Dolly Beaver and I are standing in the middle of a circle of women of the village of El Chino. It’s October 5th, 2016.
Dolly ishead of Angels of the Amazon and wife of Dr.Paul Beaver, who built the Tahuayo Lodge, Peru’s first Amazon Adventure Lodge some 12 hours up the river from Iquitos. Angels of the Amazon is a not-for-profit that was formed in 2006 by Dolly and a group of dedicated and concerned tourists who have taken an interest in the economic, social, health and overall welfare of the people of the Tahuayo- and who saw in Dolly someone who had the knowledge and motivation to move those concerns forward.

Eleven women of varying age, some with small children, have laid out plastic mats and emptied plastic bags, many with colorful Disney logos and characters, of their contents. Deftly woven baskets, handbags, jewelry, carved gourds, vases, friendship bracelets, dainty and hilarious frogs, snails, fish and other creatures fashioned into baskets and ornaments are spread out at the feet of each woman. Each offering is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the skills and artistic competence each individual brings to her craft.

Every woman in this gathering paid a price to be here. “Here,” in fact, didn’t even exist not long ago.The Artesan Center itself was nothing more than a pipe dream back in 1995 when it was little more than a notion. Back then, Dolly had begun workshops to train the women how to weave by learning from the village elders.

For some, these workshops created challenges at home, as men were threatened by their wives’ wanting to work. The husbands at first didn’t know what to do with their wives’ interest in working and desire for independence. Women would report to the classes bruised, but determined. Over time, once the products began to sell, the resulting income changed more than a few minds.

Then the idea of an actual building theCenterto provide a place to present these crafts was born. More resistance from some villagers, but many saw how such a thing could possibly come to pass. Dolly, and the tightly knit group of artesanfamilies persevered. The large Center eventually rose in the middle of the village and we now were gathered in this testament to their will and determination.

Dolly introduced me and I had some questions of the smiling women who were watching my face. Here’s some of what I learned.

For one older woman, the money she earns pays for her kids’ education, for clothing for herself and food. Perhaps most important, those funds provided emergency funds never before available. During a recent challenge, for the first time in her life she had the necessary “padding” to see her through a rough time without experiencing serious trouble.

The women around the room nod in agreement.

For the first time, they say, they can educate their kids. For most of these women, they missed that chance for themselves, although some went to the new high school (another Angels of the Amazon project) to finish their own schooling. But now with families to support, careers outside El Chino for this group of women are out of the question. However, the craft business is just beginning to take off, and they have embraced it fully. The excitement of having a way to provide, while at the same time a way to express their creativity brings grins to their faces.

Others spoke of the new sense of personal freedom. “I can finish this basket in my own time,” said one woman, in near wonderment at the notion. “When I want to do my work I am left alone.”

When gently pressed, the women agreed with the idea that the lively colors and fun designs were an expression of the newfound joy and creative expression born of the freedom they all were feeling for the first time. The right to set boundaries. The economic power. A real voice in their own houses. The ability to say no to giving their husbands money for alcohol, which all too often led to dire consequences for everyone. And it had earned them respect, both for themselves, and from their husbands.
Dolly stands close to me, translating the women’s words as they waft by me in the breezes. She smiles as she tells their stories. They are her stories, too. She helped craft each and every one. These women are her life. Born in Iquitos herself, Dolly’s heartfelt commitment is to ensure that these women, and their families thrive. That means being able to have better choices created by increased income, better health care, more educated parents and opportunities provided by the new high school that AoA and their partners just built.

At the end of our discussion, each woman stood by the colorful sign of their center, holding a favorite piece of theirs to display proudly as I took their photos. They beamed, their broad smiles expressing a joy greater than their words could express. These women were changing their community, the opportunities for the kids, especially their daughters, day by day, month by month. As their children observed their mothers working and taking on greater power and roles in the family decision making, they also saw family dynamics change. Boys would see the model of abuse change. Girls could envision themselves having a different life than their mothers. New worlds could open up, supported by the new high school, and money for further education.

El Chino’s story is a woman’s story. The following night, a celebration of music, food and dance would be held in this same center to truly open the building by these women and their families for business.
Work would begin early the next day with chickens caught, feathered and cut for the meal. As Dolly and I walked through El Chino, the smell of fresh garlic was redolent everywhere as it was being peeled. Women laughed gaily as the preparations gained steam.
It would be a night to remember. A night to celebrate the work, the heartache, the gains, and all that might yet come to pass.

A night to celebrate the women artisans of El Chino, the women who are changing their world.