Hammocks with a Purpose
It's easy to think, when you first walk into Tio Antonio's hammock shop in Granada, Nicaragua, that it's just one more tourist-oriented tienda. More interesting than most, of course: the hammocks are actually being made here, by young men and women, and you can watch them create a high-quality hammock from skeins of colorful cotton yarn. Many visitors end up buying hammocks in the nearby town of Masaya, where they're both cheaper and more varied...but plenty buy them here (from about US$30 - $60), once they look around and realize that the store's unique.
Those young workers, fingers moving deftly across the hammock jig, wrapping red yarn here, tying green yarn there, almost faster than the eye can follow? They're deaf, or mute, or both, or mentally handicapped in some way; others are blind, sitting at tables in the back room, sewing or cutting or carding or otherwise preparing hammock components. Two young men sit behind a desk in the public area, to answer questions and direct visitors; they seem able to use all five senses, but you can't quite tell. And that illustrates a major theme here – that you can't judge a book by its cover, that superficial impressions can mask ordinary, and extraordinary, depths. You don't have to be “perfect” to contribute to the world...and we're all “imperfect” in some way.
Tio Antonio is Antonio Prieto, a chef who moved from Madrid to Costa Rica in 2006 to manage a hotel. But he discovered, after a few months, he didn't like Costa Rica much...and while traveling north into Nicaragua, found a country mas simpatico. One stormy day, driving to Antigua, Guatemala, to check out business opportunities, he ran his car into a ditch near a village called Quezalguaque, and a local family offered him shelter. One night turned into two, three, four – thirty-seven, ultimately, as Antonio found, to his surprise, a new family (only later did he learn the storm was a hurricane, and that it killed more than 800 people in Guatemala). And more: the oldest child, 13-year-old Cano, was deaf, and mute...and Antonio wondered whether he could return some of the hospitality he'd received. He could: Antonio asked a doctor to examine Jorge, and a few weeks later, largely through funds raised by friends in Spain, the boy was fitted with special hearing aids. Within months Cano's ululations had become recognizable speech, and improve to this day...and his story, the inspiration for Tio Antonio's Hammocks. Many original donors continue to support the over-arching non-profit, Tio Antonio Centro Social, where today Cano does a lot of the heavy lifting – literally, as he's fuerte, working out at a gym almost every day.
When we meet Antonio – “we” being me and Lloyd Merino, an intern at my Spanish-language school here, Casa Xalteva – he tries to deflect attention away from himself. Why? Because journalists and other visitors, when encountering “do-good” organizations, often focus on the the “rescuers,” with whom they often identify, rather than the people being served. But anyone serious about non-profit work knows problems are solved at their roots, by helping people help themselves...and that the majority of seemingly “imperfect” people simply need the opportunity to shine their individual light. Starting with Cano, Antonio realized that for the price of a fancy dinner in Costa Rica, he could help a child find a path to a better life, and greater independence, and a measure of equality. Yes, I may be “reading in” some of the above – even with Lloyd's excellent translation, I couldn't understand some of Antonio's points, in both Spanish and English...but in any case, the tienda speaks for itself. It stands as an alternative to what Antonio calls “gift culture,” in which donors do “good things” for the wrong reasons, or to the wrong effect – to feel better about themselves rather than solve on-the-ground problems permanenty, or in ways that create dependency among recipients rather than self-reliance.
Antonio lives upstairs in this large, old, classic colonial building near the center of Granada. Early on, he rented rooms to tourists, but they proved more trouble than they were worth (noise, alcohol, illegal activities), and Antonio derived far more satisfaction from giving a few "difficult" kids a place to sleep...and eventually, to work. He admits, sheepishly, he's adopted eight or nine children – he clearly can't help himself – and every week new children show up (sometimes through the medical clinic held at Antonio's home on Mondays). The hammock shop, in many ways, is only the tip of the iceberg, because while the work is important both financially and developmentally, Antonio insists his young workers go to school as well...and along the way, learn to manage their finances, run their own lives, and – of course – become models for other kids. Three of his charges will graduate from high school this year.
Antonio's newest project is Café de las Sonrisas, a small restaurant that will open behind the hammock shop in mid-February, and will be almost completely run by his differently-abled workers. (At last count, there were around 30 full- and part-time workers.) The cafe will be, he says, the first such restaurant in Latin America, and the fourth on the planet, and an indirect result of his inability to get other local restaurants to hire “his kids.” Antonio sees the cafe, like the other arms of his non-profit, as “investing in people,” and hopes up-close-and-personal contact with his employees will demonstrate to cafe customers, and others, that the disabled aren't so disabled after all.