I’ve met a lot of women in my travels – and been inspired by even more. It seems like every time I turn around I meet yet another woman who has picked herself up by her bootstraps and faced life with a courage I can only dream of. Many people tell me I’m brave and courageous, but really – I’ve got them all fooled. I’m neither.
I’ve been thinking about all those women I’ve had the honor to meet and befriend and about how they’ve inspired me in so many ways. I’ve learned bits and pieces from each and every one of them. But my thoughts keep coming back to Maria, a vendor in a market in Piura, Peru.
“All I want to do is sell clothes so I can put food on the table for my children,” Maria told me. “I’m just a simple woman and only want to feed my children. That’s all I ask for.”
That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request to me.
I had stumbled into Piura the day after massive riots shocked the city. After months of peaceful demonstrations against the government over a proposed relocation of the city market, the city suddenly exploded. Seven hours later, six vendors lay dead and another seriously wounded in the hospital. Confusion reigned unchecked.
They say curiosity killed the cat, and maybe I should have left well enough alone, but… well, I was curious. I wanted to see the market. Upon arrival into the city, I grabbed my camera and started exploring.
Me in the market in Piura, Peru surrounded by angry, confused vendors
I hadn’t been in the boarded up market more than a few minutes when Maria approached me. “Tell our story,” she pleaded. “We’re just honest people trying to make a living. That’s all we want. I just want to sell my clothes. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want any of this. I just want to sell clothes and go home each evening to my family.”
And that was when my life got carried away. For the next six hours Maria was my tour guide and translator and best friend. She dragged me through the market to show me makeshift memorials to the fallen vendors, she jumped in a taxi to take me to the hospital, and she took me out to where government forces expected her to sell her wares.
I didn’t believe her at first – nobody could expect vendors to sell anything out in the middle of the desert on the far edge of town. Nobody. But amazingly, the government did. I could totally understand Maria’s anger, confusion, and dedication to the cause.
“I don’t want to fight,” she insisted. “I don’t want any of this, but we can’t move out there – it’s just a desert. How can I sell clothes in the middle of the desert?”
Maria in her market spot – literally a chalk-marked plot in the desert
The government wants to relocate the city market out into the desert
And so – she fought. She organized meetings with the governor and attended rallies with vendors. She wrote letters to newspapers and struggled to get air time on local TV. And when she saw a foreigner with a camera, she jumped on the opportunity to try and get her story beyond Piura.
Not because she wanted to be in the limelight. Not because she wanted fame and fortune. She did it because she simply wanted to sell clothes. In a market. In the city. Not under the blazing sun in the middle of the desert far, far away.
I have tremendous respect for Maria. She stepped into a role she didn’t want; a role she wasn’t prepared for. She saw a need for leadership so she stepped in and did what she had to do. Maria went way beyond her comfort zone not only to protect her own livelihood, but that of all the vendors in the market. She did what she had to do.
“Madam Mayor: This is the modern market where you want to take us. We are small shop owners and deserve dignified and humane treatment”
I often wonder if I would have had the guts to do what she did. If I had been in Maria’s shoes would I have taken a leading role in the battle or would I have stepped to the back and allowed others to do the dirty work?
I like to think I would do what Maria did, but really – I don’t know. I’m just a scaredy cat who puts on a good show. She’s a real hero – a woman I admire and who inspires me to take a stand. I can only hope that, if push comes to shove, I step up to the plate and fill her shoes.
Who inspires you?
Here are some articles I wrote at the time: