Monday, June 7, 2010

The Invisible Sisters of Manila

Word polaroids by Maria Alina Co

Blue, pink, yellow, and green splashed my eyes. The monobloc table-turned merchandising display setup at the Lopez Memorial Museum was abloom with crocheted bags and wallets of various colors and designs. Body bags were at the left side, some with striped patterns, embellished with a flower accessory or two. Two women were rearranging stacks of pouches of all shapes and sizes. A black, shiny wrist bag caught my eye. Despite the great diversity of color and style, the bags had two things in common. One, they all carried the brand “Invisible Sisters,” and two, they were all made from recovered and recycled trash.

Yes, trash, or garbage if you prefer.

Visitors and customers like me would always do a double-take after being told the exquisite bags were made of discarded palengke plastic bags. A meticulous middle-aged female customer fiddled with the crocheted bags. “You mean this is not string or yarn?” she asked incredulously.

“Opo, Ma’am, plastic po ‘yan,” Ate Rica, the leader of the group, promptly answered.

The Invisible Sisters

The plastic bags are collected and made into bags by a group of urban poor women – all mothers and grandmothers – called the Invisible Sisters.

“May nakapagsabi sa’kin, yung kumare ko, na may ganitong grupo. Marunong naman ako mag-crochet dati pa eh. Sumali ako doon sa workshop ni Ma’am Rica,” Josie Tolentino, 51 years old, said as she recalled how she became an Invisible Sister.

The Invisible Sisters is the brainchild of American environmental artist Ann Wizer.

"I began in my house in Manila in late August 2008. I wanted to create a second livelihood project that also reuses waste, while creating jobs in the process. Learning from lessons of my Jakarta XSProject, I wanted something simple and easy to replicate.”

Wizer’s recycling project in Jakarta was hugely successful. Trash-pickers from slums shredded foil packs from junk food packages. The strips of trash were used to plump up and embellish functional furniture such as sala sets and executive chairs. The project yielded income for the poor women and at the same time, reused and recycled tons of trash polluting the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia. The installation entitled High Chair currently on exhibit at the Lopez Memorial Museum is one such product of the trash-pickers, Ann Wizer, and the furniture-makers that Wizer hired.

In the Philippines, Wizer decided crocheting would be a more viable idea.

“I asked the Filipinos I knew if any one knew how to crochet. All I got were blank stares, but it didn't matter: we started in my garage with a pile of colored wires from computers, used dry cleaner bags, and the supply of old plastic bags."

With the help of her cook Rica Galgao, who eventually became the project coordinator, Wizer was able to jumpstart the project.

Nagtanong-tanong kami ni Ma’am Ann sa mga foundation ng mga kababaihan dito sa Maynila. Nagsimula kami sa isa, hanggang sa dumami na nang dumami,” Rica recalled their start-up days.

Galgao was the first to learn how to crochet plastic bags. She invited and trained women, while Wizer helped in the designs and marketed the bags locally and abroad.

Today, the Invisible Sisters has over 200 mothers and grandmothers crocheting for income. Between them, they have over 500 children and an even more staggering number of grandchildren, most of whom have no regular income.

Empowering women

Fifty-one-year-old Josie Tolentino or Aling Josie was a Management graduate but got married at a young age. She never worked all her life, being a full-time housewife to her husband and four children, the youngest being only nine years old. She relied on her husband’s income until she became an Invisible Sister.

“Malaking tulong na din po sa amin. Lalo na kapag istambay lang kami sa bahay. Pagkatapos kong magluto at maglinis, wala na akong ginagawa. Kaya malaking bagay talaga.”

Aling Josie is one of the fastest and most skilled bag-makers in her group. On the average... ( to read the rest of the article, kindly click on this link)