In a humble house situated on the slope of a hill in Manchay, one of the many population centers in Lima, Peru, the master Anita Contreras has created a prosperous business of ceramic artisans. As happens with many artisans who persevere despite many hardships, she managed to set out alone and transform herself into a powerful woman cured of social prejudices. This is her history.
“What can you do when they break and destroy your heart? Give up or move on? This is the question.”
It took the young and inexperienced Anita Contreras a lot of time to realize what she needed to do. By 1992, the Contreras family’s father had already broken the heart of his daughter for the third time. Anita was afraid that she would be punished. Her father had made it known many times that he did not want to see her in relationships with any men. Because of a misunderstanding, Anita’s father, Antonio became infuriated and forced his daughter to marry a man that she didn’t love.
“It was a nightmare that I could not wake up from,” Anita’s voice breaks each time she remembers her past.
For years, the old customs of her family had devoured her dreams, one by one. She had become fed up with life but with ceramics, she found a way to escape all the problems that tormented her. It was a blessing for Anita which she was aware of even from a young age.
“It seems like it was yesterday. When I was young, I lived in the countryside. I liked to take the cows out to graze because I always found clay along the way. I remember one time that I spent hours playing with clay. I was like a little artisan. I had made various pots and dolls from clay. But, it rained that night and when I returned the following day I found nothing. The water that fell from the sky had washed away my creations. It was then that I began to become interested in ceramics. I did not understand how the artisans of my village made cooking utensils without breaking them in the process. For me, they only lasted one day.”
It was impossible for Anita to not become interested in ceramic since it was always present in her life. She was born in Quinua in the Andes of Ayacucho, a small village in the south of Peru where the majority of inhabitants worked with clay. When Anita was a girl, clay was only used to make jars, plates, and pots that were for transporting food and la chicha de hora (an Andean beverage). Nowadays, the ceramics are distinct from the ceramics that were made previously.
“In my village, they found another use for ceramics. With the clay, artisans created small churches that we see today on top of the roofs of houses. According to my grandparents, they are placed there to ward off evil spirits. Of my family, the only one dedicated to handicrafts was my grandfather, but he never took the time to teach me. Because of this, I dedicated myself to my studies. I liked math.”
Confessions of a disheartened artist
The first time that her heart was broken as a child was not for love, but for her studies. At not quite 15 years old, her father decided to take her out of high school so that she could dedicate herself completely to her household chores.
“My father did not want me to continue my studies. He often said: ‘Why do you keep studying if you already know how to write your name?’ I, on the other hand, wanted to continue high school. Finally, I had to quit. My father decided that I had better dedicate myself to decorating cotton clothing and taking care of my younger brothers.”
When she reached 16 years of age, Anita moved with her family to Lima. Then, in the early 90s, things got bad in Ayacucho. Every day, the military and terrorists attacked the lives of the farmers.
“I thought that I would find peace in Lima, but it did not turn out that way. A month after moving, the siege started.
“I had a gentleman neighbor who always courted me. On one occasion, this man came to my house with all of his family, bringing many gifts. He wanted to ask my hand, and my father almost gave me to him. I didn’t want to be forced to marry him and in my anger, I kicked everything that they had brought.”
Luckily, Anita’s father rose to her defense and she wasn’t made to marry. Later, as things got worse, Don Antonio promised to respect the decision of his daughter, but with one condition: from then on, the young girl was not allowed to leave the house at night, and worst of all, she was not allowed to have friends.
“My father did not want to see me talking with anybody. Because of this, I was careful. I was afraid that my father would see me with a friend and this made me sad because I did not have anyone to talk with.”
These were difficult times. Lima was a city at war, where only fear breathed.
There was a curfew every day until September of 1992, when Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the armed group Shining Path, was captured. But, months after the capture of the century, Anita suffered her own tragedy.
“The terrorist assaults had arrived at the capital. Because of this, I did not go out. One day, I worked late in a ceramic workshop. I was very afraid to be alone, so I asked one of the workers to accompany me. I had never before had to do this. Then, the worker began to molest me and I reacted aggressively. My scream woke the neighbors and my dad, who thought that I had a relationship with the man. No matter how much I explained what happened, he did not believe me. He was very stubborn and chauvinistic, and he forced me to marry someone whom I did not love.”
This unexpected outcome broke Anita’s heart for the third time. It was very painful for her, who had maintained a secret romance with another boy. She was forced to make a difficult decision and say goodbye to her real love. Unfortunately, her own siege had barely begun.
“I have never been happy with my husband. Until today, I have suffered alone with my ceramics, but I have still managed to get ahead. I have stopped asking him for help because he always tells me that he is busy. I have been supporting him for 26 years, thinking that one day he will change his pretentious and chauvinistic behavior. I know that if we both worked we would get ahead, but I am alone in this.”
Anita’s life seems like a novel. Alone and without the help of anybody, she has managed to build a business with her ceramics. At first, she worked in her husband’s workshop but since he did not turn in his orders on time, she made the decision to take over the business. Today, at 43 years of age, she runs two workshops and provides work for other women of humble means.
“I admit that ceramics bored me for a time. I was not patient, but I forced myself to do what it took to succeed. I have been working for five uninterrupted years. What I like the most about this job is the ease with which I can give form and life to clay. It is a talent that I have perfected with time.”
Ceramic Flower Ornaments, “Blooming Mandalas”
Ceramic Christmas Tree Accent, “Enchanted by Christmas”
Ceramic Ornaments, “Multicolored Nature”
Ceramic Nativity Figurine, “Nativity Inside a Chullo Hat”
Ceramic Dream Catcher, “Andean Dream Catcher”
Ceramic Musical Angel Ornaments, “Angel Band”
The money that she earned was not a lot, but sufficient enough to pay for the expenses of her home and the education of her four children. In this fight to get ahead, she met NOVICA and her life changed once again.
“I am more than happy to work with NOVICA. I’ve barely worked here for a couple of years and I already have various orders from my clients that live outside of Peru. These days, I am very busy. I am in my workshop early in the morning, molding the clay to convert it into pretty pendants in the form of little angels or nativities of the baby Jesus.”
Thanks to the initial income that she received from NOVICA, Anita was finally able to fix the floor of her house and change the columns that support the roof. “There is a before and an after in my life. No one ever inspired me to be successful. NOVICA taught me that I could be an independent entrepreneur.
“‘Anita, you can never surrender!’ they tell me every time I visit the headquarters in Lima. Today I am an independent woman. An empowered woman, as some say.”