For our final day of class I was able to use the prison’s camera to capture a few shots of the women’s final projects. This photo blog is more of a portrait series rather than the women working because, by the time I got the camera, the women had completed their projects!
We had a late start due to a hold up in the door around the reading glasses I brought for the women. For some reason the guard thought they were fashion glasses and argued with me about giving them to the women. When I finally explained they were for work, she relented but we still started class an hour later than expected.
Today was noisy! The women had to punch holes in the leather using a hammer and a metal punch, so the majority of the class was spent hammering. Then they used leather thread to sew their pieces together into the shape of the bag. It was fun to watch the bags take shape, although not without some very strong hands. Threading the leather stripes through the holes in the bag requires a lot of force and the women were silent as they tugged and pulled to get their bags constructed.
After the class I met with Gladys, who was released from the prison 2 months ago. Gladys was a big time participant in our programs and sent me her phone number shortly after her release. Now she is living just a few blocks from the prison.
We met at the prison and walked together to her home. Her husband is incarcerated for another 4 years and she moved close by so that she can visit him and maintain the connections she made in the prison. Gladys learned to sew in the prison and, during her 13 years there, developed relationships with people who contract her for work. Many of these people work in the prison so by positioning herself close by she can easily meet with her customers.
Gladys was very proud to tell me about how she bought her house. Before her incarceration she didn’t own a home so upon being released she didn’t have anywhere to live. She was able to stay with her children for a few months while she searched for a living situation. Initially she planned on renting a room but discovered that the rent was really high and there wasn’t enough space for her sewing machines. Eventually, she decided to buy a small piece of land with a one room house on it which is about the size of a bedroom.
Although her home is simple, it is impressive when she managed to do with the land in just 2 months. She told me initially the house had a dirt floor and the walls were covered in spider webs. There was no water or electricity and no pathway to the house because there were mountains of large rocks. She worked to clear the rocks, got water and electricity put in, cleaned the house and painted the inside, and put down a concrete floor. Now, her home has a small cooking area, a bed, and a corner for her sewing machines so she can work.
Another lovely addition to her life is that her 4 year old granddaughter is living with her. The Yanamilla district is far from the center of Ayacucho and somewhat isolated. Gladys’ granddaughter keeps her company and, as she told me, they do everything together. After years of being unable to spend time with her children and their children, I can tell that having the opportunity to build a relationship with her granddaughter is very meaningful for Gladys.
Now that her house is set up, Gladys is ready to work! Today was her fourth day in her home, and she just finished two small sewing projects. She is optimistic that now that she is set up, she will find work. Already, one group from the prison have asked her to complete a sewing project.
I’m so proud of Gladys and the way she has set herself up for success. She owns something and is building equity, while keeping her the overhead for her sewing business low. She has strategically positioned herself close to where she is most likely to find work and is actively talking with people about work. In short- she is going after her future and it is marvelous to witness!
After yesterday’s debacle, I was thrilled to find Señor Alberto waiting for me at the door right at 9am. We had an easy entry into the prison since we had been very meticulous about our materials list and everything was accounted for. We breezed into the women’s area and started class right on time. What a joy to finally be up and running!
The women are working on small purses. The first step was to prepare the leather by wetting and working it on a stone slab to soften it. The women have never done this part of the process before and it certainly got some hearts pumping since it involved a lot of force and rapid movements.
Next, they learned how to work with a pattern and how to trace and cut the pattern on the leather. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is. There is a whole tracing tool and process that involves measuring and rulers. Then they use a special leather knife to cut the shape. Since the leather is thick, it takes a lot of patience and precision to cut through the leather and this was the most time consuming part of the day.
Finally the fun part- stamping! The women marked off their stamping area and then got to use the beautiful stamps Señor Alberto brought. There was a mixture of small design stamps with larger figure stamps. The women got REALLY into telling a story with the stamps as they used people, animals, and typical Peruvian designs to decorate their bags.
I was extremely pleased to hear that for once most of the women are keeping the bags for themselves. Usually they give their pieces away to their children, but this time they seemed to have made some kind of secret pact to make a piece for themselves. As mothers who give so much of what they earn away, I’m happy to hear that they are gifting the bags to themselves.
After today’s class, all of Señor Alberto’s hesitation around teaching in the prison has disappeared. Originally, he was nervous about bringing his tools, worry they might get lost or stolen. The women are very careful with class tools and today they demonstrated this by keeping a close watch on everything. By the end of the class Señor Alberto requested that we leave the tools with the women so he wouldn’t have to carry them again. Big props to the women for earning his trust in such a short amount of time!
On Thursday we will finish the bags and Friday is a small coin bag project just for fun.
Waiting. And more waiting. And even more waiting. That’s pretty much how I would summarize today. We were supposed to start leather working class today but there was a big communication mishap that happened between myself and the leather worker.
We had planned (in my mind) to meet at the Plaza de Armas at 8:30am. I arrived and he was nowhere to be found. Figuring the bus was late (very typical here), I waited. Then I walked around the plaza. Then I waited. Then I walked around the plaza. Then I waited. I repeated this routine for an hour before I broke down and called his wife, who was shocked that I hadn’t found him, “He left at 7:45 to meet you with all his tools and leather. He’s in the Plaza.”
Finally, at 10am I decided I need to get to the prison to tell the women what had happened, since they had been waiting for us since 9am. When I arrived there was a rush of, “What happens” and when I explained the story, the theorized about what could have gone awry. My favorite theory was the one where he left all his leather in the taxi and had to run around town looking for the taxi.
What really happened is that we were at two different plazas. He was at a very small plaza and I was at a very big plaza. It was both of our faults because neither of us clarified which plaza. Now we have a very definite, clarified meeting place for tomorrow so leather class will happen!
Since I was already at the prison, I hung out for an hour talking to the women. They were thrilled to have a chance to ask me everything about my life. Somehow, we landed on the topic of drug use in the U.S. They asked me about the harm drugs can cause to the body and I explained the effects of using drugs. I told them a story about a friend of mine who had died of a heroine overdose several years ago, explaining how common these deaths were. What happened next was touching.
One of the women put down her embroidery and I noticed her eyes watering. She said, “I’m sorry Amanda,” and gave me a deep, long hug. At first I thought she was comforting me about my loss, which I have long since processed and accepted, but then she said, “This is why I don’t want to be in the drug trade anymore. We are responsible for these deaths. We help bring drugs to people.”
I realized that the hug was an apology, not for my loss, but for her participation in a cycle that leads to loss. Her eyes shined with tears as she shook her head, “We want fast money but we don’t think about the consequences. I never want to be a part of people’s deaths again.”
The other woman I was talking with nodded and hugged me, saying, “It’s true. We are all here for drug trafficking and we had to take responsibility for our part of the harm.”
It was a profound moment, seeing how each one of us were affected by the drug trade, made more profound by the women’s genuine sadness over the harm the trade causes. If you had a vision of these women as hardened criminals, oblivious to the world around them, I suggest you drop that right now, because clearly how they feel about their actions goes deep.
The wonderful Dr. Castro let me use the prison’s (slightly better quality than last time) camera today to photograph the women and their jewelry pieces. It was a bit of a rush since I only had 20 minutes to photograph the students with their various pieces and I was juggling the camera, a light diffusor, and the photo queue, but, given the circumstances I think these photos convey the beauty of each and every woman!