A fair deal for Costa Rica’s indigenous artisans
View a photo slideshow on the Chietón Morén store here.
With a slim blade, Julieta Mena deftly cut strip after strip of a dark-green reed, letting the slivers fall into a neat pile at her feet. A middle-aged woman, she sat on a wooden stool, smiled frequently, and talked about the crafts her mother taught her as a child.
“My mother was a craftswoman and so was her mother,” Mena said. “I was born here and I started to learn this trade when I was 5.”
Brightly colored hats, handwoven figurines and a host of other carefully crafted trade goods cluttered her small yard. Her home, which doubles as her family’s workshop, sits beside a winding mountain road in the heart of a forest.
Mena is part of the Huétar indigenous group. Only a small community of her people still live in their traditional homeland, now called the Quitirrisí Indigenous Reserve, about 45 minutes southwest of San José. The native language, religion and many of the customs of the Huétares have been lost. However, the time-honored tradition of weaving beautiful crafts from the bounty of the rain forest has lasted through the centuries.
Small children and animals ran busily around while Mena demonstrated the technique her people have used to make some of their crafts since before settlers arrived from across the Atlantic.
She started out with some paja, the thin green reed used to make the colorful hats for which the Huétares are known. Mena walked out to her backyard overlooking Ciudad Colón in the distance, and pulled several of the reeds from a thicket of green. She said once she collects enough reeds, she puts them out in the sun for at least eight days. The sun-baking makes the green reeds supple and easy to work worth. Once dry, she can either weave the intricate sombrero or dye the reeds with natural colors, she said.
Dying the material is a relatively new addition to an ancient process, she explained. Using natural ingredients, Mena dyes the reeds powerful shades of blue, red and green. Since a landslide destroyed her family’s workshop in April, she dyes the reeds in a small structure behind the main house. After boiling for three hours, the reeds are ready. She said it will take her a full day to weave the supple, colored grass into a sombrero that sells for $16.
For centuries, the plight of indigenous people in Costa Rica has not been easy. Historically marginalized and exploited by an outside culture, indigenous artisans across the country have often been forced to sell their work for a fraction of its value.
Until recently, Mena’s dealings with merchants in San José have been less than desirable, she said, explaining that the price she asked for was almost never what she got. However, a few years ago, the trend changed when she met Jan Westru and Pilar Ureña.
A Fair Deal
Chietón Morén, behind La Dolorosa Church on Calle 1 in downtown San José, is not your average souvenir shop. For starters, it better resembles a museum or art gallery than a store. Handwoven hats and clothes, colorful masks, beautiful pottery and an arsenal of weapons cover every available inch of tabletop and wall space.
“The idea is to reach a level of fair trade that is considerably better than what the indigenous people can get in other places,” said Westru, one of the store’s founders. “This is, in the end, their shop.”
Westru and partner Ureña sell goods direct from indigenous groups across Costa Rica, without intermediaries. They consider themselves volunteers for a shop owned by a committee of indigenous artisans. Over the past few years, they have reached a point where 75 percent of the income generated is paid directly to the craftsmen and craftswomen. Westru said the hardest part of starting the store was gaining the confidence and trust of the indigenous people.
“These people [have been] marginalized for years and years. A sense of distrust is the context in which they interact with civilization,” he said. “In the end, this is of course a question of money for them. For me, it is a question of dignity.”
For tourists, Westru said the store offers something no other souvenir shop in Costa Rica can: indigenous crafts from across the country for a very reasonable price. He said the store currently works with 75 artisans from all over Costa Rica.
Westru said he and Ureña first started to sell indigenous handicrafts while operating a hotel in the south of the country. Indigenous Boruca artisans brought their goods to the hotel to sell. Westru said he and Ureña sold the goods out of the reception area. Little by little, other communities came in, he said, wanting to sell their goods for a reasonable price.
“The name of the store, Chietón Morén, in the Boruca language means ‘fair deal,’” he said. “The fair deal is in the first place for them and in the second place for the consumer.”
Westru said the Catholic Church played a critical role in introducing him and Ureña to different indigenous groups across the country. Mena, for example, originally met the couple through her local church.
Variety and Value
Westru said the goods produced by artisans from tiny Costa Rica’s different indigenous groups are often surprisingly varied.
“It is amazing that in this small country you see this variety of crafts,” he said. “These are neighbors who focus on completely different things.”
In addition to Quitirrisí handwoven reed goods, the store sells pottery from the Chorotega indigenous group, in the north of the country, and, from the south, Boruca textiles, masks and drums and Térraba engravings, jewelry and carved gourds. Westru and Ureña hope to make contact with the country’s other indigenous communities as well.
More than anything, this is a way for indigenous people to sell the products of their culture while maintaining respect for their heritage at the same time, Westru said. He said access to education has given many indigenous people the opportunity to leave their traditional homes behind.
“I believe that even those guys who say goodbye will never say, speaking about their community, ‘This is rubbish,’” he said. “I think they are quite proud of where they come from.”
Mena couldn’t agree more. She said she is often given more than she asks for by Chietón Morén.
“They are different from other stores I have dealt with in the past,” she said. “They are good people.”
Chietón Morén is on Calle 1, between Avenidas 10 and 12, in downtown San José. For information, call 2267-6716 or see the store’s Facebook page.
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