Las Cureñas: From local tradition to international export

The women of the San Expedito Cooperative in Nicaragua are artists. Fifteen years ago, the art form, a heritage from the local indigenous people, remained within the walls of the home, but thanks to their organization, their ceramics have reached not only the national but also the international market. We visited the cooperative to see how organization and entrepreneurship can create autonomy and financial security while at the same time helping to preserve the local cultural heritage.

Photo: Karin Carlsson

The buzz of flies and a pig barking in a ditch are the only sounds heard as we walk along the narrow road that will take us to a small village in the valley of Las Cureñas, a mile outside Jinotega in Nicaragua. In the quiet little village at the foot of a mountain live eleven women who have become known throughout Nicaragua for their pottery.

The art of making the black pottery that the San Expedito Cooperative (popularly known as Cerámica Negra) is known for comes from the indigenous people and has been practiced for hundreds of years, generation after generation. But it was not until fifteen years ago that some women in the village realized that the old family traditions could become somewhat larger and through the initiative to organize themselves in a cooperative, entrepreneurs became known both within and outside the country's borders.

On site in the workshop, we are met by Luz Marina Herrera, who today is chairman of the cooperative.

- We start by picking up the clay up there on the mountain, she explains. It's hard work and sometimes we hire people just to help us carry. We often manage to carry 20-kilo sacks of the heavy clay on our hips or shoulders, but the people we hire can carry twice as much.

In addition to this, only the eleven women in the cooperative are responsible for all work in the process, she says. After the clay has been removed from the rock, it must be cleaned, filtered and dried. This process can take anywhere from two weeks during the dry season to a full month when it rains a lot. Only afterwards can the clay begin to be processed.

Luz Marina Herrera at the turntable.
Photo: Karin Carlsson

The manually driven turntable spins by the foot giving speed to a spinning wooden board. Herrera shows how her right knee was damaged by working several hours a day due to many years of work with the turntable. Thanks to the fact that they became known outside Nicaragua and started collaborating with universities and organizations, two pedal-driven turntables were donated to the cooperative by a donor.

- It is heavy for the knee in the long run. Each woman can produce up to 50 products per day, think how many hours we sit at the turntable! Laughs Herrera.

Today, Ceramica Negra has built up a reputation for its special ceramics and thanks to its work, women have improved their financial situation and been able to expand their business. This spring, groups from the USA will start traveling to the cooperative to learn about the process. The black color that is the cooperative's signature comes from the fact that after heating it in the oven, they put the burning ceramic in pine shavings to cool. This is after bowls, vases, plates, mugs and jewelery are first formed at the turntable and then left to dry for several days and polished with the help of stones picked up from a nearby river.

The black color that is the cooperative's signature comes from the fact that after heating it in the oven, they put the burning ceramic in pine shavings to cool.
Photo: Karin Carlsson

After a private tour of the workshop and many turns around the farm shop, it is inevitable to be impressed by the San Expedito cooperative's hospitality, creativity and initiative. The art form that has been practiced for generations for private use has gone from a part of the informal economy to an export product and a basis for financial security thanks to the fact that these women have organized themselves. Ceramica Negra is a prime example of when local tradition and talent became entrepreneurship and when works of art from a small village in a small valley in Nicaragua can be sought after even on other continents. The women's activities have given them greater independence and their workshop has become a tourist destination.

- We support ourselves on our ceramics and for some it has changed what it looks like in their families, for example. In the past, most men and women worked at home, but now we have created our own financial security, Luz Marina Herrera concludes with a smile before she goes back down to the small workshop for another session at the turntable.

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