I recently had the privilege of visiting an amazing fair trade artisan cooperative in Peru. Little did I know that the day after I returned Peru would close its borders and our country would shut down due to the coronavirus. It’s been a long strange trip since I returned, but I wanted to make sure to go back in time and share this incredible story of hope.
On March 6th I arrived in Chimbote, Peru, with a group of 10 women from the United States and one from India. We were there with Fair Anita, led by Joy Mcbrien, who has been working with a fair trade cooperative there for several years. The artisan group, Taller de Maritza (Maritza’s Workshop), is a group of kickass women who are either disabled or have disabled children. They make beautiful beaded jewelry, although most of them had little or no experience in this craft prior to joining the group. Our intention for the week was to get to know the women, hear their stories, learn about their culture, have them teach us and show us their work, witness a successful fair trade cooperative in action, and have fun.
After a 7 hour bus ride from Lima we arrived in Chimbote planning to drop off our bags and walk the 2 blocks to the workshop. But the women couldn't wait - they surprised us at the Parrish we were staying in with a greeting full of welcome signs, kisses, balloons and an impromptu dance party! It was the warmest welcome I’ve ever experienced and I instantly knew this was going to be a profound experience.
The week was spent getting to know the women and engaging in a combination of social and work activities. We played games, helped paint a house, learned about the workshop, interviewed the women, danced and ate great food. Chimbote is one of the largest, poorest cities in the world. Eighty percent of the citizens live in extreme poverty, and 70% of the women have experienced domestic violence.
The artisan workshop is located in Maritza’s home and the women live nearby so can walk to work. They all have extreme hardships in their lives, such as taking care of a child with Cerebral Palsy, being wheelchair bound, etc. But these were honestly the warmest, most loving people I have ever met. They were incredibly grateful that we had traveled all the way there to meet them, and were gracious and funny - belly laughs were had by all. In the photo below is Joy with Anita, Fair Anita's namesake, and a fire cracker of a woman who pretty much takes care of the whole community!
One of the most moving experiences of the week, and of my life, happened the day we all went on an outing to a park. It was International Women’s Day, and we celebrated by going to a nearby place with swimming pools, a small zoo, and large picnic areas. Most of the women had never been there before, nor had been to anything remotely like it. A young woman named MariCarmen, who is unable to walk and has spent her life in a wheelchair, declared that she was going swimming after lunch. Not only had she never been in a pool, she had never even taken a bath! We all looked at each other, surprised, and said, “ok, we’ll figure this out.” It took several of us to lift her out of the wheelchair and into the pool, and I really expected her to be pretty freaked out by the experience. Nope…..we spent about an hour and a half in the pool with her, holding her up, while she laughed and splashed and had what she described as the best day of her life. I can’t even begin to explain what that experience felt like, but trust me, I will remember it forever.
One day the women wanted to teach us how to make a bracelet, so we had a blast learning how to make a tassel (harder than it looks!), stamping letters onto brass charms (VERY challenging), and finally, wearing our finished products. It was just wonderful to witness their pride in teaching us.
The day we interviewed the women was another highlight of the trip. We wanted to hear their stories, give them a chance to tell them, and learn how being in the fair trade cooperative has changed their lives. I had the privilege of interviewing a woman named Maria, an experience that ended up being full of tears and love.
Maria is 44 years old and is married with two children, a six year old son and a 17 year old daughter. Maria’s daughter, Marjhory, is severely disabled, confined to her bed, and her health problems are very costly. Until Maria started working with Maritza’s workshop she was having great difficulty paying for Marjhory’s medications, diapers, milk and other expenses. When she heard about Fair Anita and Taller de Maritza she thought she wouldn’t be able to work there because she didn’t know anything about making jewelry. Maritza encouraged her to come and learn, and now she is one of the expert jewelry makers in the group, specializing in the wire work which takes a lot of strength and skill.
Being a member of this group has changed Maria’s life in so many ways. She lives right next to the workshop so is able to leave to check on Marjhory whenever she needs to. With the money she has earned she has been able to buy a refrigerator to keep Marjhory's milk cold, put a new roof on her home, build a handicapped accessible bathroom and buy diapers in bulk. She refers to the other women in the group as her angels and is incredibly grateful for the community and family she is now part of. She wants to relay this message to other women: “hope never dies, faith does exist, with time you can do anything, and women have the same rights to work as men.”
The last night we had a big farewell party where we helped the women make a traditional Peruvian dinner, and the evening ended with lots of dancing. Another heartfelt moment was when a couple members of our group started dancing with women in their wheelchairs around the room! The joy on the women's faces was something I'll never forget.
Saying goodbye the next day was tough. There were lots of tears and hugs and "I love you’s." Several of the artisans said it was the best week of their lives and I know that was true for many of us as well. I left there feeling so loved, welcomed and part of a new community. My commitment to fair trade and how it truly, truly changes lives was strengthened. These powerful, strong, amazing women are the real changemakers and I too felt myself change just being in their presence.
Maritza's Workshop is a story of hope and a perfect model of how fair trade changes lives. I wish that was the end of the story, but Covid-19 has changed everything. Peru has been in full lockdown since March 16th, and there are curfews which only allow people to leave their homes to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. No taking walks just to get fresh air, and men and women are only allowed to shop on alternate days. Most of the families in Chimbote only have enough money to survive 3 days without income, so one can imagine the impact the pandemic is having on the community. There is little, if any, government support, so families are without food and medication. This is a dire situation. Money has been raised to help them and is being distributed throughout the community, and Fair Anita continues to pay them up front for future work, but additional funds are desperately needed. My heart is with the women and their families during this challenging time, hence my decision to donate 20% of all Women's Peace Collection sales in honor of World Fair Trade Day. Thank you for your support - your purchases really do change lives!