It’s a humid summer day and I’m I traveling down the two lane, pot-hole filled, Carretera Panamericana, Panama’s main high way. I look out the window taking in all of the beautiful green landscapes full of vegetation, scarce of buildings or signs. Taking a series of blurry pictures on my phone, I try to capture the emotion I feel returning to my home country as an adult, soaking everything in as if I was seeing it for the first time.
The scenery becomes less blurred as the car rolls over broken parts of the road and out of the corner of my eye I catch several small straw huts with flurries of color peeking through the leaves. Leaving the car on the gravel and grass just barely off the skinny lane I walk into one of the huts and come face to face with one of the most memorable experiences of extreme contrasts. This series of huts are nestled onto the side of the road with not even a sign announcing their presence. Dirt floor, tin ceiling, and yet the open walls are decorated with beautiful, mesmerizing jewelry composed of uniquely intricate patterns. This obvious labor of handcrafted precision would cost a significant amount in any other setting, yet here, in this straw hut, it was $8 or less.
I smile and say hello to the thin gentleman sitting on the floor. As I talk to 76 year old Jose Maria Pinson, I learn about his family and how they hand make the beautiful pieces. Our conversation highlights a sad reality—beyond selling their goods on the road several kilometers from the indigenous reservation and 69 kilometers from the closest town, their other buyers on rare occasions are the department stores from Panama City that force artisans to lower their already low prices to sell the goods to tourists.
Although this exchange provides artisans like Señor Pinson income, it is not just and continues to perpetuate a poverty cycle. His poverty is evident and I believe that in my country we should not just use these artisanal goods as a hallmark of Panamanian culture, but empower and economically acknowledge the artisan. Just like the beautiful scenery, I absorb this reality: Unless they sell their beautiful pieces to a passerby on the side of that highway they have no income, realistically for many of them they are in danger of having nothing to eat that evening. How often does no one stop?
In Señor Pinson's community nine of every 10 people live on $1 per day. My family came from small rural villages of Panama. From these humble roots, the commitment to education and opportunity changed the life trajectory of my parents and my own. By the time I’d met Señor Pinson and the many other artisans that were a great inspiration on that trip, my career had been focused on impacting social change in the nonprofit and political sectors in the U.S. With this new social enterprise, I am excited to unite my long term passion for influencing social issues with my love of empowerment, creative processes and the power of design aesthetics.
Although it is hard to boil down the vision and business model of DESDE into one sentence, DESDE aims to sell beautiful, culturally authentic, timeless products that reinvest in artisans long term development, starting in Panama. DESDE’s vision is that all of its artisans will move out of poverty. To find out more about the vision for DESDE and find out ways to get involved Click here.
I look forward to talking about the experience of starting this social enterprise on this blog!