcelo even motivated himself to suggest a form of work in which our families could be associates of the cooperative from the outside. We did not get a positive response, but that was the beginning of everything.

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How did the idea start gaining a concrete shape?

That idea began to transform. What we had was a clear objective: we wanted to do something specific when we became free again, largely because we knew it would be impossible to find work. On the other hand each of us was already anticipating a radical change which implied a load of things. One of those important things which we needed was to know that outside there would be employment opportunities for us. It was our way of starting to build something different.

How did you discover cooperativism in the context of imprisonment?

It had to do with the academic training we received in there. Without going through university in prison, particularly the UBA22 program, it would have been complicated to get where we are today. Upon learning more about the subject we got hooked and looked at a context (the situation seven years ago) where this could be offered because it had value. This was the first step. I believe that if we had not had that opportunity it would have been complicated to start up a self-managed project like this.

Once you regained your freedom, how did you organize yourselves within the cooperative?

From there it was getting to know our day to day. We all began to get used to having a particular role in the physical space of the cooperative and beginning to add what we could. For example, we asked ourselves who is better at cutting, pressing and stamping, who can handle papers, between other things, thousands of things, which daily work requires. When you get the ball rolling you realize the radical difference compared to being under a boss’s orders. Although it is clear that some lend themselves better to one task and not others, the difference is that we respect each other. We are considerate towards each other, when they are unwell or having a hard time. Obviously it doesn’t always go well for us. There are times when there is no production and we find a way of subsisting. Beyond all this we carry on together. There is a shared project which sustains and unites us.

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What other values are cultivated by that day to day?

We discovered solidarity. Here we are comrades. We believe deeply in that. We even put it in practise across associated cooperatives. For example right now we are making school backpacks and we began to do that in association with another cooperative. We design and stamp and they do the rest. That was our cooperative concept: to work together and allow solidarity to circulate across all levels. We believe that you need to lend a hand to one another. That has happened, even in reverse. At our beginnings our associates at the Kbrones cooperative gave us two hundred metres of fabric to begin working. That was also solidarity.

What else do you remember about the beginnings? What other solidarity did you receive?

We began with support from our family and friends who had some machines they could donate. Then we began to move everywhere. We presented notes, talked to members of foundations and representatives of the state, we walked the streets. From there we began taking on things together. We began to think of one or two base designs which were the ones that got us started and began the chain. There we even put tables out on the pavement to showcase what we were doing. Back then all we knew how to do was make squares. So we made pillow covers. As time went by we all learned the trade through Marta (Alvarez) who was the only one who knew it thoroughly. Time and lots, meaning lots, of work got us here.

Is state support necessary to broaden the reach of a cooperative model?

It is necessary. If cooperatives are well managed they are sustainable. The associates can live on a decent wage. For me, a cooperative is like a small business or an SME. If someone sets up a cooperative it is only because they are having trouble with work. On the other hand there is a group of people who are thinking about other organization methods and that suggest relationships with coworkers based on solidarity. Besides that there is a clear problem: there is no capital. That is the truth. So the state needs to intervene, support and nurture those spaces.

You use the word company but identify as a cooperative. What difference is there between the two?

I never worked at a company. I always did other things for companies that had nothing to do with work. What I imagine the difference to be is how workers’ relationships develop on the inside. There is no solidarity. They are not equal workers. That is the difference. The state needs to understand this difference and understand that for example we propose a fair price, work without intermediates (which allows each one to suggest the worth of his or her work) and do not employ slave labour. I don’t care if I have less cut from the profit. The relationship where we value each other is good. We pursue a revaluation of things and of everyone’s work.

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Then, where do you think political bodies need to intervene routinely?

The first thing I think is that if you are not a part of the market you cannot compete. That is the reality of the matter. The question that then follows is why there are not spaces or locations for cooperatives to sell their products. I don’t understand why nobody thought of creating dedicated spaces so that everything doesn’t get stuck at the stage of buying and selling products. Today the big problem faced by cooperatives is commercialization. If we had other ways of selling, other alternatives, it would be different. Fairs may be an option, but not the only one. We need a little of everything: advertising, new spaces, set policies. Imagine if it were easier to locate a cooperative which offered a certain product or service. Everything would be easier. We could reach a higher number of people and the wheel would turn faster.

Do you think this could change under this state?

I do not believe that Mauricio Macri’s government supports this sector.

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Which is the path left when the state withdraws instead of supports your sector?

We think that the path is organization between cooperatives. It’s the only possibility when you need to face so many realities. Here you really have to establish yourself through autonomous commercialization: mobile fairs, leaflets, attachments, websites. Anything we can do. When there is a recession we look for alternatives. We need to be there because people look for different things. For example we are participating in a monthly fair held at the Bonpland Market, which is called “what there is behind”. There cooperatives and organizations that are related to imprisonment and entrepreneurs who make designs without intermediates can interact. It is a nice space for exchange. On the other hand we are starting to participate in a textile federation which has many dreams: a garden for the children of members, joint projects and various other goals. The idea is to unite and begin to pursue that dream.

Is political participation important for a cooperative as you outline?

For us it is incredibly important. We come from a context of incarceration, so what we want is visibility. We can’t not get involved with politics. If we don’t, nobody learns about what we are doing. We are people who today say “we don’t steal any more” and who spent many years in that situation. So if we don’t help each other, nobody will. That is how we see life.

Get in touch with the Cooperative here: http://soceania.com/places/cooperativa-hombres-y-mujeres-libres/

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