Ponderings about Artesanía

I feel like the situation of women´s artesanía being sold to visitors is a tough subject. Traditionally, I think all Shipibo women must have made their own skirts to wear themselves and perhaps also for their daughters who were too young to make their own. Maybe they traded other things they made, like servietas or jewelery, for other things they need in their house, like sugar (although, I´ve yet to see a servieta being used and only a few women wearing necklaces).

But now, especially since fewer and fewer women wear traditional dress (a bright multicolored shirt made of shiny material and embroidered skirts), I think they must continue making the skirts because they know how, have time, and think they can make money from it.

The problem is, I don´t think many people here have the money or the interest to buy the artesanía. There are many Shipibo communities up and down the Ucayali river, along with other peoples and based on accounts of the people I´ve talked to, few people travel farther than Pucallpa, which is the biggest/only city in the area, which seems to have a limited market and limited outside visitors (although I could be wrong, there is an airport).

So for these reasons and probably for the stereotype that Unitedstatesians have money, we become a good target (which probably is true, since even us “poor college students” have had decent paying summer jobs, whereas most people in this tribe have never really had a “job” in the US sense of the word. They fish and collect fruits and corn from where they live, they trade with neighbors. They hunt, chickens roam everywhere providing eggs. They build their houses mostly with plants from the area. They collect cotton from plants, make thread and weave… They don´t really have to pay to sustain their most basic everyday existence like we do, therefore they work differently, therefore money is different).

And really, their artesanías are beautifully crafted, but really I have to ask myself “Should I really be buying and wearing a traditional Shipibo skirt?” I really don´t know how I feel about it. But we have had so many requests to buy things (from Bernardo´s sick aunt, from Bertha, from her niece, her mother). And none of these products are particularly expensive (even the gorgeous skirts into which goes at least a month of work cost less than US$40) and we have bought things and were happy to buy them because of their beauty, and perhaps also as a way to show honor and appreciation for their skills and kindness and hospitality they have shown us here.

However, yesterday Bernardo approached us saying that many of the women are wondering whether we would like to buy their artesanía as well, and what do we say to that? I don´t want to hurt people´s feelings, but I certainly don´t need anymore Shipibo skirtd and actually we don´t really have the room or the money to buy anymore. I explained this to Bernardo and it seemed like a reasonable response to him.

But in talking of the selling of artsanía, it apparently has been suggested to Bernardo that the women´s crafts are highly marketable and so they are in the process of building a plaza of little booths in which women will be able to showcase their work to tourists (right now, I´m thinking ´what tourists?´ I don´t know many who will brave 20 hours of bumpy nauseating bus rides and 6 hours of noisy boatrides).

Bernardo had also mentioned that Chris and I take photographs of all the women´s work laid out to show to people to entice them to come, at which point I enthusiasticly, and in retrospect, naively, suggested an exchange. I was inspired by a friend who recieves jewelery from a friend in Nicaragua, sells it and sends the money down to him. I suggested that we could take pictures to show to our friends and maybe even some cool stores (think Watermonkey and Laughing Moon). It seemed like a nice idea at the time since it seems like most people don´t have income and this could be a nice way to give women an opportunity to have power (in a place where they are in charge of every household chore and at least in our house, don´t even sit at the table but rather on a block of wood near the fire to eat meals).

But the more me and Chris have thought about it, the less right it seems. In a place that seemingly existed, and still in several ways continues to exist, without the need for money, what would the mass sale of these skirts do? It would certainly be a change for the community. It may allow them to buy more food outside of the community which would give them a more varied and nutritiouss diet (I have seen several children here with bloated bellies, a sign I think may demonstrate malnutrition), or it could allow families to send their children to universities in nearby Pucallpa.

These of course are wonderful outcomes. Who can argue with a people´s right to have access to nutritious food and education? But these would certainly not be the only outcomes.

What other consequences would the commodification of these women´s skills bring? Would viewing their skirts more and more as a way to earn money reinstall their interest in traditional dress or would it further the degradation that has already begun of the culture. For it must be stated that in the same day that Bernardo gushed about an intercambio for the artesanía, he also lamented the fact that more and more, traditional dress is being lost, exchanged for jeans, pants, trshirts with english logos, polos, etc. So much that the current youngest generation, boys and girls alike, are never seen in anything but.

But then really how important is it for the Shipibo, or any other people, to hold onto their traditional dress in order to hold on to their culture and the beliefs that may be important to them? It may be a nice and romantic idea for me to picture a community of people all in colorful dress, it may even be pleasant and romantic for the Shipibo to imagine themselves like that, a beautiful nostalgia. But maybe it is no longer inherently important, since people really aren´t bothering to keep it up, or maybe it isn´t reasonable anymore (Girls don´t always want to wear skirts and I tried on one of the shirts-long sleeve, nonbreathable material).

Currently I see no answer. I guess I hardly even see a real question. But for a country whose motto boasts “progreso” on the radio, and a district who is “caminando hacía el desarrollo”, and a town (Dinamarca) who itself calls for desarrollo, one thing is certain: these people are very much a part of our world today.

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