Saturday, November 08, 2014
If the Man With No Name was a woman...
She’s a hard-core campesina and colectivista, of an era that would have known the revolutionary years of Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement. Whenever I see her, she’s standing off to one side of the group, cigarette in hand, observing the scene with an impenetrable gaze. Cue the theme song from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
She intimidated me when I met her on my first day of work this past Monday, me in my summer dress and sandals with my hair up, her in what I now think of her uniform: jeans; long-sleeved shirt suitable for labouring in the fields; worn sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and not of the flippy, going-to-the-mall variety.
She gave me a good once-over and declared in a deep, union-president kind of voice that Femuprocan was an organization of el campo – of the countryside, which I understood by her tone to mean not the kind of place where women with girly hair-dos wore summer dresses and sandals. I told her I loved working in the countryside and had better shoes at home. That seemed to break the ice.
Her name is Martha Heriberta Valle. I don’t know her age and wouldn't dare ask, but I would guess somewhere in her 60s. She has led Femuprocan since the women’s agricultural organization first broke away from a mixed-sex agricultural group back in the 1990s, the women having decided that they would never be heard as long as they belonged to an association where men were always listened to first and priorized the projects. Part of my orientation this week included watching a video with photos from the early days of Femuprocan. There was Martha, looking exactly the same as she does now.
By the end of this week, Martha appeared to be warming to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I helped clear the table after our first group lunch together, demonstrating good colectivista behaviour. Maybe it was because I jumped right into the work - taking photos, chatting up the campesinas when we all went to a meeting out of town on Thursday, asking how I could be helpful. As it turns out, Martha and I share a dislike for too much blah-blah-blah, preferring action over talk.
Most likely it was because I told her she was welcome to come all the way into my little office even if she had a cigarette in her hand rather than stop at the entrance, as is her custom. “They say these things will kill me,” she joked in Spanish, gesturing with her cigarette, “but what’s more likely to kill me are the cars in the street.”
I have long loved a good orator, the way the union movement used to grow them back when Scottish men with thick accents and big hand gestures ran things. Martha is all of that. She doesn't say much, but when she does, people listen. When I went to a meeting with my co-workers this week to plan Femuprocan's 17th annual farm fair, several women shared with me in passing some bit of Martha wisdom: That a good productora is punctual; that power is in the collective, not the individual. I expect I’ll return to Canada with several Martha-isms added to my lexicon.
The meeting was at a demonstration farm that Femuprocan has about 70 kilometres north of Managua. Martha was already there when we arrived. I later asked her if she lived in that area, presuming she would have driven out with us if not. She told me that she hadn't lived anywhere for 40 years, preferring to roam from place to place.
“I can stay for two days somewhere, but by the third day I want to leave,” she said. “I've got my truck and my backpack. That’s enough for me.”