Student volunteers help artisans and a community in the Andes
April 3, 2012
In a poor and isolated Incan village high in the Andes Mountains, a Salesian priest made a wondrous discovery.
Entering the Virgen de Asuncion Church—a stately building in Chacas, Peru, where Fr. Ugo De Censi would serve as parish priest—the Italian missionary discovered a magnificent, 17th century, hand-carved tableau towering behind the altar. Standing nearly three stories high, the golden tableau was covered with intricately carved religious icons and alcoves featuring statues of Jesus and several saints.
By the time Fr. De Censi arrived in Chacas in 1976, however, the tableau had started to fall into decay and ruin.
Touched by the deep faith of a humble people, Fr. De Censi decided to restore the tableau as an act of faith in both the Virgin Mary and the people of Chacas. The project would take several years to complete. It would also prompt Fr. De Censi to create a free school to help young boys reclaim the disappearing skills and traditions of master carpenters and sculptors in the region. That undertaking, however, also enabled Fr. De Censi to fulfill another goal—to bring more than the Word of God and food to the people of Chacas.
Today, Fr. De Censi’s schools have grown to serve 1,500 students and triggered the creation of a cooperative, Artesanos Don Bosco, of nearly 700 professional carpenters, sculptors, painters, and weavers. Through its sole American storefront located in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood, Artesanos Don Bosco now sells hand-carved furniture, sculptures, religious pieces, and other items to customers throughout region.
Loyola University Maryland students are working to help raise awareness of the unique cooperative, support the work of Peruvian artisans, and aid education and other social projects in a distant town in the Andes.
Thomas Ward, Ph.D., chair of modern languages and literatures and director of Latin American and Latino studies, began introducing students to Artesanos Don Bosco about a decade ago. Ward had spotted a newspaper advertisement for an exhibit of Peruvian furniture at the Italian consulate and set out to learn more about the organizers. A Peruvianist, Ward was fascinated not only by the art but by the effort to give poor, rural residents an education and an opportunity to earn a living in their hometown.
“In Latin America, people migrate to cities in order to find jobs,” making it even more difficult to sustain traditional, rural villages, Ward said.
Rapidly growing Lima attracts many young men in search of jobs. However, those from traditional villages such as Chacas—where residents are descendants of the Incas and speak the traditional Quechua language more than the prevailing Spanish—often find it difficult to land jobs and prosper in a modern city of 10 million people where they don’t even speak the language. Some fall into the ranks of the rural poor, become victims of racism, or sink into Lima’s drug culture. Ultimately, many find it impossible to move back to their mountain villages—a situation that results in many poor and broken families in rural Peru.
“A prominent father figure within the family can be hard to come by in Chacas and some of the surrounding villages,” said Nicholas Bruce, a volunteer with Artesanos Don Bosco who lived in Peru for two years. “There are definitely abandoned elderly. There are even orphaned children.”
Impressed by Loyola’s service-learning program, Ward forged a partnership with Artesanos Don Bosco so that his students could both assist the effort and acquire a deeper appreciation of living conditions in Peru.
“Students like books, but they like experience even more. If you can link the books to an experience, they very quickly form a more nuanced view of the material,” Ward said.
Loyola students have worked on a variety of projects for Artesanos Don Bosco, including helping the store acquire a credit card machine. They also planned, hosted, and promoted an exhibit of furniture and art on the Loyola campus. This semester students are focusing on raising funds to send directly to Peru. They are planning a bake sale and a small concert, and they are offering to do odd jobs through Craig’s List.
“The students have a way of getting under your skin so that you get really charged up. I think they infuse energy into Don Bosco. I have seen the Don Bosco people really excited and animated and supercharged after meetings with our students,” Ward said. The University honored Ward March 23 with a 2012 Faculty Award for Excellence in Engaged Scholarship for integrating service-learning into his courses, not just through the partnership with Artesanos Don Bosco but also with other Baltimore organizations.
Helen White, a senior majoring in studio arts and Spanish, said her work on the exhibit taught her a lot about organizing art exhibits and helped her push past the stereotypes about drugs and violence in Latin America to gain a better understanding of living conditions and social justice issues.
“Taking Spanish courses and learning about Latin America is one thing, but actually getting experience with the culture teaches you a lot about life in Peru,” White said. “We learned that some children have to work rather than go to school in order to support their families. We learned about the economic injustices that happen in the communities in the Andes served by Don Bosco.”
With the help of White and other Loyola volunteers, the artisans can make the most of a livelihood that benefits them, their families, and their communities. Fr. De Censi would be proud.