Norma Rojas loves to work. It’s in her DNA. Her deep brown skin and high cheekbones declare her strong heritage. She is quick to smile broadly, her back is straight and strong. She’s never known anything but work. Yet once she had a dream to be a nurse.
Norma grew up one of the daughters of the village shaman of El Chino, a river village some twelve hours by boat out of Iquitos, Peru on the Tauayo River in the Amazon. Norma became interested in healing. She was willful, determined. After elementary school, the limit of what was then available in the village, she demanded to be allowed to go to Iquitos to continue her schooling. It was her one great dream to become a nurse. She was twelve at the time, and back then there were no more educational options especially for girls.
I’m sitting with Norma in the cool shade of the brand new Artesan Center, right in the middle of the tiny river village of El Chino Peru, about 12 hours by river bus from Iquitos. Sitting next to me, translating, is Dolly Beaver, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who had created the Tahuayo Lodge. The Lodge and Research Center are the largest employers in the area. In 2006, along with the support of tourists from the lodge, Dolly had created Angels of the Amazon, an organization dedicated to the advancement and support of social, health, educational and economic causes for the people of the village. This included training women in craft designs, which would increase their income, and provide them with economic power in their families. Norma was among the women Dolly worked with, and today Norma is telling me her story with Dolly’s help.
Norma’s parents, fearful that she would come back pregnant like so many before her, denied her the opportunity to live on her own in Iquitos and become a nurse. They didn’t have the funds to send her. By the same token, they simply did not trust her enough at such a young age to make her own way.
It broke her heart. They had no faith in her will to put herself through school, to make her dream come true. They didn’t know their Norma.
In retaliation, when she was seventeen, she moved in with Ezequiel, who was 26 at the time, to rebel against her father. Adolfo, her father, was furious. He responded by striking her hard across the face.
Initially, the couple farmed together, and Norma worked as hard as he did. There were no issues back then.
Then Ezequiel began to complain that the farm was “too much work.” He was by then a member, and later a leader, in the local evangelical church. The church was ultra conservative about women’s issues, and saw women as servants to men. In Chino, the evangelicals saw the more relaxed Catholic believers as “non-Christians.” They became a divisive force in the community. Clearly this didn’t help Norma’s cause.
Norma joined the Mother’s Club which distributed milk to families and got increasingly involved. Ezequiel, threatened by her involvement away from the house, forced her to quit. On the other hand, Norma explained, he brought in little money and even less food from hunting or fishing.
Ezequiel had a serious control problem. Norma later joined CASPI, a micro loans fishery program to help buy fishing nets, but he pulled her out of that. He accused her of being unfaithful and was verbally abusive. Norma often found herself in tears.
At the same time, while he was a leader of the church, he was sleeping with other women from the community.One woman became pregnant with his child, but he denied it was his.. Ultimately this woman had to leave town because of the pressure from the village and the family. Ezequiel separated from the church.
Ezequielhad limited skills. Norma had to teach him how to weave the leaves for their roof, skills she had learned from her father. Her husband was verbally abusive, angry and controlling, and accused her constantly of the very actions he was committing against her. Norma felt trapped and at her wits’ end. How had had she, this bright, determined, hard working girl gotten herself into such a terrible situation? Once she had a dream to become a nurse, and here she was, without an advanced education, trapped in thankless marriage to an unfaithful, verbally abusive man who was making a fool of himself and of their marriage in the community. She wasn’t allowed to work, to support their family, and she was constantly being accused of the very actions he was engaging in.
Meanwhile Norma was spending time with Dolly precisely the right person to help her find her way.
Dolly made regular visits to Norma’s family. Ezequiel was always friendly, always welcoming. Dolly often advised Norma, asking for permission for Norma to come to classes to learn these skills. Since Ezequiel interpreted this as respecting him as the master of the family he often allowed this to happen.
Often when he got argumentative and found out that his baby daughter would cry when taken along with Norma during her workshops, he threatened to keep her from attending.
On Dolly’s advice not to engage in a physical fight, Norma would have sex with him in the morning. After he fell asleep, she’d sneak out with the baby and head off to the workshops anyway.
Eventually it came to a confrontation.
When Norma became involved with the Artesan Center group, Ezequiel became unglued and insecure. He demanded she stop going and come home.
This time, tiny Norma stood her ground. “You pulled me off the Mother’s Project. You pulled me out of the CASPI Loans Project. You will NOT take me off the Arestan Center. You don’t work. I DO. I am going to pay for my kid’s education. “ This was an extraordinary turning point for Norma. And it worked. She stayed involved in the Artesan project.
He accused her again of having another man. His two-faced behavior had become almost ridiculous.
Finally he attended one of the weaving classes, to which she responded with dripping sarcasm, “Thanks for going.”
Still, he argued that he could bring in money from hunting. In one day selling her crafts at the lodge, she sold sixteen dollars’ worth of goods, and he brought in nothing. It was far more than he had brought in for weeks.
On other days she would go out to work with a group of men and be the only woman in the entire group. This deeply embarrassed Ezequiel.
Her income from the crafts began to grow, but still he refused to give her credit or his approval. Eventually, however, he began to ask for money: to play soccer, to get rum. She responded by saying she wasn’t a bank. She told him that if he wanted money from her craft work, he’d have to help her go into the forest to get fiber so that she could make more goods to sell.
Initially he felt this was beneath his dignity, so he refused. Over time, she gave him multiple small loans. Ezequiel came along at his own pace. Norma kept track of the growing amount of his debt.
“One fine day,” Norma grins, “He says to me, ‘let’s go out and get your fiber.’ I suppressed my thoughts of anger (about his previous behavior). We started harvesting the fiber together.”
With Dolly’s advice and guidance, Norma was able to not only save her marriage, but she was also able to stand up for herself and her right to create an income that would support the family. By doing this in increments, by not making this a huge battle, Ezequiel eventually came along- at his own pace. The importance of recognizing the cultural resistance to change can’t be overstated which is why Dolly’s efforts through Angels of the Amazon have been so successful. Working quietly through the women, within the families without causing upheavals or too much social change all at once has been critical to the success of Angels and Dolly’s efforts.
While Ezequiel still provides her with plenty to complain about, the good news is that she is a power in her own household now. At 41 and with four kids, the brand new Artesan Center with its broad expanse of cool concrete floor and almost-finished septic system is a dream come true. Women now come to her for advice dealing with similar husband issues. Her sense of humor is quick and her eyes are merry.
What is perhaps most striking are her creative works. Like so many of the other women, Norma’s fiber designs speak directly of the new freedom that she is experiencing. Today when she tells her family that she has to work on her baskets, they know to leave her alone. Her time is hers, she is free to work in private. Ezequiel respects her time because he knows how it pays off for their entire family. Norma is working hard to ensure that her daughters and sons have the options she did not.
If you are out on the river early in the morning other than market day when the artesanos are selling their goods, you might catch Norma and Ezequiel on their way to the forest to harvest fiber. She will wave merrily. So will Ezequiel. Things have changed.
Norma’s high quality baskets explode with color, her solid work ethic clear in the details of her baskets, jewelry and carvings. Creativity thrives on freedom, and Norma’s spirit is free. She may not have become the nurse she dreamed about, but her determination to change the lives of her children, and to influence their education and the lives of the women around her who know her story is more than enough.