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.
High chair embellished by recycled garbage
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.
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, she finishes one to two bags per week.
“Nakaka-engganyo po talaga. Si Ma’am Rica linggo-linggo, dadaan sa bahay namin, kokolektahin ‘yung mga bag, sabay binabayaran kami sa mga natapos namin noong nakaraang linggo. Malaking bagay na din kasi naisasama ko sa panggastos sa bahay,” Aling Josie explained with a wide smile on her face. She added that the best thing about her craft is that she is able to take it anywhere and work on it!
“Nagko-crochet ako sa harap ng TV, sa bahay ng kamag-anak namin,
sa bahay ng kumare ko habang tsumitismis,” she shared, covering her mouth when she laughed.
At her age, she is proud to be able to provide for her family by doing something she loves. She learned to crochet when she was a high school student. The only thing she had to adjust to was spooling plastic instead of the usual material used which is thread or string.
Aling Josie showed me how the bags from the palengke and tiyangge are cut into strips and spooled into the crochet hook. Once the plastic string is locked, the weaving begins.
And once the crocheting starts, there’s no stopping the flow of their creative juices.
“Yung mga designs namin, nakikita namin sa ibang bags din. Tumitingin-tingin ako kung saan-saan. Pagktatapos, pag may gawa ako na mabili, sasabihin ni Ma’am Ann Wizer na ulitin ko ’yun para mas maraming benta,” 41-year-old Eva Ravino said while crocheting yellow and green threads into a half-finished bag.
Soft curly hair framing a smiling face, Aling Eva told me her story straight out.
“May heart ailment ako at tsaka hyper-thyroidism. Pero hindi ko na lang iniinda itong sakit ko. Itong pag-crochet ko, nalilibang ako. Nakakalimutan kong may sakit ako.”
But what made Aling Eva burst into tears was when she recollected how her daughter took pride in her work. “Yung anak kong AB Theater Arts student, kinuwento niya sa mga kaklase niya itong gawa ko. Pumunta sila sa bahay namin; sabi nila Nanay, ang galing mo naman, nakakatuwa yang ginagawa niyo. Sabi ng anak ko, ang galing- galing talaga ng Mama ko. Proud sa akin ang anak ko.”
Invisible trash, unseen women
For Ann Wizer, the project succeeds in hitting two birds with one stone. Everywhere, there are garbage and factory waste that clutter and clog land and seascapes. Often, we don’t see or refuse to see these eyesores.
“We don’t know what to do with them or how to get rid of them so we try not to notice them,” Wizer said.
In the same way, uneducated and poor mothers and grandmothers are invisible in our society. They are deemed incapable of all but the simplest tasks.
In the book Half the Sky, New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn wrote, “Nearly everyone in poor countries recognizes that women are the Third World’s greatest underutilized resource.”
The Sisters have created something out of virtually nothing — beautiful crafts out of mounds of trash, a sense of fulfillment, and a way out of poverty.
Aling Josie and Aling Eva, together with their sisters, vow to continue saving the environment, amidst a trash-polluted Metro Manila, one piece of garbage at a time.
They used to be faceless, nameless women, but are now getting more recognized due to their growing productivity and skills.
Photos: by Alina Co, Some Rights Reserved