Thursday, January 24, 2013

Monsefu Faces: the Mugas

A little less than a year ago, I had completely written off "Hector Muga," the president of an artisan association that I had been trying to meet and survey for five months.  He was never home when I visited the Muga house, although I had met his brother Wuilmer (president of another artisan association) numerous times.  One weekend in February, I stopped by to tell Wuilmer about the new "community bank" program I was trying to start, and a man I didn't know answered the door.  I finally met Hector, and explained to him the idea of a community bank, where a group of people meet every week to contribute a small sum to a safe box, and that the members of the "bank" can then take loans out of the safe box at a small interest rate.  All of the interest then returns to the box as profit to be divided fairly between all the members, according to the amount they are saving weekly, when the bank liquidates.  At first, I was getting nowhere with Hector... understandably so; he had never met me before, and here was this foreign girl trying to convince him and his artisan family to put their money away in a new credit program.  He kindly told me that his family had successfully avoided debt until now (unlike many artisans who fall prey to loan sharks) and that they probably weren't going to participate.  It was clear that he (like many others I met) thought that this program was associated with some bank or other company that would be profitting off of the group.  I tried one more time, and explained to him that the bank belonged only to its members, and no outside organization would be involved.  All of the savings and profit would go right back to the members at the time of their choosing, be it six months or a year.  I could see a spark light in his eyes.  He said he was interested and would come to my meeting.

He did come to my meeting, and was the only male there.  He was swiftly elected President of the new Community Bank of the Artisans.  And he swiftly became an unbelievably reliable and passionate ally on my artisan projects.  He was elected Coordinator (President) of my new Artisan Council, taking on the ominous task of uniting 13 conflictive artisan associations for the sake of achieving things together that they could not do by themselves... like the Artisan Fashion Show.
Making all the women laugh, per usual- Hector giving one of our most responsible and reliable members  of our community bank her savings and profit from the first life cycle of the group.
Hector is in his 40s, the 2nd oldest of 6 siblings, and the first in his family to receive a university education, becoming "licensed" in education at the public university in Chiclayo.  So he was originally going to be a teacher.  But he also comes from a dedicated Catholic family and later planned on becoming a priest, dedicating lots of time to teaching the children of the extreme poor along side visiting American priests. But then he fell in love and left the priest-path.  But plans changed again; he is still unmarried (but has a girlfriend) and has dedicated his career to all things cultural.  His day job is with the regional government, leading a team that monitors the government's assets (computers and other machines) in various museums and historical sites in the region.  He works very long days, hence my difficulty in meeting him in my first five months and the constant bags under his red eyes.  But he always has enough energy to direct and entertain a room full of artisan women.  And besides being president of an artisan association, the Artisan Council, and the Artisan Bank, Hector has also been an active member of a political party, organizer of an over-40 men's soccer league, and helper in many church activities.  He is the most active community-organizer I have met in Monsefu, and the amazing thing is that I haven't met anyone that doubts his motives; although he does have a political affiliation, he doesn't come from enough money to ever run for a high position, so his work is not politically motivated.

Hector and his siblings are known by the last name Muga, although that is actually their mother's last name.  In Peru and other Latin countries, an individual's name follows the FirstName Father'sLastName Mother'sLastName format (for example, Kim Kardashian Houghton) until a woman is married, when her last names then become Father'sLastName de Husband'sLastName (for example, Kim Kardashian of West).  So, it's very unusual that someone would be called only by their mother's last name-- the father's last name is first and therefore is almost always used, while the mother's can be omitted for brevity.  For a while, I assumed that the father had died a long time ago and that Hector and Wuilmer used the last name Muga more often simply to keep the association with their well-known artisan mother.  After we had been working together for a while, I asked Hector if his father had died.  To my surprise, he told me No, and that I had probably met him.  Turns out his father is the slightly-strange but seemingly friendly guardman in the main park of Monsefu (and now I see a striking resemblance).  But, he said to me, "my father was a drunk and my parents eventually separated."

I didn't know much more about this history until a few weeks ago, when I stopped by the Mugas house and ended up listening to Rosa Muga tell me her story for two hours.  We started on the topic as we talked about marriage (typical here), and she lamented that when women are young, they think that the first man who loves them is the only one for them-- and that is what happened to her at 18 years old. It ended very emotionally, as Rosa told me that her husband beat her, sometimes with a belt, and didn't let her leave the house very often.  However, the group of Canadian nuns that were very active in Monsefu in the 60s helped her learn embroidery, giving this uneducated (illiterate, I think) woman a source of income.  Meanwhile, her husband took on a second wife, but continued to live in Rosa's house, eat her food (apparently the 2nd wife was much younger and wasn't much of a cook), and abuse her.  I don't know if he abused Hector, Wuilmer, Jesus, and the rest of the family, but I wouldn't be surprised.  Rosa also has a twisted leg that she can't bend, which I have been told is from an "accident," but now I'm wondering if it was related to a fight.  The abuse wasn't just physical but also psychological (as  is often the case), and Rosa cried as she told me that her husband ridiculed her and told her that she wasn't worth anything, especially because she was uneducated.  When she heard that he was going to marry his second wife (she and he had never been officially married, also very common here), she decided that this was her chance.  

Hector had just finished high school with top marks, and she told her husband that she wanted Hector to apply to the public college, but that a marriage license from the parents was required (which was and is sometimes the case in this Catholic country).  This way, she trapped him into admitting that he was going to marry this other woman.  Well, she said, then get out of my house.  You have no reason to still be here.  Go be with your other woman.  Her kids backed her up, and he left.  Her first birthday spent as a single mother, her now mature kids threw her a small surprise party.  They told her how proud of her they were, and that for them, she was everything they needed- mother and father.  I cried with her when she told me that, imagining these young men that I care about so much telling their mother that.  That man also took only a third wife and made the second and third wife eat meals together.  And when the third wife died, Rosa started taking care of her kids-- they call her grandma.

Rosa Muga (on the left), one of the best artisans in embroidery in Monsefu, and heroic somewhat-single mother of six.

Hector and Wuilmer have another brother named Jesus (if you imagine the pronunciation in Spanish, hey-soos, it might be easier to keep a straight face), who I often saw coming in and out of the house with his adorable 5 year-old daughter, Joselyn.  You would think I would have learned my lesson the first time, but I asked if Joselyn's mother lived with the family as well.  Hector's face got the same rigidity as when I asked about his father, and he firmly said "No.  She lives in Monsefu, but she doesn't see Joselyn."  He then explained to me that Joselyn had been born with a deformity and was not able to walk as a toddler.  The mother inexplicably abandoned her disabled daughter and Jesus, possibly because she was embarrassed of her daughter, in a culture that highly stigmatizes disabilities.  The Muga family was left to their own resources (mostly Hector's from his modest but stable government salary) to try to find the thousands of Soles needed to pay for the surgery.  They thankfully found the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Chiclayo, which specializes surgery for disabled, low-income children, and which offers low-cost services.  After the surgery, Jesus ran into his ex-girlfriend in the park, while he was wheeling around Joselyn in a wheelchair.  According to Jesus, she was with another man, laughed at them, and continued on her way.  From then on the Muga family has refused to let her spend time with Joselyn, because they say she is unfit to be a mother.

Joselyn, who melts me every time she calls me Tía (Aunt).
Joselyn's favorite activity, playing with Photobooth on my Mac
(with her uncle Hector and Wuilmer in the background).
Jesus, however, has turned what could have been a sad family story into an inspirational one.  He is so thankful to San Juan de Dios clinic for the cost-reduced services they gave to his daughter that he and the rest of the Muga family have become important promoters and fund-raisers for the clinic.  For two years now, Jesus has mobilized a large number of young people in Monsefu to put on events for disabled children and benefitting the clinic.  I can't emphasize enough how important their work for the disabled children of Monsefu is, because handicaps (mental and physical) have even more of a social stigma here in Peru than they do in the United States, and many of these kids are kept quite isolated and alone in their houses.

The support team, led by Jesus, for the Christmas party for handicapped kids.  (Top center- Wuilmer, middle center- Jesus, bottom center- Hector)

Between these two stories of the alcoholic father and Joselyn's mother, it's easy to see why the family is so close and protective of one another.  Although they are one of the 3 families I am closest to, they have never invited me to eat lunch with them (but birthday cake and lots of homemade popsicles yes), nor had I passed beyond the hanging sheet that divides the living room from the rest of the house until this December.  When I stepped inside to use the bathroom, I saw that their house is in worse condition than most of the families I visit in Monsefu-- of the approximately 6 adults and 2 children that live in the house (I'm still unsure of everyone that lives there), I saw no more than 3 rooms (maybe there were more I didn't see) and 1 bathroom, all made with temporary division materials like plywood and cardboard.  And yet, this is an incredibly influential family in Monsefu, and probably the most influential and successful family when it comes to handicrafts.

Wuilmer and his mom Rosa showing off their homemade catalog to Monsefú's mayor,
who is a regular customer-- on the walls and on Wuilmer you can see his modern clothing
designs, something that makes his work very distinct.

And yet, "not everything is rose-colored," as Hector often says of our work.  Wuilmer is probably the most successful artisan in embroidery in Monsefu, and he also happens to be the youngest and the only male (that I know of) who is involved in that art (Hector doesn't practice embroidery).  So, there are sometimes issues of jealousy and mistrust between Wuimer and the older female artisans, although he is often contracted by the regional government support group to train other artisans in improving their embroidery.  The gender issue is also prevalent on the artisan council, where Hector's personality and knowledge can leave little space for other would-be female leaders in a female-driven industry.  But, Hector's ability to unite such diverse groups of artisans and keep the peace most of the time is honestly something that I'm not sure any of the female would-be leaders are able to do at this point.  They are too drawn into the gossip and personal conflicts, so Hector and I are working to bring the focus more towards professional relationships than personal vendettas.

I care deeply about the Muga family, and I never would have expected that the person I would "click" with most in my site would be an over 40 year-old man; but Hector is one of my best friends in Monsefu, and definitely the person I see most eye-to-eye with.  He teaches me so much about how to be a charismatic leader.  My host family knows him well too, so after a meeting with him I often come back with a story that makes us all laugh.  Here are some examples:
  • Hector kept his birthday a pretty good secret, but the day afterwards we had a bank meeting and I suggested that everyone sing "Happy Birthday" to him.  No one wanted to be the first to start singing, so everyone started laughing nervously.  Suddenly, Hector put on a fake-serious face and yelled, "HEY! SING! ONE, TWO, THREE!" and after a big laughing fit, we all sang him a very energetic Happy Birthday.
  • The lobby of the Municipality is separated from the street with floor-to-ceiling window panes.  As we were waiting for a meeting, a traditionally-dressed older woman came up and pressed her face on the window to try to look inside.  Hector moved over and pressed his face on the inside of the window, directly across from hers on the other side.  It scared the living daylights out of her and was priceless.  One of my favorite memories from the past year and a half.
  • Hector likes to say good-bye to people by forcefully crossing them on the forehead with his thumb, Catholic Church style, and saying "Que Dios te bendiga, God bless you!"  If he's feeling especially fiesty, he might pretend to perform an exorcism on you, grabbing your head, closing his eyes, and saying, "Leave, Devil, leave!  God, take all the bad out of this person!"

Thank you Hector and Muga family for being such an important part of my experience in Monsefu.  You teach me so much about perseverance, leadership, and good attitudes.  When my Dad visited Monsefu, he was able to meet Hector, Wuilmer, Jesus, and Joselyn.  Wuilmer told him not to worry about me because he and his brothers protect me like a little sister.  And it's true.  Que Dios les bendiga, Muga family!

With Hector and Wuilmer, my adoptive big brothers, after the Artisan Fashion Show

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