photos from the collection of melynda thorpe burt, peru 2012

The Weaver’s Plight

Her name is Gregoria and she is among the finest weavers of all the Q’ero women

Part 9 in a series following:

September 29

In 2004, Don Sebastian and a handful of other Q’ero elders led the first Heart Walk expedition through snow and a maze of trails over a 17,000-foot pass into one of the Hapu Q’ero villages. He and his wife Gregoria hosted the five-person group in one of their family huts. With stone walls, thatched roofs, no windows or furniture and a dirt floor, the Heart Walk team barely fit shoulder-to-shoulder as they lay in their sleeping bags to fall asleep at nearly freezing temperatures.

Photo courtesy Heart Walk Foundation

“We felt we had stepped back in time to some long ago century,” recalls Penelope Eicher, Heart Walk Foundation co-founder. At that time, only three foreigners and very few non-tribal members had ever been allowed to enter the village. But now, tribal leaders were anxiously awaiting arrival of the Heart Walk Foundation team from the United States understanding that this was a group coming to aid their starving families.

Penelope describes the Q’ero people at their first meeting: “They were all very gentle, quiet, and some seemed eager to build a relationship with us,” she said. “Don Sebastian was pleased to share traditional Q’ero ceremonies and teach us about their deep relationship with the mountains, rivers, lakes and sky of their ancestral home high in the Andes Mountains.”

Photo courtesy Heart Walk Foundation

During that initial visit, “We learned of the Q’ero people’s deep commitment to living in harmony and balance with their homeland,” Penelope says. “It is central and vital to their well being, and it was important to them to share that with us.”

She recalls, “The younger men of the tribe seemed suspicious of us, the older men were warm and welcoming, and all the women were extremely shy.” But for having very few guests and hosting their first visitors from America, “They received us very kindly,” she says.

From donations made by family and friends, the Eichers were able to deliver basic supplies upon arrival. “We were there to assess their needs,” Penelope says. “And at first sight we could see that they were in great need.”

Donations packed into the village on the backs of llamas included: clothing, grains, cooking oil, soap, salt, matches, soccer balls for the children, and electrolyte rehydration powder for diarrhea —the cause of many childhood deaths.

Don Sebastian organized ceremonies and dances for their guests while his wife, Gregoria, cooked potatoes in the coals of sticks and llama dung. “It was on that first day on the steep mountainside that I noticed how Gregoria walked with great difficulty,” Penelope said.

Gregoria’s husban, Don Sebastian, is a pa’qo (native healer) and is also respected for his fine llama ropemaking skills. Heart Walk volunteer Michelle Snook of Hurricane, Utah, purchased several ropes for making leads for her horses in training at Zion’s Canyon Ranch. Photo by Melynda Thorpe Burt.

Over the years, Penelope says she has watched as Gregoria’s limp “gets worse and worse.”

At the ranch house today, Penelope takes me by the hand and walks me toward Gregoria and Don Sebastian who come from the mountain to greet us. They have heard that Penelope is here, and they come to bring weavings and ropes knowing she will purchase from them to raise funds to help the villages.

Working on her knees for months to produce just one piece, Gregoria down the rugged mountain terrain with a lame foot in hopes of making a sell. Often, she returns with little more than change. Photo by Melynda Thorpe Burt.

“I want you to meet one of the finest Q’ero weavers of the Andes Mountains,” Penelope says as I watch her hug and reunite with this small, strong woman standing in the shade of a tree before me. Gregoria is proud to show Penelope some of her newest weavings. She has them laid out under the tree for us to see.

Now in her mid 70′s, Gregoria sits and lets Penelope examine her lame foot. Tearfully, Penelope says, “It is getting worse.” Gregoria shakes her head. Don Sebstian, who is standing nearby, explains that there are no medical services — there have never been — to attend to her foot.

A reunion. Photo by Melynda Thorpe Burt.

“This is one of many examples of why Heart Walk wants to help deliver medical services to the Qero people,” Penelope announces. “The people need a medical clinic where they can get health care and treatment for injuries.”

Living among harsh and rugged mountain conditions, the Q’ero often have the need for medical treatment. “With the success of our schools, trout farms and greenhouses, we’re now eager to begin exploring ways to deliver health services in these remote territories,” Penelope says.

Photo by Michelle Stock

As the two women begin to visit, Penelope explains to me that Gregoria spends many months producing each of her weavings. She is known for her artistry and the techniques and designs that show evidence of her Inca ancestry. So far removed, and from a people living high in the mountains for hundreds of years, her tradition as a weaver is inherited and her techniques are well preserved. For months, the women sit prostrate on the ground and weave by hand the threads they have woven from llama fur and colored with organic dyes.

Penelope then explains how, because the Q’ero are considered a discarded people, and because they are not respected, they are often taken advantage of in sales and trade. When the elders descend from the mountian with weavings to sell in the city or at market, hoping to make enough money to return with oil, matches, or other needed supplies, they are often met with buyers who offer mere nickels for the work of the Q’ero women.

“It is a travesty,” Penelope tells me. “Buyers in the cities know that the Q’ero will take what they can get, so they take terrible advantage of those who come to sell.”

Sometimes, the men return to the mountain with nothing, Penelope says. “And never are they given a fair price for their work, nor the equivalent of what a buyer can turn around and sell it for.”

The work of Q’ero women cannot be replicated. And seeing and meeting Gregoria here, I see how proud she is of her work. I see how delighted she is when we express interest in her pieces, and how rewarding it is for her that Penelope offers a strong price and pay for the textiles she purchases.

“I may be the only person she knows who will purchase her weavings for what they are worth,” she says. “This is why I take them home to America to sell to my friends — to demonstrate to Gregoria a sense of her worth and to honor her artistry and her months of labor.”

About the author

Melynda Thorpe Burt is a writer, filmmaker and producer living in southern Utah. In 2012, she traveled with Heart Walk Foundation to Peru to document the never-before-told story of the plight and rescue of the indigenous Q’ero people of the Andes Mountains of Peru.

For more information about the documentary film produced from her trip, go to