Estelita’s warm brown skin shines in the warmth of the Amazonian day, although we are cooled by the breezes that waft through the huge Artesan Center that she and the artisan members helped build. Her round face and bright eyes are framed by short, spiky hair. At times her expressive face quiets. Her eyes redden and tear up with the memory of her abusive father and the mother she sought to protect from his rage.
Dolly Beaver and I are talking with Estelita in the quiet cool of the new Artesan Center which was built with the help of Angels of the Amazon. AoA is Dolly’s brainchild, a not for profit concerned with the social, educational, health and economic needs of the villages of this part of the Tahuayo River, about twelve hours from Iquitos, Peru by river bus.
Estelita is one of the leaders that Dolly is developing in El Chino to take her place as the primary activist. As Dolly looks to the future, she is well aware that she has to hand over the reins to the local women so that the concerns of the villages can be handled locally, and women like Estelia and their daughters will continue to take on the important issues of health, economic growth and education that Dolly and Angels of the Amazon have been championing for nearly two decades.
At the moment, Estelita is telling me her personal story.
“The other kids would run when he beat her,” Dolly translated for her, and she feared for herself. She halted momentarily to get her composure. “I worried a lot. I wanted to get my mother out to save her.”
Estelita still feels this pain in other families where there is abuse. Like many other Amazonian families, her parents were illiterate.
Her mother told her that her husband would do the same to her when she was married. Her father “gave” her to a man she considered a brother, much older than she, certainly not someone she loved. He’d asked for her hand, and that was that. She’d had no say in the matter. Eventually she gave him a daughter and a son. He wasn’t an abuser, but by the same token he didn’t have any faith in her ability to do anything for herself.
Dolly had become an advisor and friend at that point, and Estelita said that this gave her hope. “I had no idea how to get things done, how to do things for myself. Dolly made me feel like I could. Like I was able,” she explained.
Estelita became an artesan, part of a growing community of women who used fibers and materials from the jungle to make products which they would weave into items to sell to tourists at the Tahuayo Lodge. The Lodge, created by Dolly and her husband Dr. Paul Beaver, is the largest employer in the area. Estelita wanted to use part of this money to put planks into her family’s home to make it more attractive.
“My husband got upset, he didn’t like that I got up at 5 am to go to the lodge,” she remembers. “He was concerned and didn’t understand. We were constantly fighting. “
At times Estelita would gather her craft materials in a pile and stand over her them, dangling a lit match, burning with tears and frustration. Eventually, she threw the match away, made what she needed and put the money into hiding.
Finally when she had enough, she hired a workman to cut the wood and put new planks in the house. Her husband begrudgingly noticed…and began asking for money for drink and food. She began hiding her hard-earned cash from him, buying necessary supplies for the household and parcing it out sparingly. Slowly but surely he began to respect her new status as a wage earner and what that brought their family.
Then came the idea of a store in the house for the village. Initially her husband responded by claiming that he hated selling.
At this, Estelita’s smile nearly splits her pretty face in two. “Now HE’S the one who’s after me to upgrade the store!” We all laugh. Estelita’s house is a centerpoint for the village. Not only do the tourists use their toilet, but they walk right by the store to get there. A perfect setup for sales. No wonder he loves the store and wants to expand it now.
Estelita’s daughter now attends private university in Iquitos, and gets support from her mother to insure a better life. Dolly is her godmother, so she’s got plenty of moral support. Not just moral support. Dolly had known her from birth. This growing child approached her at her quinceanera (15th birthday, a big deal for girls in Latin America) and asked Dolly to be her godmother. Not wanting to end up with hundreds of godchildren, Dolly paused, but eventually accepted. She was then daunted by what to provide her for this coming of age anniversary. She had found out from Estelita that Danixa needed a laptop, which confounded Estelita, who’d never heard of such a thing. Dolly provided one from the States, which ensured Danixa’s success at school. The girl was already saving every penny to purchase one in Iquitos, but could never get ahead given the cost of living.
Estelita is still stunned by the idea that her daughter is at private university in Iquitos using a laptop, a tool of modern technology, when she barely had ever touched a book. To her this is astounding. Her eyes grow round with the telling of such a thing to have happened in the span of her short life.
Estelita’s a big supporter of the Artesan Center, and of the new high school. She sees a new future for kids like her daughter and those of other families like hers.
“My mother supported education so that we could get out of the house and away from my father,” she explained. “I hear resistance from some older people in the village like my dad.”
Estelita, with mentoring and guidance from Dolly, is increasingly taking over leadership and mentoring roles. She realizes that because of her experience and what she has been through, other women in the village lean on her for advice with their husbands and parents. This gives her a whole new sense of purpose.
As the week went by, I had three other occasions to watch this compact woman take charge and speak in front of groups. She spoke to a gathering of artesans in one case. At another, a particularly important occasion, she introduced the celebration of The Artesan Center itself. In front of the entire gathering of families, she spoke for the women, the men who helped build the center, greeted everyone, and spoke with pride to welcome each and everyone to the event. Finally, after a market day, she spoke for the artesans when we all gathered to say goodbye the day I left.
What was clear to me as I watched Estelita deal with the pressure of public speaking, the demand upon her to lead, was that she was evolving into her role a community leader. Perhaps a little reluctantly, but more and more so, realizing her innate ability and strengths. It was like watching a forest flower bloom, slowly but quietly, as the sun reaches its petals.
Estelita is just one more example of how Angels of the Amazon, and Dolly Beaver, its founder, are changing lives in this tiny community on the Amazon.
As Estelita and I hug, I feel the strength in her compact body. Estelita heads off to go change a bit more of her world.