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Giving Back: Fighting Gangs in El Salvador the Artisanal Way

suster1.jpgIn 2011, after working as an editor for fashion magazines like Instyle, Harper's Bazaar and Lucky, El Salvadorian-born Ariela Suster founded Sequence, a jewelry line inspired and handcrafted by local artisans, in Tepecoyo, El Salvador. In just two short years the Sequence workshop, which offers work and classes as a positive alternative to local gang culture, has become a second home to its employees and surrounding community.

suster2.jpgFrom the moment you arrive in El Salvador, you are immersed in its culture. The airport perfectly describes the country. It's one of the craziest places! When a visitor is coming from abroad, one person doesn't pick them up, 10 people pick them up, so when you walk off the plane, it's a sea of people waiting for their one person to arrive. It's scorching hot, totally packed and not an easy place to be, but there is so much happiness that you just embrace it.

suster5.jpgSpending time with family is big here. I have a large family, so any meal can include around 50 people. We'll get together at my mom's or my uncle's house, have dinner and spend the night at home. It's the same on the weekends, but you go into the town where other families are gathering. It's a big party.

Even with so much love and beauty, El Salvador is still very dangerous. It's one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world. I grew up in San Salvador during the civil war, and although I had opportunities that other kids didn't have, I was always exposed to the realities of the war. You could never lose track of where you were and what was going on around you. I stopped going to school for almost a year when the war was in the city. I came to the United States for college and began working in fashion, but always went back and forth because most of my family lives there. Now gangs are the biggest problem in El Salvador, and everyone has experienced the violence. I always wanted to find something to do where I could really make a difference. Eventually, I came up with Sequence.


The scene around Tepecoyo, El Salvador where Ariela Suster and her artisans create Sequence collection's vibrant designs.

I set up the Sequence workshop in Tepecoyo, a small, colorful and artistic town full of young people outside San Salvador, which is where I spend most of my time. It's safer compared to other towns in El Salvador where you can't really walk around or go to the beach or park. I started with two artisans, and now we have 15. Everyone usually gets to the shop around 8:30 a.m. Some of them live in town; others walk 30 or 40 minutes, and one walks two hours to get to the workshop each day.

suster4.jpgOnce everyone arrives, we'll have breakfast, which is usually coffee and pupusas, a traditional El Salvadorian dish made of thick corn tortillas filled with beans and topped with coleslaw and some red sauce. I eat one, but some of the kids eat like six or eight of them. It's very easy to eat like crazy here! The town is full of artisanal shops that sell local candy and food. In the afternoons we'll have this local bread called semita. The food is simple, but really fresh.

The designs and techniques used in our jewelry are rooted in and inspired by the local craftsmanship. You'll find the same knots and braiding used in furniture, hammocks and clothing. All the materials -- except now we're working with Swarovski crystals -- are from here. When I started working with the artisans, they already knew how to make woven bracelets, but with each collection, they step up their techniques to create new designs.

suster7.jpgWe also offer our artisans classes in computers, English and cooking. On the weekends, we open up our workshop for the local community and give classes based in the arts like jewelry making, painting and theater. The whole vision is to transform community through art, so once my artists learn these skills, they can teach them to other people in the community.

I love seeing the artisans have a fresh beginning. They don't have to be a part of gang violence because they have new opportunities. They don't have to put themselves at risk because they have safe work. I feel that as the collection continues to grow, I can give more opportunities and more young people will choose to do something better with their lives then join the gangs. I hope we can break the cycle that way.

suster3.jpgThe most inspiring thing about El Salvador is the people. People are always attentive to what you need, and there's always that feeling that somebody will help you out. Nobody feels above or beyond anyone. Even in the really, really poor areas you see people smiling and willing to help, even if they have absolutely nothing to offer you. That is El Salvador.

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