Nicanotes: Who Wove the Petate?

By Winnie Narváez Herrera

[Winnie Narváez has a master’s degree in sustainable development and is studying for a doctorate in popular education at the UNAN in Estelí. She works with ÁBACOenRed / FUPEGC which is an initiative of educators who have been working with the Ministry of Education since the 1980s in teacher training.] 

The art of weaving with different plants is an essential part of our Latin American history. In Totogalpa, an Indigenous Chorotega municipality of Madriz, in northern Nicaragua on the border with Honduras, there are two youth cooperatives and two adult cooperatives. The cooperatives belong to the Union of Cooperatives of Madriz (UNICOM R.L.) organized in the FECODESA federation in 2008. We met Blanca, Flor, Estefania, Emilse, Jose Santos, Santos Natividad, Misael and Rolando who shared with us different stories about the elaboration of their art and the challenge of cultivating plant materials in a dry area, and how all this is achieved by genuinely cooperating.

Weaving their history

Estefanía Rivera of the village of Quebrada Grande

Weaving is learned in the family and passed from generation to generation. This is how Misael described it: “I come from a family that has made a living from weaving because my grandmother, my aunt, and others make petates [woven mats] with palm. My grandmother did this for nearly all of her 106 years, since she was a little girl, and she taught her daughters.”

The handicrafts are made at home and the learning method is through observation. This is how Flor tells it: “There are quite a few of us who weave here. The person who is interested says, ‘I want to learn.’ She arrives and observes and starts learning.”

The work is done by both men and women. In some cases, women are in charge of weaving and men are in charge of guaranteeing the material be it palm or tule (selecting it, cutting it, drying it). Others, such as José Santos or Emilse’s partner, also weave. Flor adds: “At home, my partner makes key chains. I taught him – first bracelets and then key chains. Now our daughter also makes jewelry boxes and bracelets.”

The new generations learn the art even if they do not always do it for a living. There are many people who work in other occupations, but there are also others who, even after going to university, continue to work in crafts and participate in fairs. Being part of an organization has helped keep them from migrating out of the area and has promoted different art activities that cover economic needs. Misael describes life in the cooperative as very dynamic.

There are also young people who learn to weave petates but later opt for other types of handicrafts. This is how Emilse tells it: “My grandmother worked in petate, my mom too. We didn’t like petate anymore and wanted to do something different. I have been working with pine needle handicrafts now for the last six years. I started with a design my mother brought me after she participated in a training course. My sister and I helped each other to develop more handicraft designs out of pine needles.

Friendship with Nature

The people we interviewed make handicrafts from tule, pine and palm. There are other people in the area who also make clay and jícaro gourd handicrafts.  The tule or tolli in Náhualt [or bullrushes in English] are thick bushes that grow around water holes also known locally as chagüites. The natural size of each plant determines the size of the mat to be woven.

Of all the elements mentioned, the tule is perhaps the one that has undergone the greatest changes over time due to more drought in the area. The scarcity of water has had an impact on people’s relationship with the plant because it used to be very accessible along small creeks and ponds and now they often must buy it from those who have private property next to water. This is how Estefanía tells it: “The tule used to have no owner. It used to be found in any creek, but now it is scarce and thin. You pull it up and cut off the root, cut off the patita, and only the moño is left. There is a kind that is smaller used for a small petate, we call it the son of the tule. With the big plant you can make a big mat. You put it in the sun for a time. But we now buy it dried.”

In the case of the palm, it is a plant that takes 15 years to grow between 1 and 1.5 meters tall. It is cut and then dried for eight days. If it is cut when the leaf is open the tissue will be green and if it is cut when the leaf is closed and opened by force, it is dried and changes to the dry color, more of a brown.

Some people buy the pine needles but in Emilse’s case it is in her community so she goes out to select and cut them.

Flor explains how materials are used for other daily activities beyond handicrafts: “The palm is bought and put to dry just like the tule, in order to use it. In the village called La Ceiba there are several families that work with palm and tule. Well-selected material is very important for the process. What is left over from making petates is used to make brooms. And what is left over from that is used to tie nacatamales [a typical very popular corn tamale wrapped in the leaves of plantain then tied with the left over tule or palm and boiled].

Working in the handicraft business gained strength because the environmental conditions of the area demanded the search for new economic activities. This is how Misael explained it: “Seeing the conditions of the climate, the droughts for example, we had to look for alternatives [to planting corn] so that our socioeconomic conditions could improve. Crafts are an alternative that really gets us involved as a family because what we learn from our ancestors, we as young people can put into practice.”

Making art is not the only economic activity. The FECODESA Federation of Cooperatives, together with other institutions, has carried out participatory accompaniment of our communities for research, improvement and agroecological production of drought-resistant seeds. Blanca explains that the best alternative has been the millet plant [a kind of sorghum that grows in dry areas and with which people can feed animals and also use for tortilla-making instead of corn] because it requires much less rain than corn. But to obtain a quality seed required a lot of time and learning because the existing one was only suitable for animal consumption.

This is how Blanca describes the selection process: “The producer identifies certain seeds among thousands, saying ‘that’s the one I like.’ For example, this seed has good yield; this one has x,y and z characteristics. The producer is the one who lives their own reality. He says: ‘No, that one is no good because it isn’t good for tortilla-making.’ The one who selects the seeds does so also on the basis of their soil and climate.”

The Political Economy of Art

Those of us who do not make art are mere consumers and this also implies a responsibility: to know where the product we buy comes from and everything that makes its elaboration possible. Even at the local level there are prejudices that prevent us from recognizing the work of making art as an actual job, Flor shared this with us: “When I was walking in town with my roll of mats trying to make a sale some guys made fun of me and I felt that they were breaking my heart but I tried not to pay attention to them.”

Emilse López, of the village of Capulín, makes handicrafts from pine needles.

The more distant a reality becomes, the more unknown it becomes, to the point that we get used to looking at handicrafts as faceless products, without history, and we even believe that we can decide on the costs and the price. This is how Emilse explained it at the meeting: “People say why is it so expensive? I recently went to a MEFCCA [Ministry of Cooperative and Associative Community Family Economy] training and a girl said that sometimes people ask ‘why so expensive’ but they don’t know how long it takes to make it.”

They travel approximately two hours from their villages to the municipal seat of Totogalpa to sell to families or to people who will then resell their art at a higher price. Emilse goes out to collect pine needles nearby every week. It takes two days to make one large basket or one purse, one day to make a small jewelry box and one day to make 24 pine needle earrings. In the case of the petates (mats), the tule costs C$50 córdobas (about US$1.50) and Flor and Estefanía require four days to make one large mat and one day to make a small one. To make one small palm basket takes José Santos one day. It should be noted that makers are able to get better prices now that the government has a whole process to promote the small economy as a national policy.

The solidarity economy based on the cooperative movement represents a process of justice in the face of the problems mentioned above because it unites people who are doing the same kind of work and this gives them the strength to think together about strategies to move forward. Estefanía said: “We still meet with the other artisans. If I don’t sell things, I sell them to another artisan from Totogalpa or elsewhere, or I will leave them in Yalagüina or Palacagüina so that the product doesn’t just sit. If I leave it too long at home, the mice or termites will eat it.”

In addition, the solidarity economy implies spaces for exchange, consumption and sale at fair prices for both those who sell and those who consume. This has allowed artisans and producers from all over the country to get to know each other and share challenges and successes from their activities while at the same time projecting and recognizing the work of each region. This is how Misael described it from the experience of the multisectoral youth cooperative: “Here we share. Maybe another artisan is making another product. One person is always in charge of marketing. I buy from someone and someone else buys from me; we are helping one another.

Flor says that in the 1990s handicrafts from tule were worth nothing. This process of economic promotion of the popular economy, in this case the formation of cooperatives, began in 2008, with the work of FECODESA in coordination with MEFCCA. Blanca explains: “It was not only the seed, but also the family, the economy, training and education. When I go to work, I say I will only work on this one kind of item, but before I know it, I am working on a lot of things.”

The artisanry work was also consolidated in 2013 with the creation of the National Fair Park in Managua. “We made contact with the family economy people (MEFCCA), we helped inaugurate that Fair Park. It was a great thing that we, the Chorotega people of Totogalpa, learned how to take our work to other areas to interchange with others.”

Regarding the fair, Misael also comments: “Now that there is are massive fairs, the producer is more enthusiastic about it.” [There are now fair parks all over the nation.]

Some further questions

How can we take on the challenge of water scarcity in our municipalities? What is our commitment or contribution to the improvement of the environment in our home area? Who defines the value of art? What commitments can we take on as consumers of traditional art from different latitudes? How can we take care of the tule and the water, the palm and our land? Our life?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this conversation and who traveled two hours from their communities to share their time, art, energy, history and challenges with us.

By Nan McCurdy

Iran and Nicaragua Sign Important Economic Agreements
Nicaragua and the Islamic Republic of Iran signed three memorandums of understanding related to petroleum and agriculture at the end of three days of meetings between President Daniel Ortega, Vice President Rosario Murillo and a high-level Iranian delegation. Ortega emphasized that “the documents are being signed: The one that has to do with the oil trade, petrochemicals, petroleum products, explorations, and [construction of] a refinery. The other memorandum has to do with the entire agricultural and livestock sector. Iran can … process what farmers produce, add value to it and then take it to the Iranian market and to other markets in that region.” The third memorandum is between the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company and the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Nicaragua. “This includes the contract for the supply of oil derivatives between the Government of Nicaragua and the Government of Iran,” Ortega said. The President summarized saying that this is “good news, good actions for the benefit of our people. Here today … crucial issues were addressed that have to do with oil. Iran is a great oil producer. And we are seeing how we can develop business exchanges in oil, petrochemical and the petroleum trade; improvements and modernization of refineries; production of oil and gas fields; training of human resources and experts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry; transfer of technology, provision of technical and engineering services, consulting services.” (Radio La Primerisima, 7 May 2022)

Electoral Law Reform Approved
The National Assembly approved a proposal to amend the Electoral Law to reduce the campaign period and speed up the time for the formation of the Departmental, Regional and Municipal Electoral Councils, among other aspects. A Special Constitutional Commission finished its consultation process with all parties on May 2 and presented its favorable opinion to the Assembly leadership which submitted it to the plenary that approved it with a large majority. Deputy Edwin Castro, coordinator of the FSLN bench, explained that the electoral reform guarantees the quality of the vote and that the Receiving Board that integrates the Voting Centers will have 600 members instead of 400. Now the electoral campaign will last 30 days in the case of the presidential election, and 20 days in the case of municipal or regional campaigns. Deputy Wálmaro Gutiérrez, stated that the reform contributes to the permanent process of modernization of the electoral system and significantly improves the rules of the game during elections. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 May 2022)

2022 Vaccination Campaign Great Success
During the National Vaccination Campaign, medical brigades, mobile clinics, and the 19 Local Health Systems (SILAIS) attended more than 2 million people from 2 month old infants to senior citizens. Nearly two million doses of vaccines for the prevention of many diseases were administered between April 19 and May 8th, as well as 1.74 million doses of anti-parasite medicine and 783,140 doses of vitamins A to children between 1 and 6 years old. The representative of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) Ana Solís Ortega Treasure, stated that “For PAHO, it is always satisfying to see how the staff of the National Immunization Program works tirelessly to ensure that the vaccines reach the very last corner of the country. We are very pleased to see that the vaccination goal has been met and exceeded.” (Nicaragua News, 10 May 2022)

New School in Asang Indigenous Community
The Ministry of Education reported that US$1.15 million was invested to build and equip  the new Joselyn Mercado School in the Asang Indigenous community, in the Waspam municipality, in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region, benefitting 445 students. This is part of the Project for Improvement of Educational Centers that the Government is implementing to ensure access to free and quality education. (Nicaragua News, 4 May 2022)

Sandinista Government Promotes Development in Indigenous Communities
During the 169th anniversary of the official founding of the Ulwa People of Karawala, Judy Abraham, President of the South Caribbean Regional Council said “our Indigenous communities are developing; they have grown with infrastructure for education, health and homes and our farmers benefit from production packages.” She explained that the communities have electricity generated by photovoltaic solar panels, which is inexhaustible and does not pollute, thus contributing to sustainable development. Abraham said that the Sandinista Government has restored the rights of the native peoples. “The history of this community says that our ancestors arrived here 169 years ago, and settled in Karawala. Our Ulwa Indigenous people live from fishing and agriculture. And Ulwa is the native language, but the people also speak Creole, Miskito and Spanish,” she said. (Radio La Primerisima, 7 May 2022)

Inauguration of Six New Schools
With an investment of US$2 million, this week the Ministry of Education will inaugurate six educational centers around the country. Salvador Vanegas, presidential advisor on educational issues, reported that MINED will also launch the “Education in the Countryside” strategy in the municipality of Tuma, La Dalia which will update teacher training in all modalities including multigrade, primary, secondary and adult education in the countryside. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 May 2022)

Two New Women’s Police Stations
The National Police inaugurated the 118th Women’s Police in the municipality of Santa Teresa, Department of Carazo. And on May 12 the 119th Station will be inaugurated in Wiwilí, Nueva Segovia. These special police stations provide security and support to families in situations of violence and risk. Jessica Leiva, head of the Ministry of Women, stressed that women must not be treated with violence. “The commitment we maintain is that we deserve to live in an egalitarian society, without stigmas, without stereotypes, without violence, a sustainable, peaceful future, with equal rights and opportunities, because women in all spaces contribute with experience, knowledge and skills,” she said. The police stations provide support to women who have faced situations of violence, and are part of a model of coordinated work between the institutions that make up the government cabinet. (Canal 8, 5 Mayo 2022)

Women Farmers with Production Alternatives in the Face of Climate Change
Thanks to training programs many women have learned to develop environmentally friendly agricultural practices and diversify their crops. Cándida Rosa Lazo, from San Lorenzo in the municipality of La Trinidad, Estelí Department, has not only learned to make use of the land, but also to be economically independent and to develop soil and natural resource conservation practices, and diversify her production to boost income. Carmen Benavides, from the Las Limas community in the same municipality, is 70 years old and has spent more than half of her life farming. For the last 10 years along with planting corn and beans, she now also raises barnyard animals. Carmen has adopted new technologies to cope with climate variability. She uses pig manure for the production of a liquid that serves as a foliar fertilizer in corn and bean cultivation. And when there is too much rain at the time when she needs to dry her beans she has learned to build solar dryers. She also incorporates stubble from the previous harvest to maintain soil fertility. She says that by applying environmentally friendly farming techniques she has the opportunity to increase her crop yields and resilience to climate change. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 May 2022)

89.7% Have Received One Covid Shot
Exactly 10,377,431 doses of Covid vaccines have been administered to Nicaraguans over 2 years of age and 69.7% are fully vaccinated. To date, 89.7% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. Over 99% of pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women have been immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; 81.1% of children between the ages of 2 and 11 with Soberana vaccine; 91.1% of children between 12 and 17 with the Abdala vaccine; 93.1% between 18 and 29 with Sputnik Light and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines; and 96% of those over 30 with Oxford/AstraZeneca, Covishield, Sputnik V, Sinopharm-BIBP and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. (Nicaragua News, 5 May 2022)

Chocolate from Matagalpa Cacao Wins Prize in Europe
Ara Chocolat of Paris won a Gold Medal in the combined European Craft Chocolatier Competition, with products made with cocoa from the Ríos de Agua Viva Cooperative in Kuskawás, a mountainous territory located in the municipality of Rancho Grande, Department of Matagalpa. The 2022 International Chocolate Awards were held on April 7. This artisan competition, in which chocolatiers from Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland and other European countries participated, awards prizes to artisan chocolate products, including filled chocolates/bombons, pralines, wrapped fruits and nuts, and chocolate creams made with Bean to Bar chocolate. Bean to Bar refers to small craft chocolate makers that buy small quantities of cacao and clean, roast, and grind the cacao beans themselves. (Radio La Primerisima, 4 May 2022)

President Ortega Supports China’s Initiative for Global Security and Peace
During the event to commemorate National Dignity Day on May 4, President Daniel Ortega recalled that President Xi Jinping called for a global solution to provide security for the whole world. President Xi proposed a Global Security Initiative to promote security for all people in the world on April 21, delivering a keynote speech via video link at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia 2022 annual conference.

President Xi stressed that it is necessary to persist in respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, not intervening in the internal affairs of other countries, and respecting the development path and social system independently chosen by the people of each country. (Radio La Primerisima, 4 May 2022)

Join One of the “Friends of the ATC” Delegations in June or July

For more information: