Artisan Organization: Omaira Manrique
"I'm an artisan and, mainly, a person who loves community work â€“ to give my hand and heart to people.
"My father was very skillful. He learned the basic technique of coiled baskets in school and essentially taught himself the rest. He began inviting others in our town to learn this craft and keep the tradition alive.
"On the other hand, my mother and grandparents crafted Spanish espadrille sandals with soles of fique fiber, similar to that of the maguey. They also wove fabric for wool bags on a vertical loom. So I received an important artisan legacy and have a wonderful connection with textile techniques.
"Because I grew up in a town with very few businesses, work opportunities were limited. The only way to make a living was selling arts and crafts locally. So I first worked with my cousin. We'd sit under a tree and talk about our lives while we wove placemats that were very popular at that time because of their colors and patterns. Over the years, I had to become more experienced, and this constant search for innovation has been very gratifying.
"When I was a community director, every Monday we'd go out to the rural areas and teach budding artisans how to organize materials, dyeing techniques for the natural fibers they use, and how to calculate costs. We worked for six or seven years in producing six basic products crafted by some 1,700 village residents. During the first years of our cooperative, when we called ourselves the Casa del Telar de Arco, we began with only five families. Today we have more than 400 members working together.
"This has been a marvelous process. I've always enjoyed teaching. The initiative of organizing communities for the common good is something that simply arises within me and it's become a mission in my life.
"The driving force behind my mission is a desire to work as a team. There are a lot of people who didn't believe in our cooperative. They hoped to earn a lot of money in a very short time. But our mission is much larger â€” the cooperative was created to improve the artisans' quality of life.
"I've learned to be perseverant, and to always listen to that little voice inside that encourages us to continue working to build a better future. The path isn't easy but, today, the results we've had fill me with joy.
"What I really love is to involve myself in absolutely all the processes in this craft. We're always in movement â€” creating new designs and color combinations, and seeking new strategic alliances. Since 1992, we've offered our basketry in craft fairs such as Expo ArtesanÃas.
"It's been a long road. We have more than 35 years of experience and, thanks to this, we've been recognized by the Chamber of Commerce.
"We had the opportunity to participate in a social responsibility program called 'Searching for Lost Pride.' A number of Colombian artisans participated, and we took Third Place. This brought us an important donation that let us invest more in artisan development and also let us build a house for a woman member of the cooperative who was living in very humble conditions.
"I'm grateful to be able to say that my grand dream has come true. Guacamayas is is finally recognized for its rich natural, cultural and artisan heritage. Today we receive tourists from many parts of the world who want to know more about our art and culture. I'd love for our cooperative to be the best ranking in Colombia, and I'm working toward that dream every day.
"I find so much inspiration in helping others, working as part of the community and giving a hand to others. I'm also involved in my town's Civil Defense, I'm on the Council of Culture, and am a keeper of our patrimony. I'm surrounded by natural wonders like the Paipa-Iza Volcano, Lake Tota and the variety of agriculture we have. I live amid this natural wealth.
"When I'm at home, I like to watch soap operas when I have some free time. My other passion is travel. I try to visit a different place every year and make this a goal. One of my favorite trips was to see the hats made in Montecristi, Ecuador. I saw how they're crafted and also enjoyed Ecuador's cultural diversity.
"I work with some of my family members, For example, StefanÃa, one of my daughters, is in charge of everything involved with social media and Internet sales. All my children know how to craft coiled baskets. On the other hand, my mother â€” Elvira Gomez â€” still weaves and continues to contribute to our community as an artisan. In recent years, I've looked after the marketing. I reach out to clients, visit craft fairs, place our work in markets, and I also design and develop new basketry.
"I work very hard to improve the quality of life in the homes of Guacamayas, while promoting greater recognition for my town. We've been able to generate more income and jobs in the community. We are growing every day, and our goals grow with us.""