I'm so excited to have Jessica Goudeau here today sharing about one of my favorite organizations (and Etsy shops!) around. Half of the Christmas presents I gave this past year came from the women of Hill Country Hill Tribers. And I'm thrilled to let Jessica share with you about their story, just in time for Mother's Day. Welcome Jessica!
Growing up in my house, it was switching the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. It was emptying the dishwasher. It was mowing the lawn. It was brushing our teeth. It was eating my mom’s spaghetti around the table. It was saying three things we were thankful for at dinner. It was breakfast together and a devo before school.
Every family has acts that are repeated every day. Over and over again, day after day, important or mundane, these acts define who they are and mark their family narrative. In my family, we worked hard, we chipped in, we shared and we believed.
What people do is different based on the cultural and family situation: When I lived in Brazil, I had friends who made coffee every morning with hot water and a piece of cloth (never a coffeemaker—that’s sacrilegious). They picked up fresh meat at the butcher’s for dinner. They got fresh vegetables in the outdoor market. They hung laundry on clotheslines set up on the back patio to catch the hot morning sun.
In a rural village in northern Thailand, I had friends who shooed the chickens out of their hut in the morning. They set the pot over the fire to cook the rice. They took dip baths near the outhouses using a barrel of water, a plastic dipper and a carefully wrapped sarong they shifted to stay covered. Every night they zipped themselves into the mosquito net surrounding their rice mat beds.
In Brazil and Thailand, the acts were repeated and routine, but they were exotic to me. It’s not what we did growing up. But to my friends, they were normal and every day.
It’s what they did; it’s who they were.
When my daughter was ten months old, our little family went to a fall festival one afternoon and ran into a group of moms who would forever change our lives. They were Burmese refugees, hill tribers from the mountains in Burma who had fled persecution in their country. They had been resettled in Austin in a nearby apartment complex. In a matter of weeks, everything they had ever known had changed drastically.
In their home villages in Burma, they gardened and farmed. They made rice and gathered food in the fields, in the woods and at the markets. They walked to school or stayed home and cared for babies. They traveled to find work or farmed in the fields around their village. They visited neighbors. They dried mustard. They cleaned cookpots. They slept in homes on the land where their families had lived for generations.
And at nights and after meals, the women wove. They wove traditional cloth that became shirts for the men and women, long sarong skirts for the women, over-the-shoulder messenger bags, scarves for their hair. Their cloth told a traditional story of their tribe, the colors they loved, the skills of their weavers.
Weaving was routine. Weaving was every day. Those first hill tribers were Karen (pronounced ka-REN) and the name of their tribe literally meant “weaver.” The women and their mundane activity provided not just clothes but an identity for their people.
When they fled their homes in Burma, the hill tribers lost everything. In addition to their possessions and their language and their culture, they lost the rhythm of their everyday lives. Some of them stayed behind in Thailand in refugee camps with no possibility of jobs or education. Those refugees are stuck in the no-man’s-land of political asylum. It’s a hard life with no future.
My friends escaped that life by being resettled here. Every time we’ve asked a mother why she came to Austin, the answer is always the same. They came here for their children.
But they traded one set of burdens for another. The exhaustion of culture shock and bewildering bureaucracy and strange food and a bizarre language takes its toll. They are brave and courageous and hard-working, but building a new life is difficult.
The better we got to know these women in the early days of our friendship, the more we fell in love with them. They were mostly stay-at-home moms with young children and grandmothers who were too old to work outside the home. But they could do what they had always done—they could weave.
So we found yarn and backstrap looms and passed them out. They got to work. We sold their bags and scarves and dolls and jewelry. We started a non-profit and named it after both their new home and their old one. We formed an identity together: we are .
These brave and beautiful artists are now supporting their families while still at home. The rhythm of their everyday has changed substantially: get the kids off to the local elementary school. Weave. Breastfeed the baby. Weave. Pick up the kids, go to the grocery store, watch TV, do homework. Weave.
It’s a radically different life and yet one strand remains familiar, woven into the cloth of a brand new pattern.
Daughters are learning from their mothers to weave in the traditional way. Their mothers learned from their grandmothers back through generations beyond memory. There is a matriarchal line of women who have supported and clothed and fed their families through the artistry of their hands.
I love that we have been able to help these women in some small way keep something familiar in their everyday lives.
And it has changed our routines too: my own little girls are growing up best friends with the hill triber kids. They play after school in the apartment complex courtyard. They watch me hanging up scarves in the backyard to air them out. We fold bags together. We talk about governments and refugees and new lives.
This has changed our routine completely. My co-founder Caren and I are mothers of small kids. We work with grandmothers and mothers to help them build a new life that still keeps some of the rhythm and roots of the old life.
The pattern we are weaving together is beautiful.
In honor of Mother’s Day, Hill Country Hill Tribers wants to give away a scarf made by Ra Noe, who is like a grandmother to our own kids. Her gorgeous Hint of Mint eternity scarf is gray with mint accents—it is lightweight and perfect for spring. It’s a beautiful gift for your mom (or just for you!).
To win this scarf, leave a comment every time you:
- Like Hill Tribers on .
- Follow Hill Tribers on .
- Share about this giveaway.
- Or just share a memory about your favorite everyday activity in your family in your comment.
The winner will be announced on Monday, April 22.
Mama: Monk readers will also get 15% off of the Hint of Mint scarf as well as other handmade products if you enter the code MOMSDAY13 at checkout. Find out more about us at ; click on the “SHOP” section to order handmade Hill Tribers products. If you order by May 5, we will ship it by Mother’s Day.
Celebrate the mothers in your life as you support the Hill Triber mothers weaving a new life here in Austin.
Jessica Goudeau is a doctoral candidate in literature. She taught ESL in Thailand in college and traveled to hill tribe villages where she first met Hill Tribers. She and her husband Jonathan lived in Brazil and Chile, where they developed a passion for economic and community development. They have two small daughters who love their Burmese friends.
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