Meet Irene Garcia Cen.
How a woman in Mexico is bringing inspiration—and a second chance—to the imprisoned.
6 Minute read
Irene pulls the doors up on her small shop in the city of Chetumal, Mexico. The store sits across the street from Parque Renacimiento, where there’s a monument of a woman rising from the sea with a newborn child.
Irene pulls the doors up on her small shop in the city of Chetumal, Mexico. The store sits across the street from Parque Renacimiento, where there’s a monument of a woman rising from the sea with a newborn child. It is called El Renacimiento—The Renaissance—and it is dedicated to the survivors of a hurricane that struck Chetumal in 1955. After opening her shop doors, Irene checks the brimming shelves, readjusts her wares, and balances colorful spools of hammock thread atop one another along the walls.
The colorful scene stands in stark contrast to one on the other side of Chetumal, at the prison where the hammocks and other crafts that she sells in her shop are made. Having always lived nearby, Irene has had a relationship with the complex for all her life, often passing by it on her way to the beach. “I didn’t think the people inside the prison were bad,” she says. “I thought they were normal, just deprived of being free.”
In 2007, Irene was wrongly accused of theft. Although the charges were dropped, she was sent to prison to await her trial anyway. When she first arrived, Irene began noticing that her fellow inmates would keep busy by making things out of whatever was on hand. They took soda caps, bags of chips, or pieces of plastic, and turned them into tote bags, jewelry boxes, and art.
“I didn’t think the people inside the prison were bad,” she says. “I thought they were normal, just deprived of being free.”
Soon, Irene started making hammocks and other crafts herself. Looking around, she wondered how much more the inmate-artisans could accomplish—and how much more income they could earn—if they only had a place to sell their goods. Irene thought, “Why not create a space for these talented artists?”
By 2010, Irene had persuaded the prison director to allow the artisans to open a shop in the prison courtyard, where they could sell items to visitors. She also formalized the program to ensure that artists received a wage for their work, no matter if their products sold or not. By the time Irene was released later that year, she was collaborating with 100 artists, and was committed to continue helping them. Her friend downloaded YouTube onto Irene’s Android (Go edition) phone so she could watch tutorials on how to weave figures or names into the hammocks. She’d then print out stills from the videos and bring them to the prison, where she’d teach the inmates how to create something new.
“We get orders from all over the world, because people see us online and want to support the cause. And that’s what El Renacimiento is for. To help us get a second chance.”
YouTube became Irene’s main source of information for crafting traditions, an education hub where she could learn techniques both old and new to share with the inmates. And since many local vendors didn’t want to stock the inmates’ art, she decided to open her own shop, Artesanias y Hamacas El Renacimiento, in 2012.
Last November, Irene’s sister-in-law helped her use her Android phone to create a Business Profile for El Renacimiento on Google Maps. The store now shows up when visitors to Chetumal are searching the area for shopping and site-seeing destinations. Because the profile provides directions to the store, a link to its website, and its phone number, Irene says it’s led to a big increase in foot traffic and nearly doubled her monthly sales. “It gives me great satisfaction to see more customers and more people interested in our crafts,” Irene says. “It gives me the motivation to keep the business growing and moving forward.”
How Irene does it.
Irene uses YouTube to research crafting projects that she can take back to the artists in prison, so they can deliver specific orders and build a bigger client base.
Irene can’t take her phone into prison with her, so beforehand, she reviews videos from YouTube as many times as she can. From these videos, Irene prints out stills, which she uses to teach inmates how to make different types of paintings and different styles of carving or weaving without the video in front of them.
Irene created a business profile on Google Maps so that people in Chetumal and around the world can more easily find directions to her shop, its website, and its contact information. She’s since seen an increase in foot traffic to the store and sales in-person and online.Learn more
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