July 9, 2010Rosa, Beth and Theresa discuss ideas
I thank one of yesterday’s commenters for asking about the “Santa Elena Sustainable Economic Development Project”.
Two years ago, during one of my frequent “lost in Merida” experiences, I found myself “somewhere” on the periphery of the city. The settlement had no electricity and the road I started out on had narrowed to a pot-holed path. I saw people living in a flimsy collection of tar paper shacks; dust and garbage lay everywhere… it was not like any other place I’d seen in “la ciudad blanca.” When I finally got back home and told Jorge about the upsetting conditions I’d seen, he said, “The people are squatters – they have probably been forced to migrate to the city because there’s no work in their villages.”
A few weeks later I visited Santa Elena (located half way between Uxmal and Kabah) for the first time in years. I could remember the town from my early weeks in Yucatan back in the 70s. I had attended a wonderful fiesta there and it looked as though the place had changed little. The residents mostly live in multi-generational family compounds with lots of space for growing gardens (and children!)
But I could see little industrious activity. I wondered if the lack of employment in the town would soon drive some of these people into that awful slum on the outskirts of Merida. How they would miss their sweeping acacias and bright red flamboyanes! They’d not be able to have chickens or breathe clean country air. It dawned on me that if people in the pueblos lose their way of life, we’ll all lose something special. Belonging to the land is at the heart of this culture. I tried to think of something that could be done to help them.
My friend Valerie Pickles who lives in Santa Elena has a restaurant called “The Pickled Onion.” She spread the word and quite a crowd gathered to speak with me about future work opportunities. When I suggested that the residents could build themselves a sustainable livelihood they asked, “What are we going to do?” “How much will you pay us?” When I explained this would be up to them… that they would design and work their own project, most got up and left.
But Abel and his large extended family stayed. They looked responsive and we took it from there… Eventually he developed the idea of leading interpretive tours. His wife Rosa and a group of women decided they’d make handcrafts.
And this is where Beth Knepp and Theresa Gray got into more than they bargained for. They could see the ladies needed practical ideas. They agreed to go with me to see how they could help. Once they’d met these creative country women, they were committed. A group of our college’s students also volunteered to assist Abel and his colleagues to map and develop the tour route. Called “Walk The Mayan Way” this 3 hour walk takes visitors along an old Maya road (a sacbé) to an unexcavated archaeological site; they visit an herbalist and then go to see the family compound. Participants come away with a feel for what life is like in a contemporary Mayan village.
Valerie, Nancy Walters and other friends all help where they can. Many have made generous donations so that start-up materials could be purchased. Several others like Lenny Martin organized groups to visit Santa Elena… and two years have passed! The villagers are more confident, their work improves consistently and some earlier skeptics now want to join in. They are welcomed.
Now with a new and dynamic mayor in Santa Elena, increasingly ambitious plans are being made. More of the residents are getting involved in this and other projects. There is the hope in the community. A new mindset is starting to form – the Santa Elena group are now entrepreneurs. This is very important. They are not yet earning much but they see potential.
The new mayor is Wilbert Che Leo (the person pointing)
You may wonder how you can help? These are the items on the wish list…
– Books in Spanish or English about Yucatan’s flora and fauna, Archaeology History, Geography. Maps of the region. Pictures of Yucatan’s Puuc region
– 2 Long folding work tables with 8 folding chairs
– Plastic bags for storing finished products
– Sewing notions of all kinds and scissors
– Any fabric, wool or yarn
– New or used sewing machine
– Telcel phone cards
– A website designer
– A company that will print the labels to be affixed to the handcrafted items
If you’d like to get involved in the Santa Elena project, take a tour with Abel or buy some spectacular handcrafts, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
*Photos by Beth and Joanna