Lula Mena is an El Salvadorian designer who works with low-income and at-risk communities to produce unique pieces, securing work and sources of income for artisans in a nation that has survived military dictatorship, political instability, civil war and today finds itself riddled with gangs and one of the highest murder rates in the world.
She is one of those women, with an open heart and warm smile, that people are drawn to immediately. Her passion and drive to continuously do even more good is contagious. An inspiration to all who work with her or meet her, she believes in the empowering nature of increased economic income, especially for women, and wants to make the world a better place, one design at a time.
Her collection is eco friendly, handmade and fair trade. Traditional craftsmanship was disappearing in El Salvador, however, over the last 15 years, Lula has been involved in reviving and preserving these crafts & techniques. Today she provides full-time employment to twenty-five artisans in three communities and is always seeking new markets for her beautifully designed jewelry and accessories.
From our first email exchange with Lula we felt as if we were old friends, and were extremely excited to spend four days with her visiting artisans throughout El Salvador. It was our first time visiting communities as unikati & co, and Lula's first time having Canadian sourcing visitors so the enthusiasm was shared. When we asked Lula about how she started out, her response was simple and honest, reminding us of the reasons that we started unikati & co.
“They (impoverished on the streets) ask you for money. If you give one dollar, one dollar, one dollar, at the end of the day you can give away $25 and you haven’t done anything, giving away money like this. I thought what should I do, what should I do. In a way you feel like nothing you do is enough. It’s too big. My thought (was that I should) do whatever I can, the best way (I know how), with what I have, where I have it, with the people closest to me. This is what I do in my work. I help the way I can, I help them (the artisans) with work."
Lula has been involved with a number of artisanal communities for fifteen years, since completing Artisanal Design at the Universidad José Matías Delgado. During her early experiences with artisans, she became increasingly aware of the harsh difficulties artisans in El Salvador face. With little support for their work, and an oversupply of under-valued goods, artisans are often forced to move into new lines of work. This often results in the separation of families, when parents move to another physical location to find work. With this realization, and inspired by the quality of work and capacity of the artisans she met, Lula began to collaborate with the artisans as a designer and they as makers of her design.
We wondered what continues to motivate her, and she told us that in El Salvador, where everyone does not have the opportunity to study, she had that opportunity. She believes that it is her duty to share what she learned in university and through her exposures in the world with at least one person. She passionately goes off on a beautiful tangent when she discusses this concept of sharing knowledge, stating “If everyone shares their knowledge with one person or shares their passion with one person, if they have the opportunity to touch one other life, then the world would be a better place."
"If you’re passion is dance, teach one person to dance. If your passion is to paint, teach one person to paint. (Do this with) at least with one person, if you cannot do it with many.”
Lula speaks humbly of her impact and describes it as being “tiny”. However, her impact is anything but. Lula brings contemporary designs and access to markets to nine communities where twenty-five artisans work for her full time and the thirty artisans work intermittently, with her goal being to provide consistent work for all. Each community ‘owns’ one of the collections, because each collection is designed with the locally available resources in mind. Some of the artisans are veterans to the trade, while others are new. Lula has brought an opportunity for elders to transfer their knowledge and skills to new generations, thus ensuring the permanence of traditional (and new) artisanal techniques. Every single artisan we met credited Lula with their personal and professional successes as well as their stable economic situations. Before Lula came along they had unstable incomes, selling their goods at local markets, now they can survive and thrive because of the work Lula brings them.
Additionally, in the heart of San Salvador, Lula runs a small store "Qumbo", local slang for bucket, which signifies a large or deep container that can be used to collect and store diverse objects. Here she employs at risk youth from the city and provides a space to showcase her designs as well as goods created by other El Salvadorian designers.
Lula believes that when you empower a woman, you empower a generation.
“I believe that society here can change by empowering women. Women work for their kids. They believe they don’t deserve to earn all this money.”
One of the communities Lula is most proud of consists of a group of women who create her "Seeds of Joy" collection. Last year, three women from this community approached Lula and proudly told her that the next day their sons were graduating. Lula explained that this was significant because normally when male children grow up in agricultural communities they do not go to school, rather they help their fathers on the coffee plantations. Now, because of the work Lula provides them, these female artisans are able to say, “ No, the boy is not going with you. The boy is going to school and here is the money for the bus, for the shoes, for the books.” Through their work they are empowered. They can make important decisions about their lives such as to send their children to school or to choose to go to a better doctor.
After four days with Lula, as we say our goodbyes, she leaves us with a final message. She wants us to know that she is not doing this work thinking "Oh poor them". She admires these women. Working with them fulfills her.
We walk away knowing that meeting Lula Mena and her artisans fulfilled us.
The Lula Mena collection is exclusively available in Canada at unikati & co, and will be revealed for the first time at our pop up shop on April 25th and 26th.