Paola Betchart still finds it hard to believe that she lives in the United States.
A native of Ecuador, Betchart participated in her younger years in many marches and rallies there protesting U.S. policies in Latin America. She even told her husband, Burt Betchart, who is from Rochester, that he was an amazing man except for being an American, she joked during a Feb. 26 phone interview with El Mensajero Católico during a visit to her homeland.
The couple and nearly 2-year-old son, Mayu, spent the month of February visiting family and the Ecuadorian women whose textile products she is selling as part of a business she began developing in 2015.
The business is called Nua Imports. Nua means “woman” in the Achuar language of the Amazon, Betchart said. She has been going back to the region twice a year to meet with eight groups of women from the Andes and Amazon regions. It’s not an easy process, as it involved a lot of travel to rural areas where the people have a different perception of time, explains Betchart, 32.
“You can’t say we’re going to meet at this time,” she said. “I’m very patient, but it’s hard.”
The women make handcrafts, clothing and accessories from Alpaca yarn, Betchart said, and each group she works with has a particular specialty. Based on discussions during her recent trip, the women will expand the range of items available for purchase in an online store at https://nuaimports.com to include a line of kitchen products, such as embroidered napkins, aprons, kitchen towels and tablecloths. About 750 women and their families will benefit from the business, she said.
“It’s been one of my passions to work with women,” Betchart said. “Women can and are very powerful, and many times are not seen that way in many societies.”
Betchart said the business developed from the relationships she had formed through her work as a social scientist in college and graduate school, she said, and it was important to her to work in partnership with the women.
“I don’t like charity, treating people like second-class citizens,” she said “I want them to be my partners to create consciousness about fair trade, sustainability and the hard work these women do. I want to educate and create a livelihood for the women.”
To honor the women’s work, she focused the business on fair trade and selling unique and durable products made with sustainable and environmentally friendly materials, she explained.
One group is using a loom that is 400 years old, she said. So, one aspect of the business involves educating consumers that handmade, durable and unique products carry a higher price tag, Betchart said.
“So the big task of finding customers is … telling the stories of who made it,” she said.
Betchart has sold the products at fairs locally, and they are well received once customers hear the stories, she said.
At a holiday fair last year, she received support from the Rochester Committee on Latin America, a local advocacy group of which Betchart is a former board member.
“She just had some wonderful, beautiful things” for sale, said Grania Marcus, a ROCLA volunteer who has known Betchart for several years.
Marcus said Betchart and her husband want to also bring awareness of the beauty and quality of these products.
“Paola’s very articulate, explaining the connections between the products and the community that produces them,” she added. “She’s a very good spokesperson for her country.”
While Rochester residents may hear news about countries like Mexico or Venezuela, they understand much less about Central America, so increasing awareness of the women’s stories also is valuable to the local community, Marcus noted.
“I hope that there’s some way to provide other opportunities for her to sell (the products),” she added.
Betchart’s interest in the rural groups of Ecuador began at a young age when she traveled around the country as part of her college studies in ecology and tourism at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador.
While in college, a friend introduced her to her future husband, who was teaching physics in Ecuador. When he moved to Belgium to conduct research, she moved there to study anthropology at the Free University of Brussels.
Her field work for her master’s degree was on tropical forests, which took her back to Ecuador. A long-distance relationship was followed by three weddings in 2012 — two traditional family events near Quito and New Hampshire, and one at an archaeological site in Ecuador — and the couple’s move to Rochester for his current job with the University of Rochester.
Betchart said the couple originally planned to stay here a short while. After nearly six years in the area, Betchart has found work as an immigration advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York.
“It was very hard for me at the beginning in Rochester,” she said. “It’s all about connections, and I didn’t have any.”
She said she also felt discriminated against as an immigrant and wanted to learn more about immigrants here.
“I’m used to working with indigent people, who were very powerful,” Betchart said. “I didn’t see any of that. It was very shocking for me.”
Yet her experiences in Rochester, both negative and positive, gave her the impetus to start the business.
“For me, it’ s important to live by our actions … treating people truly as partners,” she said. “When we balance those relationships, we all have something to gain, something to lose. We’re all part of the same boat.”
Her husband has been a great partner, too, she said, and is now a stay-at-home dad who provides technical support for Nua so she can manage work and a business. Betchart said she wants to keep expanding the line through innovation in products and design, and continue sharing the stories of the amazing women who make them.
“This brings me hope,” she said. “I know I’m directly helping the women I know that I work with. … Helping to promote their work brings me hope.”