First Person: Sharing Indigenous Knowledge with Tourists |

Indigenous entrepreneur Celestina Abalos runs a tourism business in UNESCO Quebrada de Humahuaca World Heritage Site in the Jujuy Province of northern Argentina, showing the culture of its community and knowledge of medicinal herbs.

“I am a child of Pachamama, Mother Earth. The earth is everything to us. That’s life. We cannot imagine ourselves without it. My community is 14,000 years old. On behalf of 60 families, I led a 20-year struggle for the right to land, education and freedom.

We used to live under a tenant system where we had a landowner who demarcated the places we could occupy and live, both for planting crops and raising livestock. It was a life largely defined by what the master said, the space you had to occupy, and what my parents had to pay at the end of each year. These were very powerful moments for a teenager.

In the process of restoring our territory, I began to think more about how to make my history and the history of my people known. I have always seen and continue to see the stigma attached to us, the indigenous peoples, in the media. I wanted to show and make known the other side of the story. It motivated me, but I thought: “How can I do this, how can I show this?”

“We are the guardians of our culture”

In 2003, our mountain valley, Quebrada de Humahuaca, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was an important milestone in the history of our people. I saw a lot of people talking about our mountains, our culture, our food. And I said to myself: “But this is us: we know how to do it, we are the guardians of our culture.”

Culture for us is a part of our everyday life, it is knowledge and skills that are passed down from generation to generation. We learn this from birth. It is in our medicinal herbs and in our food, in our crops.
So I thought, “Why not dare to do what I know, what I have learned?” Thus was born my travel business, the Casa de Celestina tea house.

Native Argentine tourism entrepreneur Celestina Abalos with a tourist.

Ivar Velasquez

Native Argentine tourism entrepreneur Celestina Abalos with a tourist.

Sharing ancestral knowledge

When tourists come to Casa de Celestina, I greet them, introduce them to the use of medicinal herbs such as mate, which we drink in the morning and afternoon to recharge our batteries. I talk about what herbs we take when we get sick, when to collect them, how to dry them, how to store them.

I’m talking about our diet. We have different varieties of corn and we make our own flour, so we have soup flour, tamale flour, cookie flour, juice flour, drink flour, baking flour.

All this knowledge exists because it has been passed down from generation to generation. Our mothers, our grandmothers are real treasures of biodiversity for me. Our grandparents are living libraries in our communities. Without them and without this knowledge, I would not be able to speak today.

I learned by watching, watching, sharing. You must contribute to the earth by throwing wood on the fire, lighting the stove, and making offerings. You should be there at sunset, when the goats are back in the paddock and grandparents are sitting down.

Tourists cook the dish with me. It can be cornmeal pudding, with nuts, with chocolate chips. Or they can also make a delicious meal, quinoa croquettes stuffed with goat cheese, fried potatoes, rosemary and herbs. Or we can also make llama casserole.

We then visit my city and our church which dates back to 1789. We visit the trail of herbs where they also learn about other medicinal herbs such as Muna Muna which is for bruising, for muscle pain.

They learn our stories, our ceremonies, like sending souls or the story of how we reclaimed our territory. I share what my day is like and what I do. And then we go downstairs and drink tea together and eat the pudding they made.

I renew their energy with herbs, which we also brought from the road. They leave refreshed, they leave with a different look at us. They experience a living culture, the essence of culture.

That’s what I like about tourism, about those who come to visit us. You see how this cultural connection goes beyond the exchange of experience. It’s about looking at each other differently, looking at each other as people.

Native Argentine tourist entrepreneur Celestina-Abalos.

Ivar Velasquez

Native Argentine tourist entrepreneur Celestina-Abalos.

“I achieve my dreams”

The pandemic has hit my business very hard. The booking I had was cancelled. What little savings I had went towards supporting my family. I felt so powerless. The government said that there are subsidies for entrepreneurs, but I do not qualify and must continue to pay taxes. Many small business entrepreneurs have had a very difficult time. It was very hard.

I was invited to take part in the Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) virtual course hosted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was to take place between October and November 2021. I was very interested in improving my entrepreneurship and developing a business plan because that was one of the reasons why I couldn’t access loans and subsidies. So I immediately said yes.

The ILO course has given me the tools to expand my business. I still use them today. They included how to write a business plan, estimate costs, prepare a budget and inventory, and manage social media. Some course participants have already opened their own business, others were about to start. It was an opportunity to share and exchange experiences. Most of all I liked the textbooks. They are very, very helpful, very good.

My business is steadily improving. I am reaching my dreams.

I still remember a speech I gave a long time ago to the then President of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner. I told him: “We, the indigenous peoples, want opportunities, opportunities for development, opportunities to improve the quality of our lives.”

It’s important for my community to see that it’s possible, that we women can run our business with the tools we have. We don’t have to wait until we have everything, but we can start with what we have now.”

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