Indigenous entrepreneur Celestina Ábalos runs a tourism business in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy province, northern Argentina, sharing her community’s culture and knowledge of medicinal plants.
“I am a child of Pachamama, Mother Earth. Earth is everything to us. It’s life. We cannot conceive of ourselves without it. My community dates back 14,000 years. On behalf of 60 families, I led a 20-year struggle for the right to land, education and freedom.
We used to live under a tenancy system where we had a landlord who determined the spaces for us to occupy and live in, both for planting crops and raising livestock. It was a life governed very much by what the master said, by the space it had to occupy, and by what I saw my parents have to pay at the end of each year. These were very powerful moments for a teenager.
Through the process of reclaiming our territory, I began to think more about how to make my history and the history of my people known. I have always seen and continue to see in the media the stigma that is placed on us indigenous peoples. I wanted to tell and make known the other side of the story. That motivated me, but I was thinking, “How do I, how do I show this?”
“We are the guardians of our culture”
In 2003, our mountain valley, Quebrada de Humahuaca, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This marked a historical moment in the history of our people. I saw that many people were talking about our mountains, about our culture, about our food. And I said to myself: “but this is us: we know how to do it, we are the guardians of our culture”.
Culture, for us, is part of our everyday life, it is the knowledge and skills that have been passed down from generation to generation. We learn it from the moment we are born. It is in our medicinal plants and in our food, in our crops.
So I thought: “Why should I not dare to do what I know, what I have learned?” Thus was born my tourism business, a teahouse called Casa de Celestina.
Sharing ancestral knowledge
When tourists come to Casa de Celestina, I welcome them, introduce them to the use of medicinal plants, such as mate, which we drink in the morning and in the afternoon to get energy. I talk about which herb we take when we are sick, when to harvest it, how to dry it, how to store it.
I’m talking about our diet. We have our different corns here and we make our own flour, so we have flour for soup, flour for tamales, flour to make cookies, flour to make our juices, our drinks, flour to make our pastries.
All this knowledge is there because it has been passed down from generation to generation. Our mothers, our grandmothers, for me are the real treasure of biodiversity. Our grandparents are those living libraries in our communities. Without them and without that knowledge, I could not be speaking today.
I learned by observing, watching, sharing. You must contribute to the land, put wood on the fire, light an oven and make your offering. You should be there at sunset, when the goats have already returned to the corral and the grandparents are sitting down.
Tourists prepare a dish with me. It could be a cornmeal pudding, with nuts, with chocolate chips. Or they can also prepare a delicious meal, quinoa croquettes filled with goat cheese, with chips, rosemary and herbs. Or we can also prepare a llama casserole.
Then we visit my town and our church, which dates back to 1789. We visit the herb street, where they also learn about other medicinal herbs such as Muna-Muna, which is for bruises, for muscle pain.
They know our stories, our ceremonies, like the sending of spirits or the story of how we reclaimed our territory. I share how my day is and what I do. And then we go down and have tea together and eat the pudding they’ve made.
I renew their energies with the herbs that we also brought from the road. They leave feeling renewed, they leave with a different view of us. They experience a living culture, the essence of culture.
That’s what I love about tourism, about those who come to visit us. You see how this cultural relationship goes beyond sharing an experience. It’s about seeing each other in a different way, seeing each other as human beings.
‘I’m achieving my dream’
The pandemic hit my business very hard. The reservations I had were canceled. The little savings I had went to feed my family. I felt so helpless. The government said there were subsidies for entrepreneurs, but I didn’t qualify and had to keep paying taxes. Many small business entrepreneurs have had a very difficult time. It was very difficult.
I was invited to participate in a Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) virtual course, run by the International Labor Organization (ILO), to be held between October and November 2021. I was very interested in improving my entrepreneurship and development of a business plan because it was one of the reasons why I could not access loans and subsidies. So I said yes immediately.
The ILO course gave me tools to grow my business. I’m still using them today. They included how to create a business plan, estimate costs, prepare a budget and inventory, and manage social media. Some of the people on the course had already started their own businesses, others were about to start. It was a chance to share and exchange our experiences. What I liked the most were the course manuals. They are very, very useful, very good.
My business is constantly improving. I am achieving my dream.
I still remember a speech I gave a long time ago to the then president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner. I said, “We, the indigenous peoples, want an opportunity, the opportunity for development, the opportunity to improve the quality of life.”
It is important for my community to see that it is possible, that we women can run our businesses with the tools we have. We don’t have to wait until we have everything, but we can start with what we have now.”