Pineapples, carrots, tomatoes, fresh-shelled beans—their wares are spread on two cloth-covered tables in front of the municipal building of Obligado, a large town about twenty miles northeast of Encarnación. This group of women, clients of Fundación Paraguaya, established this market two years ago and have run it every Friday and Saturday since. But there is more for sale that just foodstuffs and today the group has invited me to their most recent training and meeting.I sit and listen (or more accurately, watch, as these rural women speak Guaraní among themselves) as loan officer Gladys leads them in a training on encouraging their children to save. One of the women has to leave early, but as she is going, she comes close by my left shoulder to show me her purse.
The exterior is soda bottle plastic laid flat, through which you see the main decoration, a large, orange fabric flower, backed by a lining of embroidered, lacy fabric. The handles appear to be made of drinking straws. It has the charm of a shadow box, and it’s eco-conscious, too.
“Is this your design?” I ask.
“No, she made it,” the woman answers, pointing to the oldest member of the group, Juana.
As the training ends and Gladys begins to collect signatures for the new cycle of loans, I fall into conversation with Juana de Dios Borda, age 74 and a widow for 16 years. When her loan committee formed, she was well beyond 65, the official upper age limit for a Fundación Paraguaya client. But her fellow borrowers went to bat for her, saying that she was a hardworker and would be an asset to the group. She wanted to join because she likes to work. She would be bored otherwise.
Juana has been making the plastic bags, as well as upcycled plastic kits for toting around a thermos and a guampa for making Paraguay’s favorite summertime drink, terere, for six years. She can make two in a week, and each one uses 10 to 12 soda bottles. They sell for about 35,000 guaraníes (about $7.75) each.
Besides her plastic products and the garden produce that is her reason for participating in the Obligado market, Juana makes embroidered tablecloths and napkins.
She works alone on her bags and terere kits, she says, because she hasn’t found anyone younger who wants to learn how to work plastic this way. It can be dirty work, she says, and you run the risk of burns. Besides that, she does a lot of walking to collect her materials. But she enjoys the work, and it has a fringe benefit besides. She picks up some of her bottles on the streets and other from people who collect and hold them for her, but, she says with a gleam, “Some I end up just because I wanted to drink the soda.”
Juana uses the funds she borrows from Fundación Paraguaya to buy thread, cloth, and decorative elements. She has bigger plans for this loan, though—she’s going to replace the sewing machine she had to sell last year during an extended illness.