This is a guest post by Kat, a Mi Momento 2016 Counselor.
Judging by her bright eyes and wild laugh I knew Doña Tina would be a central character in my small town life in Achuapa, León. Maria Ernestina Hernandez Torrez is certainly the central character at the cooperative Juan Francisco Paz Silva, where from humble campesina roots she is responsible for many value-added sesame products recognized nationally.
Doña Tina makes tahini, cajetas, horchata, and snack bars from sesame seeds produced by the associates of the Cooperative. She also makes natural medicine, manages a piñata business, takes care of grandkids, cooks for the staff and invents new products made from the raw materials of Achuapa.
Sometimes when I stop in Doña Tina is making “tomahini” – a tahini spaghetti sauce – or sautéing vegetables in sesame oil. Several years ago she started experimenting with wine – from melecotón (star fruit), tamarindo, ginger, jamaica, and wild grapes. Now local wine is now one of the Cooperative’s most popular items and several people have seasonal employment producing it under Doña Tina’s watchful eye. Last time I was in the kitchen at the Cooperative she was experimenting with toasted sesame “coffee”.
Doña Tina was born in a humble home in the community of La Calera, her family farmers and leather workers. She was recognized as a leader when she participated as a teacher in the literacy campaign of 1980, teaching many in her community to read. After leaving the father of her children, she raised three kids alone and was homeless for many years as she began to work for the Cooperative in Achuapa.
The Cooperative exports many tons of sesame oil directly to cosmetic producer, The Body Shop in the United Kingdom. They’ve also recently entered the Japanese market for culinary grade toasted sesame oil. A relatively small amount of seeds remain for the national market – and for Doña Tina’s innovative touch.
Doña Tina is the smiling face of a Cooperative that has more than 300 farmer-members, most of them men. But rural women contribute to agricultural production in numerous ways. Directly, they care for seedlings, harvest and clean the crop; indirectly, washing clothes, gathering wood and water, cooking and caring for agricultural workers.
The “Reconocimiento al Trabajo No Remunerado” initiative was started in 2009 when the Cooperative, NGO Etico and the Body Shop decided to include the value of womens’ unpaid work in the price of the sesame oil. This created a fund for the empowerment of rural women in Achuapa. This initiative was the first of its kind in the country.
Women are organized into savings groups. The initiative matches the savings of individual women up to $100. They have access to credit up to 1.5 times the total amount saved. 113 women participate in the savings program, or “creditos solidarios”. Participants in the womens’ groups also attend meetings, events and classes. Currently there are 13-week classes in sewing, baking, crafts and medicinal plants.
With a modest paycheck and through the Cooperative’s loan program she built her own house back in La Calera, where she now works to help other women generate income and independence. She’s taught eight young women to make piñatas and together they make them in bulk for the mayor’s office, which uses them for holiday festivities all over the municipality.
For more than 20 years, Doña Tina has pioneered women’s empowerment in her own community and workplace. She’s attended numerous trainings and workshops as a representative of the Cooperative, in places as far away as Switzerland and to many countries in Central America. She is unquestionably proud of her accomplishments and just how far she has come as a woman from rural Achuapa.
“Hay que querer”, says Doña Tina. You have to want it – is her simple message to other Nicaraguan women.
– Kat Shiffler
Peace Corps Nicaragua EEP 67
Mi Momento 2016 Counselor