A Week with Esperanza en Acción: Observations & Implications
As an American community development student from Portland State University, spending a week with Esperanza en Acción was an incredible opportunity. Shadowing director Yamileth Perez through her daily activities shed light on the sheer amount of work that goes into supporting local artisans in Nicaragua. Perez´s strong, supportive relationships with these artisans help support economic capacity and cultural preservation within Nicaragua. Visits to traditional markets, which cater to tourists, and artisan homes highlighted stark differences in quality, price, and treatment of local artisans.
At first glance, traditional markets in Managua, Masaya, and Granada seem to actively support a diversity of artisan wares. Through working with Perez, the actual reality of these markets became much clearer. Focused mostly on pottery, Perez pointed out the lessened quality of many of these vases, bowls, and other crafts. Uneven paint, inconsistent carving, and fingerprints were just some of the flaws in these pieces. After meeting artisans in their homes, the contrast in design creativity and execution became very apparent. Local artisans spoke about the originality of their designs, stating that artisans are not supposed to copy each other’s artwork. Learning about the process from start to finish also exposed other problems with the durability of many pieces sold in the traditional markets.
Buying from a local market also means going through a middleman, which means that the local artisan only receives a small percentage of the already small sale of forty córdobas. Middlemen also dictate the terms of their relationship with local artisans, which disempowers many talented individuals who are trying to make a living and share their crafts with the world.
Many of the wares for sale in traditional markets are not signed, a tactic employed by these middlemen. In addition to disempowering artisans, not allowing signatures robs artisans of pride and ownership over their work. With no name to go off of, tourists are unable to contact the artisan directly, and are largely unaware of their personal stories or struggles.
In contrast to these middlemen, Esperanza en Acción encourages all their artisan partners to sign their work. Perez serves as both a catalyst and protector to local artisans. On the one hand, she catalyzes local capacities by offering workshops in business management and administrative skills. She also works with local artisans to help them discover the value of their work and time, which translates to increased quality in their pieces. On the other hand, she protects local artisans by paying a fair wage, in addition to compensation for transportation, materials, and other resources. Perez has opened up many new markets for local artisans. She also comes directly to the artisans, which helps cut down on their transportation costs and also brings additional sales directly to their community.
From a community development standpoint, Perez´s work with Esperanza en Acción has many valuable lessons and implications. Promoting fair trade, direct-sale relations with local artisans translates to an increased quality of life for many rural Nicaraguans. For American students and tourists, learning about these relations increases their awareness of the connections between price, quality, and treatment of workers. By bringing student groups directly to artisan homes, Perez also facilitates a cultural exchange, where Americans can learn about Nicaraguan traditions and artisan crafts. Students get the chance to introduce themselves and connect with local artisans, through direct exchange of stories and experiences.
Esperanza en Acción is also an excellent example of capacity building. Workshops help teach business and marketing skills to local artisans, while also empowering artisans to value their time and hard work. Perez encourages increased quality and prices that ensure artisans receive more for their wares. By opening up new markets, artisans gain confidence in their work and feel empowered to present their story and process to visitors. Micro-loans from Esperanza en Acción also build local capacity, as artisans are able to finance needed improvements to their surroundings and equipment.
Lastly, learning more about Esperanza en Acción and local artisans helps encourage responsible and ethical tourism. Many American students may be unaware of their privileged status, as they study abroad and shop for memorable crafts. Realizing the amount of time, resources, and energy that goes into artisan crafts helps Americans make more educated and just decisions about where and how to spend their money. Supporting Esperanza en Acción means directly supporting local artisans and their families. Shadowing Perez helps students understand the complexity of her job and her amazing direct support of rural Nicaraguan artisans. The inspirational work and stories of Perez and local artisans help inspire students to mirror their efforts, both within the United States and abroad in future travels.