Indigenous entrepreneur Celestina Ábalos runs a tourism business at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy Province, northern Argentina, sharing her community’s culture and knowledge of medicinal herbs.
“I am a child of Pachamama, Mother Earth. The Earth is everything to us. That’s life. We cannot conceive of ourselves without it. My community goes back 14,000 years. On behalf of 60 families, I led a 20-year fight for the right to land, education and freedom.
We lived in a rental system where we had an owner who delimited the spaces to occupy and inhabit, both for sowing and for raising livestock. It was a life very governed by what the master said, by the space that had to be occupied, and by what I saw my parents having to pay at the end of each year. These are very strong moments for a teenager.
Throughout the process of reclaiming our territory, I began to think more about how to tell my story and that of my people. I have always seen, and I continue to see in the media, the stigmatization that we are victims of, the aboriginal peoples. I wanted to show and make known the other side of the story. It motivated me but I said to myself: “How do I do, how do I show this?”
“We are the guardians of our culture”
In 2003, our mountain valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This marked a milestone in the history of our people. I saw a lot of people talking about our mountains, our culture, our food. And I said to myself: “but it’s us: we know how to do it, we are the guardians of our culture”.
Culture, for us, is part of our daily lives, it is knowledge and know-how that have been passed down from generation to generation. We learn it from birth. It’s in our herbal medicines and in our food, in our crops.
So I thought, “Why not dare to do what I know, what I learned?” This is how my tourism business was born, a tea house called Casa de Celestina.
Sharing ancestral knowledge
When tourists come to Casa de Celestina, I welcome them, I introduce them to the use of medicinal herbs, such as mate, which we drink in the morning and afternoon to recharge our batteries. I’m talking about what weed we take when we’re sick, when to harvest it, how to dry it, how to store it.
I’m talking about our food. We have our different grains here and we make our own flour, so we have flour for soup, flour for tamales, flour for making cookies, flour for making our juices, 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 true treasures of biodiversity. Our grandparents are these living libraries in our communities. Without them and without this knowledge, I could not speak today.
I learned, by observing, watching, sharing. You have to contribute to the land, put wood on the fire, light an oven and make your offering. You have to be there at sunset, when the goats are already back in the corral and the grandparents are sitting.
The tourists prepare a dish with me. It can be a pudding with corn culli flour, nuts, chocolate chips. Or they can also make a delicious meal, quinoa croquettes stuffed with goat cheese, with sautéed potatoes, rosemary and herbs. Or you can also prepare a llama casserole.
Then we visit my town and our church, which dates back to 1789. We visit the path of herbs, where they also discover other medicinal herbs such as Muna-Muna, which is for bruises, for muscle pain.
They get to know our stories, our ceremonies, like the sending of souls or the story of how we reclaimed our territory. I share what my day looks like and what I do. And then we go downstairs and drink tea together and eat the pudding they made.
I renew their energies with the herbs we also brought from the path. They leave feeling renewed, they leave with another vision of us. They experience a living culture, the essence of culture.
That’s what I love about tourism, about people who come to visit us. You see how this culture relationship goes beyond sharing an experience. It’s about looking at each other differently, looking at each other as human beings.
“I realize my dream”
The pandemic has hit my business very hard. The reservations I had were cancelled. What little savings I had was used to feed my family. I felt so helpless. The government said there were grants for entrepreneurs, but I didn’t qualify and had to keep paying taxes. Many small business entrepreneurs have gone through a very difficult time. It was very hard.
I was invited to participate in a Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) virtual course, organized by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was to take place between October and November 2021. I was very interested in improving my entrepreneurship and developing a business plan because that was one of the reasons why I didn’t have access to loans and grants. So I said yes right away.
The ILO course provided me with tools to grow my business. I still use them today. They understood how to make a business plan, estimate costs, prepare a budget and inventory, and manage social media. Some of the course participants had already started their own business, others were about to start. It was an opportunity to share and exchange our experiences. What I liked the most were the course manuals. They are very, very helpful, very good.
My business is steadily improving. I realize my dream.
I still remember a speech I gave a long time ago to the then president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner. I said to him: “We, the indigenous people, want an opportunity, an opportunity for development, an opportunity to improve our quality of life.
It’s important for my community to see that it’s possible, that we women can do our business with the tools we have. We don’t have to wait to have everything, but we can start with what we have now.”