Romelia’s house sits on a corner of the large soccer field that makes up the center of El Chino, a modest village on the Tahuayo River of the Peruvian Amazon, twelve hours out of Iquitos by river bus. There is a small , brightly colored flower bed in the front, protected from the chickens with mesh. From her gardens, Romelia harvests herbs for herself and her clients.
Inside her spotless large and airy home, a few of the neighbor’s kids wander in and sit next to me as Dolly Beaver and I sit to talk. Dolly is the head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit dedicated to the social, economic, and health of the river communities of the area. Dolly has spent the last two decades supporting women lie Romelia and their families to develop a greater level of economic security, greater health and improved educational opportunities. In Romelia, her home and her family, her work has truly borne fruit. This is in part because Romelia understands the importance of health, and she is also supported by her husband.
Romelia is one of the twelve artisans who were key to the building of the brand new Artesan Center which dominates the center of the village, and provides a market day where tourists can purchase a wide variety of handmade goods made by the village women.
Romelia’s pretty face, surrounded by lightly greying hair, glows with health. Unlike so many of the village women, she does not suffer from obesity or the large belly that can be typical of this area. In her late fifties, she looks much younger. Her neat, wide open home speaks to the care she takes of her surroundings. This is in stark contrast to the “war zones” that Dolly and I have visited, where alcoholism, illiteracy and deep poverty can cause such chaos. There, trash, piles of dirty clothing and tumbles of dirty dishes are piled everywhere. This house even has a flush toilet, which is nearly unheard of in El Chino.
Part of her lifestyle and the nature of her family environment are driven by the equal partnership she shares with her husband, Jorge.
Jorge supports her strongly in everything she does, from her herbalist work to her artisan creations. Dolly translates for me that this is because of his family background. Romelia explains that Jorge’s father expected the young man to carry on as a forest farmer as he had, and expand their cattle and lands. Jorge wanted no part of being an illiterate farmer. As a young man,he wanted to move to the village to make his own way. This caused no end of problems for him, but he was determined. As the only boy in the family, Jorge took the brunt of his father’s anger and disappointment for not fulfilling his father’s wishes.
Jorge today is an enthusiastic supporter of education for his own kids, his wife’s work, and any project that moves El Chino forward. Any meeting he attends he makes sure that people understand that he represents both This is something of an anomaly in this macho culture. Other men would simply say “I don’t know what my wife would say.” Romelia laughs. “We speak for each other.”
This isn’t the only key difference. Jorge, unlike so many village men, is a careful drinker, and when he does drink, it doesn’t lead to violence. Without the challenge of alcoholism, the emphasis on health and a healthy partnership have contributed to a prosperous household where village kids like to hang out.
They have six girls and two boys. The oldest are professionals in university. One is learning to be an anthropologist, a daughter makes shoes, another is a seamstress. Jorge and Romelia have put a high value on education, and are big supporters of what Dolly and Angels of the Amazon are doing in El Chino. This helps Dolly, as others see how Romelia and Jorge benefit from her income, the family’s children getting educated, and the lack of alcohol abuse. People take note.
Today Pilar regrets not getting an education, and she blames her mother. She married a much younger man who is also uneducated. She still chides her elderly mother today for not ensuring she learned to read.
Romelia agrees that this isn’t productive. Both Pilar and her husband could choose to hire a tutor to help them learn how to read, but they believe they’re too old and settled in their ways. Pilar is also among the twelve artisans who create the weavings that are sold to the tourists. They enjoy the income Pilar is adding through her creative work, which helps their family considerably.
In another family example, Romelia’s sister sent her son to school, but he was rebellious. Halfway there he would take a detour and never show up, spending his time at a friend’s house. He never studied. Now in his thirties and illiterate, he deeply regrets having not applied himself. He lives in Iquitos and struggles daily to find work in a place that punishes ignorance. He’s deeply sorry for not listening to his parents. Stories like this speak to the transition that is currently going on- the fact that education is now available in the village itself thanks to the tireless work of Angels of the Amazon, and that old ways sometimes still can be a roadblock to moving forward for some lives. However, the fact that this young man feels remorse is a sure sign that his children will not make the same mistake. This is why the work of AoA is so essential to the future of the villages. The newly-built high school ensures the option is available. AoA provides sponsorships for the children who are willing to do the work, and backing those families who need the additional supplies.AoA sponsorships are given to those Tahuayo area families who can’t afford school fees or health exams for their children. Dolly is often found in the afternoons or early in the mornings calling out “School police” to follow up on the childrens’ progress, and help ensure their success.
Romelia and Jorge’s family stand in stark contrast to some of the homes which have not yet embraced the vision that Dolly and AoA have been building. Romelia’s robust health late in life, the educational achievementsof her kids, their bright futures, the peace in her household and contributions they make to their community all provide strong threads in the “basket”that is El Chino. All 200 some residents are part of that weave, some strong, some weak.
Dolly’s work is too make sure that all El Chino’s residents, young and old, eventually become powerful and vibrant threads in the community basket of this small river town, just like the gaily woven crafts she has helped teach them to sell at the brand new Artesan Center.