Thirty kilometers northeast of Matagalpa, past the quaint town of San Ramón, along a windy road lined with slow-climbing tree scattered is the indigenous town of El Chile. The roughly 250 families who reside in this small community are descendants of the Matagalpa Indians, who once ruled the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua and had their own language, “Matagalpa,” which was gone by 1875 and replaced by Spanish. Indeed, in their facial features, an observer can get a glimpse into Nicaragua’s rich past.
When the Spaniards first came to Matagalpa in the 16th century, they wrote about seeing the Matagalpas in the El Chile region spinning cotton and using it to make blankets and clothing. This tradition, which was so important to the natives, was all but extinct by 1942, when the Somoza government forbade the weavers from continuing. The prohibition was an attempt to eliminate that part of their culture and get the indigenous to instead focus on farming.
The people of El Chile presumed that the tradition would be lost forever. But in 1984, Nicaragua’s then-Minister of Culture and famed poet, Ernesto Cardenal, decided to try and revive this practice, which was such an important part of the Matagalpa history and heritage. Fortunately for him and the people of El Chile, a woman named Marta Ruiz from Argentina, a weaver by trade who was working with Oxfam in Belgium trying to fight poverty there, decided to make a trip to Nicaragua. In Managua she met Cardenal and he convinced her to visit El Chile.
By 1985, Ruiz was searching the community for women who still knew how to weave. She found four women with the knowledge, but being that this is a small community that did not have a lot of access to information at the time, the women still feared the Somozas and refused to teach. Luckily, one of the women’s friends, Cristina López, had learned the age-old techniques and was willing to help. López and Ruiz started the project together, called Telares Indígenas, working with 60 women at first, all given basic salaries for the first six months by the government for spending money, food, and materials. Shortly after starting, many of the women opted to discontinue weaving to focus more on farming and caring for their families, which are the most common duties of women in the town.
Today, there are a total of eight weavers, only three of them from the original group of 15. Included in this group are two teenage girls and a twenty year old, all three of whom are daughters of the weaving women. Each woman is paid for the products they individually produce on the large telar machines, also called looms. A percentage of each profit goes into a pool of money that helps them pay for their health bills, scholarships for their children, repairs for their houses, and allows the women to organize a yearly trip together. This group of women is completely self-sustaining and is the only cooperative in the Matagalpa region that is – each member owning her own land that her house sits on – and it is no longer receiving money from the government.
Francisca Zamora is viewed as one of the leaders of the co-op. She has been weaving for a little over 27 years, since the group’s inception in 1985. Starting when she was just 12 years old, she developed a love for making the products. She explained, “I’m almost always here, and I do the work because I enjoy it and it helps my family.” Zamora lives with her two boys, ages 12 and 16, and other members of her family live in the remaining three houses that sit on the plot that she owns, thanks to the renewal of her indigenous peoples’ tradition. In addition to weaving, Zamora does the inventory and accounting.
Noelia Corrales, the Sales Manager and all-purpose employee for Telares Indígenas said about the women, “For me, it has been very special to work with them because they are an example of perseverance, courage, entrepreneurship, perfect organization, autonomy, and sustainability. For the community, the weavers have been important as a source of labor and as an inspiration for many women to become artisans. The economic significance is unquestionable. The women weavers are owning their lands, have improved their homes, have the best wages in the community, all their children go to school, and all of them feel worthy of having a beautiful job. They are autonomous in all the senses.”
The cooperative wants to continue growing and hopes to keep the tradition alive for future generations. Telares Indígenas’ products can be found in shops throughout Nicaragua in various cities, and can also be purchased on-site. Tours can be arranged from Matagalpa city.