Clay, sand loam… let´s go to work!
Marieta Orduz Chaparro, 53, is a traditional potter, with a big smile and always willing to help her community. She has been involved in pottery all her life: “this is an activity that we have inherited.” Her grandparents owned a big patch of land and started working on pottery in the region of Pantanitos. “As time passed, they started selling lands to their workers and planned where to build their kiln to engage in this craft.”
Marieta, known to everyone as Doña Marieta, started working as a child, helping her family with the different chores related to pottery: carrying bricks, cutting them, taking them out of the kiln and helping load the bricks into the kiln for firing. “I loved to fill the small gaps when loading the bricks. I would fight just to be given that task. For us it was like a game, so it was not coercive work at all.” As she grew up and gained more experience, Marieta started taking up administrative duties: “who to hire, see which person yields better results, find women who will support us, get training…”
Smile on her face, she remembers how, being an 18-year-old teenager, she managed to sell her first 100 bricks, and bought her first sewing machine with the money she earned. “It was the greatest. But I realized that it wasn’t my thing, and now I’m keeping it as a trophy.”
“One day working with the kiln”
A normal working day for Marieta starts when she wakes up at 5 in the morning. The first thing she does is make “el tinto” (strong black coffee), and put it in a jar to take it to the workers as part of their breakfast. Once everyone has had breakfast, they start with their chores. Her working days vary depending on the production stage. “You do what needs to be done. Which is to say, you don’t have a schedule; it is the duties that organize our days.” The working day ends at 5 in the afternoon, but they sometimes stay longer if there are unforeseen circumstances, or leave earlier if they complete the day’s tasks before schedule. All workers are paid a daily wage which includes breakfast, snacks and lunch.
Since a young age she had to be responsible and help with the daily chores. She is the eldest of 7 siblings, which meant that she had to take care of her younger siblings. “You mechanically learn that you have to get up to make the coffee, make breakfast, help the workers…” Marieta is a mother of 3, and says that “they felt the work was so hard that they don’t want to continue with this process. However, we keep working to have enough resources to put them through college.”
Her youngest son worked in pottery for many years, “but said that he didn’t want to keep doing this and started studying.” At the time he is studying civil engineering. Her husband also works in the sector, in a formal company at the industrial park. During his free time, he helps with many pottery-related tasks. “Right now he is helping me build the chimney.”
Clay women: “we live with sand, with dirt, but happy”
Women like Marieta have worked in pottery for years, carrying out many duties – they help with firing, loading the kilns, and “whatever needs to be done.” Because men work all day and take care of other duties, potter women have to take care of their homes almost by themselves, help their children and work, which means that they have a very long, hard day of work. “The workload of women potters is heavy,” Marieta says, “but we are so used to it that we don’t get tired, because it’s what we do. For those of us born into this, we have clay in our teeth and in our veins – it’s normal.” But this tradition has gradually disappeared as the years went by, and new generations want to “work doing some other activity.”
Throughout time, pottery has become a more “technological” work, and Marieta expresses her concern: “We don’t know what the future has in store, especially for women.” For the women potters of Boyacá, being a part of the with ARM has been a positive experience: “We were able to get organized, and learned other productive activities that are more suitable for the availability, age and needs of our women (…) We can hardly believe that an institution remembered us: head-of-household mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts…”
Clay, sand, loam… let’s go to work!
Creating the bricks is a very artisanal craft. “Bricks are made out of a mixture of clay (50%), sand and loam. All of this is moisturized, stirred and mixed, just like when you bake a cake. All of this process is done manually. Once the loam mixture has matured, the cutting work is scheduled and the brick cutter is rented.” Cutting requires 8 to 12 people, depending on the quantity, who fill the machine’s hopper so that the kneaded clay comes out. “They cut it, take it away and spread it in the molds. It is then air-dried, and when we are authorized by the pico y placa[i], which is once every 5 weeks, it is put in the kiln. It is fired and cooled during 12 to 13 days, and then we can start selling the bricks.”
Marieta has been a witness to the advances in pottery throughout the years. The brick-creation process has changed significantly: “each day the process is becoming more advanced.”
Ready for sale
When selling the material, “the architect or engineer that is going to build something comes to my home and buys bricks at 5 to 7 thousand pesos. Or it may so happen that no one comes. Or that no construction company is interested in the bricks. And not selling bricks for one or two months is concerning, because it is practically our only source of income to pay for our utilities: gas, water and electricity.”
Even though women have worked in all areas of the pottery activity, one of the greatest challenges has been operating the machines. “Now, you have a brick cutting machine, and before, this used to be done with horses or oxen, which was simpler, because it was the animals that did the grinding. This was back in the time of my grandparents and parents. Now you see that machines are the hardest part.”
Another challenge has been the overproduction of bricks within the departamento. “We complete our production, but if there is no buyer to purchase it then we need to look where we can place it and keep working. This is because our investment is about 7 million pesos for the manufacturing process – for the entire process. 7 million pesos is a lot to have just lying around without seeing results.”
Boyacá is a loam-rich departamento, which is the main ingredient in brickmaking, which is why when you walk around Marieta’s neighborhood you can find potteries everywhere.
Marieta say that, for a few years now, regulations have become “stricter,” which is why women potters have had to make many changes to avoid getting penalties and comply with the regulations. Corporación Autónoma Regional de Boyacá (Autonomous Regional Corporation of Boyacá) “has been asking us to comply with a lot of things.” Marieta explains that a few years ago, Sogamoso was one of the most polluted municipalities in Colombia, and that thanks to certain changes, pollution has been reduced. But this has also hurt potters, she says, because a few years ago “104 families were forced to sell their kilns because they did not comply with the regulations of CorpoBoyacá, and now they are out of work. It helped decontaminate Sogamoso, but we don’t know what is going on in each home.” In addition, a few years ago it was common to see children working, but this practice has gradually declined.
Looking toward the future
For 3 years, Marieta has been the president of the Junta de Acción Comunal de la Vereda de Pantanitos Bajos (Community Action Board of the Pantanitos Bajos Neighborhood). She is the first woman of the pottery sector to occupy the position, and she is very proud to be able to help her community. Along with members of the board, she has been knocking on doors to get the street that leads to the neighborhood to be expanded, sewers to be built, and security cameras to be installed.
Even though “our requests have fallen into deaf ears,” Marieta remains positive and has faith that things will improve. “We have given support to the 104 families that lost their kilns by taking them under our wing and raising awareness to their situation. These are people who have lost their sustenance, and since they are of old age, they cannot keep working and have no money to support themselves.”
“The community bought a parcel to build the healthcare center. But due to some technical problems, it was not opened. So now they are sending a mobile unit to the neighborhood every once in a while so we can get medical care.” Marieta says that they will keep fighting for things to get better in the community – “We are fighting the fight.”
 Pico y placa is a form of schedule-based restriction. Since the continuous kiln firing was causing a significant damage to the environment, potteries are only allowed to turn on their kilns every 5 weeks.