Interview with Leonida Maldonado Agustín
On one of my last days in Pucallpa, I asked Leonida to explain her textile techniques and patterns for an interview. My only request was that she describe processes in the way that she had been telling me informally while we worked together. As the interview unfolded however, she took the opportunity to speak about larger issues and challenges that face her fellow artisans and members of the community. While I had sometimes heard artisans talk about personal hardships, shortage of money, illnesses in the family, I hadn’t heard the larger issues of over-population, over-fishing, deforestation, lack of educational opportunities, addressed in such a direct manner.
Please excuse the unprofessional quality of the footage, there were numerous interruptions! Audible interruptions during the footage include mototaxis passing in front of the house, and the hand that appears in from of the camera belongs to Leonida’s four year old daughter, Grace. The youngest daughter, Faviola, wakes up from a nap, and also makes a later appearance in the interview. Both daughters are recently recovering their energy and smiles after being sick with bad fevers. They are both a bit underweight for their age, and often my plans with Leonida were postponed due to visits to the clinic. Leonida’s older daughters, Mary and Liz, are also mentioned. Of course, just as Leonida describes how much concentration is required to make the kené patterns, we were interrupted once and for all.
The interview is transcribed below in English. (The one word in Shipibo, Keraswe, which was shouted at Grace to make her be quiet, was translated for me by Carolina. Since she did her linguist profession such justice in the translation, I am compelled to share it with you (I will always be a nerd for language):
ke- comes from “kexa”, meaning “mouth”
ras- must be an abbreviation of a verb like “cut off”
First, I collect bark and cook it for about four hours, it needs to boil well. Then, I take it off, so it cools a bit, no, it needs to cool a lot, not a little, it needs to cool off well. The next day, I have to start dyeing, about eight times, according to how we want the color, right? Sometimes more, ten times makes it darker, eight times is like this more or less, and six times is a bit less, it depends on how a person wants the color to be. When it’s dry we take it and paint it (Grace! get down!), and we paint it with special clay, and we take this clay from the river, from the river bank, we take it and in a bucket, we mix it up, and then we paint our patterns with it. These patterns come from our ancient culture, and sometimes from ayahuasca (Grace! Don’t touch, my daughter, don’t touch!), from ayahuasca and also from our ancient culture. So we paint, and when we are finished painting and it’s dry, we wash it and it stays a black color like this, and no one can explain why when we paint like this with special clay it turns black. That’s just how it is! White cloth is done with a different bark, and we only put a little bit. (Be quiet Grace!) We paint with that bark, and we cook it as well, and then we put clay on it, and this one we pour clay over all of it, and when it’s washed it also stays black, with white, and that’s how we work.
But sometimes, we make quite a lot, but sometimes we don’t have a market that we can sell to. We are looking at this time for someone who could support us, someone who could support us from over there, because here, we don’t have, how can I explain to you, we’re not professionals and that’s why we work this way because our grandmothers showed us how. So, from our culture, this is how we make a living, because sometimes we don’t have a profession or any schooling. Before, in the past, we never studied, only our mothers would show us how to embroider, how to paint, how to cultivate crops, how to fish. Before, there were no people, but now a lot of people have moved in from other places, Mestizos [general Peruvian population] most of all, they moved in, they made nets to catch fish, and now in the lake there’s barely any fish. And we used to produce plantains, they fumigated it, and yucca, nothing. In this way, we have to search for a way to raise our children, right? Now, raising a family is difficult because everyday prices get higher for food, clothes, soap to wash things. People cut down the trees, and there’s no place to plant seeds, any person can move in, and we don’t have land to use. Now that they’ve fumigated the ground, it doesn’t produce plantains or yucca, and all the fish have been taken out with nets, and there aren’t any left. Before, when I was that small [points to four year old Grace], I remember there was fish here, when the river was low, ooooo, enough that I could fish with an arrow! Now you can’t do that, and for this reason, we’ve devoted ourselves to doing this more, showing our children, as my mother showed me, and my mother’s mother showed her, and now I have to show my daughters, and that’s the way that it is. Sometimes, people think that we have food, but sometimes we fall short of food because we don’t have money, now everything happens with money, without money you can’t live, you have to struggle. And when there is money, I have to buy only something to eat. When there isn’t, or there’s only a little, we fall short. It’s much worse for those who have more children, they suffer, and for those who don’t know how to paint, they suffer as well. Sometimes, when there are tourists, they come and buy from us, and recently we are getting by, more or less. If they don’t buy, we’re fucked! You’ve seen my grandmother, right? My mother is suffering, she wants to buy medicine, and so when she buys medicine, how does she buy food? We fall short. This is why sometimes we want someone to support us or export our work, this culture that we have, this art, more than anything. This is as much as I can explain to you! Any time that you can come or tell your friends and your contacts that could support us, we could export. At the moment, I’m happy that you showed me [how to use the sewing machine]. We don’t know how to operate, for example, I never learned how to the use the machine, I only embroider by hand or paint, that’s all, but no one comes to show us or support us. I’m glad that you showed me, I’m very happy with you. I’ve dedicated myself to this because I never studied, my mother never said to me, “Go study, I will support you”, because my mother also never had that opportunity. When we were kids, my father passed away, and because of this, my mother didn’t have the possibility of taking care of us and sending us to school. That is why I never studied or finished middle school or anything after that. That’s why I’ve dedicated myself to this, what else do I know? Sometimes I see my community members, even though they are suffering, not eating, walking all the way, they manage to get an education and a profession, some of them, others don’t have these things. For this reason, I told my daughters, Liz and Mary as well, that I wanted them to study and become professionals, but I didn’t have the opportunity, and so it’s just stayed this way. I feel terribly for my daughter, she didn’t finish school, she only had one year left, but she dropped out.
I don’t want [the patterns] to be lost! Some people don’t care, some members of my community don’t want to do anything, but I do, I don’t want it to be lost. But I don’t have, how can I tell you, I don’t have a camera, right? Sometimes I would like to take pictures of what I make and keep them like a book or a catalogue, so I won’t lose my designs. But I don’t have this, and I don’t know how to take pictures. It would be beautiful, right? I could take pictures and and make myself a catalogue so I wouldn’t forget my patterns. At the moment, I make patterns, I sell them, and if someone comes back another time, I have to think hard about it to make the pattern again, little by little. I used to not know how to make patterns, I would always call to my mother, “is this good or bad?”, [She would reply], “Yes, you’re learning, just work on it”, and that’s how I learned. That’s how it is. I invent at times, I look at the patterns and invent them, I have them in my mind, I have to think about them. We have to concentrate to make the patterns.Teresa teaching me how to paint patterns with bark as we work on the bag project.Sewing lesson in Adelina’s workshop.Leonida with the bag that she sewed on the machine.Grace the Intrepid in her hammock!