Official meeting with Las Madres de Ashé
ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.
Although I visited Cantagallo a few times with my contacts in GIA to meet members of the community and learn my way around, on Sunday, July 14th, it was time for me to present myself officially to the Ashé association. This would officially introduce who I was and what my research was about, and since the community is run by different association, this sort of formality is very important. Walking up to the second level of the community, through the hardware market and the narrow streets, I felt incredibly nervous, and completely out of place in a different culture, landscape, language and ethnicity. I had with me some images of my work and my official letter of introduction that had been spell-checked by two anthropologists as well as the man who ran the copy shop where I went to get it printed out. I was met by Señora Luz and she left me in the company of her cousin while she went to round up other members for the meeting. My nervousness faded away as I was quickly surrounded by teenage girls, all asking me a million questions about my family and my origins, did my parents have blue eyes too? Did I dye my hair?
When the meeting started, I was interested to discover that the first part of it had been organized by a university student to introduce Ashé to another women’s group of textile artisans from the Andes. Three women from this Andina group sat in the meeting room knitting and taking turns introducing their work. They explained that the name of their group, Mama Quilla, meaning mother moon, came from their moon-lit escape from their villages near Ayachucho. Due to terrorism, many of them fled as widows with young children and orphans. They expected help in Lima, but found none, and found themselves incredibly isolated as Quechua speakers far from their natural resources in the mountains. They tried different forms of cleaning jobs that made them sick, and they eventually found support through the church, literacy programs, and training programs. They started making arpilleras, and have become well known for that, even receiving commissions for mural sized arpilleras. They ended this passionate speech by talking about the importance of working together as women and as mothers, sharing stories of trauma, violence and suffering, to salir adelante, to progress, recover and live happily.
(Their website shows some of the arpilleras that portray the violence they suffered)
Although Senora Luz translated much of what was being said into Shipibo, some of the madres of Ashé looked very tired. Luz, in turn, mentioned briefly that there had been incidents of violence that had contributed to the dislocation of some Shipibo from their native villages, but the Shipiba women didn’t speak as openly about this as the Mama Quilla group had. They decided that they would set up a future meeting to exchange techniques; the Andina women had a loom, and the Shipiba were very interested in learning new textile techniques and understanding how the loom worked.
Once the Mama Quilla group left, we closed our circle of chairs until it was only me and seven madres. The total group numbers 18 madres, but many women were out selling their textiles and therefore not in attendance. I introduced myself and shared the pictures of my work, which were handed around with interest. Luz read my letter and translated for the group, and they proceeded to have a long, animated discussion in Shipibo in which all members participated, and not everyone seemed to agree. Although there were a few words in Castellano thrown into the discussion, it was definitely not enough for me to understand what they were talking about. Eventually, they explained to me that they had lingering feelings of frustration because so many people had come to them claiming that they wanted to learn about Shipibo culture and textile techniques, promising to help the madres, but in the end, people never kept these promises. “People come, and we show them our textiles, and they take pictures, and we see these pictures on their websites, but what good does that do us? They always leave without doing what they said they would do!”
This frank and honest statement allowed us to continue our discussion with the utmost clarity of intention. I explained that I was a student, and I didn’t yet have a full understanding of the problems they had or what they might need help with, of course, it is important to me to help, but I have to understand how they work, and when we find something that I can help them with that’s feasible in the time frame, then I will do it, no matter what, and not leave until it’s done! They explained to me that what they need most is a secure market, their only opportunities to sell come from occasional fairs and working as walking street vendors in the city center. We talked about possible opportunities for craft markets in the US, and I explained that I didn’t know much about this, but I can help them research and email questions. I also thought of a technique workshop that I could do with them, because they are very interested in learning new techniques. We decided that we would meet again to continue the discussion when all the madres could be present. They all accompanied me through the narrow streets to the central square, but before leaving, they took me to Fidelia’s house to show me her textiles. In the tiny living room, all the walls were covered with embroidered and painted cloths. In this less-formal environment, I was able to talk with Fidelia about how she sells her textiles, and how she explains her culture to the people who buy them. Needless to say, I did not take any pictures!
The ride home, on two different combis, was wonderfully uneventful. I did not get lost, receive counterfeit money, or any other such adventures. I don’t think I can accurately describe the impression that this meeting had on me, and my mind was churning for days, making plans, and coming up with ideas. I was looking for ways that artisans exercise their agency as creators of their own culture and craft, and I found myself right in the middle of it.