In the past half a year since the earthquake struck the coast of Ecuador, tens of thousands of people have quietly picked up the pieces of their lives and started rebuilding. We heard about the survivors after the quake. We rallied to send supplies. We volunteered on the coast. We wrote stories and continued sharing posts on social media. But, to be honest, it upsets me to admit how easy it has been to keep moving onward with my life when so many are still in the midst of rebuilding and remembering. For those affected most intimately, there is no forgetting. To put a life back together, there is no single solution.
I suppose one can start with Maslow’s hierarchy of survival; before anything else can be achieved, basic needs must be met: food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety. If those bases are covered, you move onward to fulfilling psychological needs- love, trust, companionship- and then self-actualization- reaching one’s full potential. For the families living at Proyecto Samán outside of Canoa, phase one is all about covering the necessities. In the last six months, the community has been evolving. The tents that were first provided for families have grown larger and gained new amenities. The dispensary of donations has become even more organized. Water systems are in place. The gardens are more fruitful. Arts groups and theater troupes are visiting. The basic necessities are being met, so what comes next?
That is the question project coordinators Sarah Hanen-Bauer and Diana Moscoso posed to the 20 families of the community at Proyecto Samán. Their answer: they wanted to start an auto-mechanic workshop on the property. They wanted to find a way to continue building up business relationships, to help others in the area, and to address the persistent problem on the bumpy, dirt roads of the beach town: everything is always breaking down. With a workshop at the camp, the community members could gain employment by fixing broken cars, motorcycles and bikes. And so, with this plan in mind, phase two begins.
The University of Azuay, located in Cuenca, has an auto-mechanic program; showing amazing generosity and their spirit of collaboration, the university agreed to host and pay for a series of workshops over several months for interested members of Proyecto Samán. The classes were scheduled: half in Canoa, and half in Cuenca. To travel to Cuenca is not easy from the coast. The journey is 8-10 hours in multiple rickety buses. It would mean taking time off from work or school to be able to come and learn. But for 25 members of the community, there was no question. This is what they wanted to do.
Their ages span young teenagers to older parents. They first attended workshops in Canoa a few weeks ago, learning from students and professors of University of Azuay how to measure and cut metal. The second series of workshops is what brought them to Cuenca last Saturday, January 21. They were learning the art of welding, jumping into the flames and gaining new skills that they would be able to use back in Canoa.
I got to hang out with the group of community members at San Sebas Cafe as we celebrated their arrival to Cuenca and their workshops. The whole group of 25 was there, as well as project coordinator Sarah Hanen Bauer and senior adviser Sara Coppler. Claudio Hollenstein, owner of Hostel Yakumama and Lindsay Burton, owner of San Sebas Cafe, were also there and hosting the event; both of them were also founding members of Proyecto Samán. Though there were many interesting individuals from the coast, some of whom I remembered from volunteer work a few months ago, I was particularly drawn to the women in the group, and one young woman stood out to me in particular. I wanted to hear their stories.
Jessenia is 21 years old. She has two daughters, 1 and a half and 7 years old, and she has lived at Proyecto Samán since right after the quake. She lives there along with her three other sisters, her husband, her sisters’ husbands, her children, and her mom and dad. Her mother is Maria who makes the incredible empanadas written about back in September. Jessenia is one of seven women in the group of 25 that came to Cuenca. During the workshop here and back on the coast, she has learned soldering, welding, and basic auto-mechanic skills for repairs of bikes and cars.
Just to sit by her, I felt like she was older than my 27 years. She’s gotten married, had children, survived an earthquake, and rebuilt her life from scratch. I felt so young and naive, ill-equipped to truly empathize, but still hoping to put myself in her shoes through conversation. I wanted to give her a chance to say what she wanted to say. Her husband, father, and sisters were also there participating in the workshop, but I stuck to Jessenia’s story throughout the interview. To me, it’s exciting to share the stories of strong women because there is something- an essence of feminism, an unspoken understanding- something powerful, that binds all women together.
Kristen: So now that you’re almost done with this Cuenca workshop, did you think the workshop would be like this or different?
Jessenia: I wanted to learn whether learning these things would be easy or difficult because I have my own motorcycle. When I ride it, sometimes it breaks down and I don’t know how to fix it and I need to find someone else. I want to be able to fix it myself. That’s why I’m at these workshops. I want to show that a woman can learn and fix things and that she has the same abilities as any man.
Kristen: What would you say are the skills that women are expected to know compared to the skills that men know on the coast of Ecuador?
Jessenia: The women take care of kids, clean the house, cook. The men work and arrive at the house. But we have the same capabilities.
Kristen: What do the men in your family think about you learning how to weld and cut metal?
Jessenia: It is a machismo culture here. My husband, he’s machista. He wants me to clean and cook and take care of the kids (she nods over to her husband, smiles, and laughs). But in the future, I want to work at the workshop as well, and I will.
Kristen: So, why do you want to learn these stereotypically-male skills?
Jessenia: I want to learn these skills to demonstrate to society that women can do the same things men can do. Even though we’re different genders, we can learn the same things and do the same things. Everyone can learn new skills.
Kristen: Which of the new things that you’ve learned so far has been most difficult?
Jessenia: Using the tools can be hard on your hands and nerves.
Kristen: So in your opinion, women can do just as much as men can do. What do you think makes women so strong?
Jessenia: To be a woman is to be a mother. It is a virtue. Women can generate and give life; husbands can’t understand this feeling. To be a woman and to feel your baby move inside you, to feel the heart of your child… it is amazing that women can give life.
Kristen: What do you hope the future will hold, both with Samán and with the auto-mechanic workshop?
Jessenia: We want to have our own houses, farms, an area to plant. We’re working on those things at Samán now. We can fix motorcycles and cars and bikes of people who come by. We are there, at Samán, until the end. Hasta lo último. It’s all we have. The earthquake was incredibly painful and sad. My husband lost his father. We were lucky that we didn’t lose anyone, just our house and all of our possessions.
We have to just keep being strong and strengthen ourselves for what comes.
All the good that has happened is due to the grace of god and the coordinators and helpers. They have been constant.
We spent the rest of the evening sipping wine, eating brownies, and talking about her daughters. I encouraged her to go out in Cuenca that Saturday evening, and she shook her head, smiling. She told me they had to be up early for the last day of the workshop; they had a test the following morning, and she wanted to do well. I completely understood.
The workshops with the University of Azuay will continue in the following months. Jessenia, her family members, and the other community members will be learning more specific auto-repair techniques. With each new skill, each piece of of knowledge, they’re moving forward on their path of rebuilding. Their livelihoods are in their hands, and they’re investing in their home to turn it into the dream that is the mission of Proyecto Samán: to transform a vulnerable environment into a safe and sustainable way of life. To learn more about the work at Proyecto Samán or to volunteer your time or resources, click here.