New America Media
EL CARIZAL, Nicaragua - In this farming community of 250 people, money is
earned from temporary work projects and often winds its way through the hands of
men. The women, who have seen jobs come and go with few opportunities for them,
are adopting a new role as entrepreneurs, producing a popular line of organic
The last employment gold rush that swept through here was during production of
the popular CBS reality television show Survivor, which filmed its last
two seasons on the private Hermosa beach, accessed through the El Carizal
compound. Most of the men found work.
(New America Media)
“Women could cook and clean, or if they were bilingual there were
opportunities to work [as production coordinators], but [otherwise] none of the
women in El Carizal worked,” says Doña Nelly, 55, the community matriarch.
As their backyard became the setting for an entertainment-based idea of reality,
the women say their actual local reality was disrupted. The show brought mixed
blessings an unprecedented six months of gainful employment at wages that have
since been unmatched, but also a moratorium on fishing in certain areas, which
hurt a community whose livelihood comes from the sea. Filming also prohibited
foot traffic through familiar places.
“It was strange being told where I could and couldn’t go. I’ve lived here
for decades,” says Doña Nelly of the production. “But it was also good
because when men have work, then we women can focus on long-term projects.”
One of those projects includes a jam-making cooperative: Condimentos Carizal
Co-op, composed of 10 grandmothers and mothers, some of them single women.
The group, organized last November by Doña Nelly and her daughter, Belkys,
sought to unite women in a business venture using skills they already possessed.
With funding help from two private individuals from the United States, the El
Carizal women began organizing. Falling back on food production skills and an
organic lifestyle they have practiced for decades, the women decided to make
jelly using local fruits.
“This was an opportunity to get ahead. I had to see if I could do it,” says
Aurelia Monestal, a widow and mother of two. Women like Aurelia were chosen
purposefully by Doña Nelly and Belkys.
“I know my people,” says Belkys, who still lives in the same house she grew
up in with her mother. “I know which women need the job, which ones will work
hard and can work together in a team.”
Making jam was a new adventure for the women. They learned recipes and jarring
techniques together with the help of the Americans and now produce five popular
flavors including mango, passion fruit, dragon fruit, pineapple, tamarind and
mixed fruits. All of the jams are organic and call for minimal ingredients,
including fruit grown just miles away.
“We were afraid no one would buy it,” says Paula Emilia Bermudesu, 37, who,
like the others, had never produced jam.
But the Carizal jelly has become quite popular in the area for its simple and
delicious taste as well as the story of the women who produce it.
Today, customers include a local bakery and cafe, tourists who dock in the
nearby town of San Juan del Sur, and customers flocking to a weekend farmer’s
market. Other loyal customers purchase boxes as gifts for friends in the United
States and Canada.
Meanwhile, another temporary employment project has come along in the form of a
paved road, the first to run through the heart of El Carizal. While men work on
the road, Doña Nelly sees another business opportunity. She has set up a
makeshift restaurant outside her kitchen to serve lunch and cold beverages to
This new entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t gone unnoticed by other women. Doña
Nelly estimates there are 60 employable women in El Carizal, and many of them
want to take on organic food production.
Money earned from selling jam has gone toward clearing debts at the local food
store, paying medical bills and affording small luxuries like graduation parties
As jam sales grow, the women are learning basic conversational English to
interact with customers. For many, it is their first opportunity to attend
school. They learn numbers using flashcards and practice basic greetings, hoping
to build their confidence.
Unbeknownst to the women, the curiosity cast upon Nicaragua due to the Survivor
spotlight, combined with a movement in the United States and Canada to embrace
organic foods, has positioned their small jam-making cooperative for
For now, the ladies want to focus on sharing their jam with new customers and
showing other women how to start businesses.
Doña Ilicia, 69, is hopeful that the jams, already popular here, will one day
be available to others overseas. “I want people, when they eat this jam to
know that these country women made it, and I hope they like it,” she says.
But first a major challenge needs to be overcome.
The jam is currently produced in Doña Nelly’s small kitchen, making it
difficult to pass health inspections and apply for legal export. Recent
fundraising efforts are going toward the construction of a first-world quality
kitchen. This facility would provide the necessary health and sanitation
certificates qualifying food products for export to the United States and
One of the initial private investors, Tim Kelly, estimates it will take upwards
of a year to see El Carizal food products on American store shelves.
“In two years, I hope this is the only job I have to do,” says Doña Nelly.
She is currently working with other women on recipes for organic wine.
The second season of Survivor that was filmed in Nicaragua is currently
airing on television. The jam makers have heard snippets of information about
their home as the setting for a popular reality show pitting contestants in
mental and physical challenges for survival, and want watchers to know about
“It’s a good community where people live. It’s not a jungle. I don’t
want people to think we live with monkeys,” says jam maker Bermudesu.
The two eldest women, Doña Ilicia, and Doña Nelly, who have survived many
years of change and upheaval in Nicaragua with little impact on their simple way
of life, remain unfazed by the attention. As she points to the vast hills behind
her, Doña Ilicia quips that she is the real survivor. “I was born up there
where there were only two houses and monkeys. My umbilical chord was cut with a
Pha Lo wrote this story for New
America Media. It is reprinted on RedwoodAge.com with permission.