How 1980s Terrorism Helped Create a Class of Accidental Entrepreneurs

Lima | 07/24/2013 10:38am
Manuel Vigo | Informal City Dialogues

“I arrived in Lima when I was 17, without having finished high school,” Teresa says.

We’re sitting in a small office that serves as the headquarters for Sisaq, Teresa’s business, which specializes in figurines and sculptures that are representative of traditional Peruvian art. Just a few feet away stands a wooden structure: Her workshop, where Teresa sits every day, carefully hand-painting the ornate figurines she’s been selling for over a decade.

Sisaq, which Teresa set up with her uncle, has grown steadily over the past ten years, and today has clients as far away as France and Japan. Today Teresa is a successful businessperson, having overcome the immense obstacles that rural-to-urban migration entails — the same obstacles overcome by the thousands of Peruvians who migrated to Lima during the country’s internal conflict in the 1980s. Teresa tells me she came to the Peruvian capital in the late ’80s to escape the endemic violence in the country’s provinces that was being perpetrated by the Shining Path terrorist group. A handful of relatives had already moved to Lima by the time she decided to leave Ayacucho. “I didn’t have much of a chance [back home], and when you’re a teenager you don’t have much choice,” she says.

The mass migration of these years, in which rural provincianos were forced to flee to the relative safety of the city, sparked the large-scale urbanization of Peru, doubling Lima’s size between 1981 and 2007. Almost inadvertently, it also created a class of “accidental entrepreneurs” like Teresa who had to improvise new businesses, which continue to drive the city’s economy forward today.

The transition wasn’t easy. “Originally, when I arrived, I had other goals, and I studied to be a seamstress,” she says. She attended a technical school for one year, picking up some computer skills, but she couldn’t afford it and had to put her studies on hold. She also spoke only Quechua at the time, the primary language spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The language barrier, she says, was a major hurdle.

“At the beginning, it was very, very hard, because sometimes I felt marginalized, and in some cases I was marginalized even by others who migrated to Lima before, other provincianos who were here longer than I.” Those rural migrants had been setting up their own businesses, and saw Teresa as fresh competition. With the city ballooning so quickly, the scramble for a foothold was intense.

Teresa says that upon arriving in Lima, it was easier for her to learn basic English than Spanish (Quechua’s grammar more closely resembles English’s) but she started reading magazines and newspapers in Spanish and ending up getting the gist of both languages. During this time she began helping her uncle, Donato, with painting and selling handicrafts. “I had no idea this would eventually turn into my job,” she says. “I wanted to work more in textiles, so I went to Gamarra to see the machines – the ones for sewing, finishing – but they were too expensive.”

Sisaq, which means “flowering” in Quechua, operated informally for several years, in part because the procedure for registering the business was so complicated. Teresa says things started to pick up for Sisaq in 2004, when she started receiving counseling from a local university. The university’s program focused on training for small-business owners in underprivileged communities, offering them advice and schooling them in computer skills.

“That was just a very good opportunity to start. We started renovating things, and got the company registered,” she says. They also had a website made, and started attracting even more international clients.

Today Teresa and Donato are still working to expand their business, and feel pride in the products they make. “We use only nontoxic materials and paint in our work,” she says, adding that the training they gained through working with the university and NGOs has made them aware of the importance of respecting fair-business practices. “We learned things like gender equality, underage employment and respecting work hours,” she says.

The day I visit her workshop Teresa is joined by a student from the local university. Teresa listens closely and asks questions as they go though cost sheets for her products, looking for ways to improve the manufacturing process. She isn’t shy about sharing Sisaq’s ambitions for the future. “We want to be representatives of handicrafts on a global level,” she says. “We want to be in homes in the whole world.”

Photos by Manuel Vigo