Strings of fluffy wool slide between their fingers and obediently lie down on swiftly turned spools, which are seem to be integral parts of their hands. Two donkeys follow the women unwillingly. They stop every once in a while but are scolded back to obedience.
The Salasaca district in Tungurava Province, Ecuador, takes up only 12 square kilometers but has preserved the strong identity of the local inhabitants as well as their authentic culture and customs. Here, men and women wear traditional outfits every day, obey holiday rituals, and do handicrafts: they spin yarn and weave everyday clothing and festival costumes as well as tapestries, on archaic looms.
On women’s shoulders
Several other women travel in the same direction as Martina and Luz Maria, while others are already coming back with heaps of weed, called kikuyo, on their and their donkeys’ backs. It looks like they are attending a beauty pageant: real Salasaca women wear beautiful traditional outfits and don colorful jewelry and hats. Some walk barefoot, but expensive necklaces decorate their necks, brooches hold their shawls closed, and earrings swing from their ears. Many mouths glitter with golden teeth. All the women spin their wool spools constantly as if they were Tibetan prayer wheels.
Martina and Luz Maria are also running to gather kikuyo. Every 2-3 days they travel to the river, leave their donkeys and wool spools, and climb down the steep 200-meter embankment. They stop somewhere in its middle, take out their sickles, put on gloves, fall into the tall grass, cut it in swift movements, and heap it in a pile.
“My mother used to do it, and grandmother, and great-grandmother. This task is passed from generation to generation,” explains Martina. She does not remember when exactly she started working the slope to help her mother. “I was very little.” She laughs, her wide gilded smile shining.
The grass is for the animals that the women raise. It is a woman’s task to feed and take care of the animals in Salasaca. The Salasacas mostly live off agriculture, animal husbandry, and handicrafts. Traditionally, women would take care of the household chores and the children, and the men would work the fields. As time went by, more and more work landed on the women’s shoulders. Now their responsibilities are not only housekeeping and taking care of the animals, including gathering kikuyo, but agriculture, too.
By the river
Both huge, steep slopes of the river are somebody’s property, but the patches are not marked or separated in any way. “Ours is the part from this tree to that one, and that patch downhill from that bush,” explains Luz Maria. Women work together, first in Martina’s husband’s plot, and then they move to Luz Maria’s patch. The hot rays of the sun seep even through dense leaves of trees and bushes; the women keep wiping the sweat from their foreheads. They take off their cloaks. Martina puts her hat in the shade and ties a shawl around her head.
Women’s work on the slope – which looks like an abyss from above – can be dangerous. If they lose their balance or stumble under a heavy weight, the workers can fall down and roll several meters to the ground, dislocating their arms or legs or suffering other injuries. According to the sisters, accidents do happen, but none of them have experienced any serious injury. “You get used to it, you train your skills,” Luz Maria says modestly. Little flies, the bites of which are very painful, buzz around. The women seem to be used to them, but for outsiders, the bites swell and cause inflammation.
Martina and Luz Maria bundle the grass and carry it up the slope. The embankment is too steep and too intricate to be worked with mowers and cars. Even the donkeys wait for their burden at the top of the slope. The women have to cut the grass by hand and carry it to the top themselves. Those who do not own donkeys carry their burden home on their backs and must repeat the process several times.
With 30-45 kilo bundles of grass on their backs, the women look like enormous walking bushes. The sisters move slowly, swaying from side to side, stopping to rest their back and knees, which suffer under the burden. The workers tread carefully and grab onto trees that at one point serve as support and at another become obstacles. Having each carried a bundle of kikuyo to the top, they go down again. They each have to cut and carry up at least two more bundles. After kikuyo is mowed, it grows back to a height suitable for animal feed in two and a half months. Thus, the women work a different plot of land every week, letting the rest grow back.
The younger generation
Martina’s daughters Sylvia Rosa and Myrin Susana rarely help their mother at work. They have both graduated from universities and have day jobs, so there is no time to take care of the animals. The girls do not wear traditional Salasaca outfits every day. They only don them during celebrations. No spindles can be seen in their hands, either, although girls laugh and reassure us that they do know how to spin.
Luz Maria’s only son, who is 16, also does not mow the grass and plans to enroll in university, so it may well be that Martina and Luz Maria are the last women in the family who feed their animals with hand-cut kikuyo, spin wool, and wear traditional clothes and jewelry every day.
“Young people renounce traditional outfits more and more often. They want to dress after the modern fashion, leave Salasaca to study in universities, and live in the cities,” Martina says. She got married and gave birth to her children when she was still very young, so there was no possibility for Martina to study or get a job. She spent her life taking care of her family and their animals, which continuously demand fresh grass.
The younger generation are forced to migrate to studies or for work as well as due to land partitions. Plots of land, once large, have been passed down from generation to generation, and they are divided equally among each child of the deceased family member. This partition means that the plots of land get smaller each time, to the point where they are not big enough to make a living from. Thus, Salasacas who want to stay in agriculture move to other districts of Ecuador.
While women work in the fields, barns, and houses, men often sit at the loom and weave the yarn spun by women into fabric for traditional clothes. Those who do not know how or do not want to weave, take up other jobs, for example, in construction or forestry, while those with more education become doctors or teachers.
Salasaca is famous for its traditional fabrics, which often depict scenes from the life of the locals or recreate ancient ornaments. Martina’s husband, José Jerez Caizabanda, is a famous weaver in the district, so in addition to weaving for his family, he weaves for sale as well. The main features of the traditional outfits are skirts and shawls for women, ponchos for men, and long bands used as belts, and it takes several weeks to weave each of them. Wide-brimmed hats, used only on special occasions, are also woven from wool.
But the women are indispensable here, too. They help by cleaning and combing the wool and spinning the yarn. Whether they sit down for a chat, trot to mow the grass, or travel to see their animals, spindles and the wool they work never leave their hands.
In the early 20th century, the art of weaving was about to go extinct, but in order to preserve the old tradition so important to Salasacas, a cooperative was formed. Development programs were implemented, as well, that helped the sales of handicrafts grow; more and more men would come back to or take up weaving. Now, visitors can see the museum of traditional handicrafts in the town of Salasaca. On the central square, known as the Plaza of the Arts, it is possible to buy locally woven fabric and cloth, although most of the locals simply sell their goods from home.
The look of the Salasacas is exceptional among Ecuadorians. Men wear white trousers held by a woven band and shirts and don a typically black, sometimes white poncho over them. Women wear black skirts, also held by a woven band, wrapped around their waist several times. The length of one band, or several bands used at once, can reach up to 20 meters. Women cover their white or black blouses with colorful shawls pinned by brooches. Both men and women wear green hats every day, most of which are imported from Germany and cost around 100 Eur. For rituals and festivities, brown or traditional white woolen hats are worn.
Animals, garden, home
Martina and Luz Maria mow at least four big bundles of grass each and carry them up the slope. Now they put them on their donkeys’ backs and fasten the bundles with rope. The donkeys refuse to stay still, but the women do not let them pull and fasten the heaps well. Once the huge bundles of grass are firmly attached to each side of the donkeys, the sisters grab their spindles and, half-running, spinning, and pulling the donkeys, dart towards home.
In the village, Martina and Luz Maria, each with her donkey, go in different directions. They keep their animals on their plots, where they leave freshly cut kikuyo scattered around, too. The women keep cows, pigs, poultry, and guinea pigs, the latter of which are a delicacy in Ecuador and neighboring countries. Every once in a while, the women sell some guinea pigs, milk, and eggs, to add money to their household budgets.
After they feed the cows and the pigs, the sisters meet again, this time in a corn field. Corn grows in a garden near where Martina’s animals are kept, whose manure she uses as fertilizer, as well as potatoes, onions, beans, peas, and bur clover. Plots of land are separated from each other by lines of agave plants rather than by fences.
The sun is about to set and the skies turn dark blue. The women fill two huge bags with corn, put them on their backs, fasten them with ropes, and turn towards their homes again, constantly spinning wool on the way, which, it seems, they can do without looking. Back home, Martina kindles a fire in the kitchen. Sylvia Rosa helps her mother to shuck corn and throws it into a big pot with boiling water. A traditional local meal is guinea pig with boiled potatoes and peanut sauce. But tonight, there is only corn at Martina’s, so she promises to invite us for guinea pig some other day.