Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mexico Diaries: Day 10, Part 1 - A Village With Enough to Eat

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. On the 10th day, we visited our last village to deliver aid.

If reading about the people I've visited inspires you to help, you can donate to the Center for Farmworker Families. Every penny given goes directly to these families for clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and more.

A few days into our stay in Cuquio, we became friendly with one of the girls who worked at our hotel. I'll call her Maria. She was adorable and sweet and when she spoke, the words came out of her mouth like laughter. We told her what we were doing and where we were going. When we told her which rancho we were visiting on our last day, she said, "That's my rancho!" We chipped in to pay her what she would have earned at work that day so she could take the day off and come with us.

All ready to go for our last rancho visit

In every other village, Ann had longstanding relationships with the families we were visiting. Here, it didn't seem that way. We rolled into the rancho and stopped in front of the tiny convenience store. Maria, who told us that about half of the homes in town were either empty or full of only women with children because the men had gone to the U.S., went around and collected all of the kids, telling them there was a pinata and cake for them.

She directed us to a nearby volleyball court, and pretty soon the adults in the town assembled a number a beautiful, handmade chairs for us to sit in while we waited for the children to come. It didn't take long once news got around that there was a pinata in town. One of the adults asked me what we were doing here, but I don't think the kids wondered why there were a bunch of strange gringos here with a pinata. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Kids eagerly waiting for the pinata

Ann Lopez meeting one of the children

A sign for one of the three Mexican political parties painted on a brick wall next to the volleyball court. We saw signs like this one everywhere, mostly for PRI, but some for PAN and PRD too.

One of the gorgeous handmade chairs

While we were waiting, I walked into an area full of chickens to begin taking stock of the local food resources. Something here was wrong. There were rows and rows of handmade wooden cages with one rooster in each cage. It looked like rooster jail. They had too many roosters. You need about one rooster per 8-12 hens. In these towns, where food is precious, raising extra roosters was a waste of grain. This had to be a cockfighting operation.

The cops confirmed my hunch, and said that cockfighting was illegal here. However, they didn't charge anyone with cockfighting as long as they were discreet about it. The cops took no action here. Later a woman in town verified that these roosters were indeed for cockfighting. They were absolutely gorgeous roosters, but many were missing their combs.

One of the men from the village found a rope and helped hang the pinata. We arranged the kids in a line according to height, letting the smallest ones have the first crack at the pinata. The very smallest children weren't sure what to do, so one of the Mexicans in our group explained the process to the kids. Then we let them go at it. Like the pinata from the day before, this one was very well-made and difficult for the kids to break open. Every kid got at least one turn, and most got two before the pinata was destroyed.

The kids in line, waiting for their turns

Gus explaining how to hit the pinata

This little guy gets it.

The shortest child in line was too shy to hit the pinata. He ran away from it and sat down next to me. Once the goodies began to rain down, he didn't run after them like the others. "Va! Va!" I encouraged him. When he didn't, I ran out and grabbed him a lollipop, unwrapped it for him, and gave it to him. After the pinata, the chickens came out to see if there was anything they could help clean up. One packet of marshmallows had broken open and they were all too happy to eat them.

Chicken cleanup duty after the pinata

One thing I noticed in every town was that the kids never threw their trash away. In almost every case, the kids just tossed all of their wrappers, napkins, and plastic forks right on the ground. The ranchos didn't seem to have any trash service, and only one of them had prominent large garbage cans staggered around for people to toss their trash into. In one rancho, a child stashed her plastic fork and napkin from the cake in fireplace. In another rancho, the adults gathered the trash and burned it.

My next job was handing out the toys to the kids. Typically, we would line the kids up and let them take turns picking out a few toys each until the toys were all gone. My Spanish wasn't good enough to give the kids instructions and to then enforce them. I got a Spanish speaker in our group to tell the kids to form a line and then said "Escoge tres" ("Choose three") to the first few kids. The toy selection quickly devolved into a free-for-all, with all of the kids gathered around the toys, picking what they wanted, all at once. Oh well, no harm done.

A little guy with his new toys. He's holding a whistle in one of his hands, and he spent the rest of the day blowing it. My apologies to his parents. Notice the Pepsi chair.

We gave out the rest of our stuff - cake, watermelon, stuffed animals, toothbrushes, school supplies, clothes, shoes, etc - and our group prepared to go on a hike. I decided to hang back and skip the hike because I was wearing sandals and a skirt. I took a seat at the local store and before long, wound up in conversation with the store owner and, later, his wife.

A Pepsi truck rolls through town

A view of the rancho

The creek everyone hiked near. Notice the color of the water, full of silt from eroded soil

I began by asking the store owner about the milpa (cornfield) next to the store. It was planted with a black variety of maiz criollo. I excitedly told him that I also planted black Mexican corn at home in my garden. Then I began asking him about food production resources in the town.

The milpa next to the store

Another view of the milpa

The store owner told me about a number of animals and fruit trees in the town. For fruit trees, they had avocados, lemons, orange, sapote, and peaches. There were cows for milk (to keep) and for beef (to sell). There were three pigs, at least one horse and one mule (maybe more, and perhaps some donkeys). When I asked if they were his, he almost invariably always told me they belonged to a brother. The cockfighting brother had about 100 chickens in all. Later, the store owner showed me some ducks and his wife mentioned rabbits.


Probably a mule

Probably a donkey


Additionally, when it wasn't camote season (the wild tuber gathered throughout the fall, winter, and spring), the store owner liked to go fishing. He told me it took him two hours to take a donkey to the river, and he brought back fish. However, he later told another member of our group that he didn't like the taste of the fish so he gave them away to others who did.

I asked to see the pigs, and we set off on a short hike through a few cornfields (which also belonged to his brother) to see them. We passed a small pond, and I asked if there were frogs. Ann tried to check in each rancho if the frogs had been killed off by agrochemicals. Typically, she told the kids she would give a dollar to anyone who could bring her a frog or a toad and then release it in the same place they found it. In the pond, the store owner found two frogs to show me.

The pigs

As we came back from seeing the pigs, we passed cornstalks with beans growing up them. I asked if they had quelites, beneficial weeds, in their milpas and the store owner said yes. During the year, campesinos can eat edible weeds that are allowed to grow in the milpas in times of need. Then we came to a few women shelling red corn for posole. They also had some cacti for nopales, a very healthy food commonly eaten in this region.

A great example of beans growing up a cornstalk

Another cornstalk with beans growing up it

Red corn mazorcas (ears of dried corn) for posole

Shelling the corn


We then walked back to the volleyball court, where the furniture making cockfighting guy was working on a new chair. By this time, the group had returned from their hike. Another member of our group and I began asking about the family of these brothers. They told us that there were five brothers and two sisters in the family. Maria, who worked at our hotel, was their cousin.

The owner of the roosters, who also happened to be the furniture maker, making a new chair

Their mother, four brothers, and one sister lived in the rancho. One sister lived in Cuquio and one brother had been in California for a long time. The store owner had gone to California seven times to work in construction for many years, sending money back to build his store. He hadn't seen his brother in the U.S. for about four years and couldn't because none of the brothers had paper to go back and forth across the border. They spoke on the phone once or twice a month. The family members who lived in the rancho all shared their food resources, so everyone got eggs, milk, and occasionally, meat. I assume they had enough corn to eat too, if they had enough to spare to feed to all of their extra roosters.

The only downside of this rancho's prosperity was the amount of junk they were able to afford. The store offered a few healthy and necessary items like eggs, cooking oil, and toilet paper, but mostly, it sold junk. This is a common phenomenon in the ranchos we visited: campesinos produce and sell healthy, whole foods in order to afford processed junk from local stores like this one.

A few other noteworthy things took place while I chatted with the store owner and his wife. At one point, we spoke about and lamented the amount of racism in the U.S. against Mexican immigrants. He spoke knowingly about the wealth and excess in the U.S., telling me about movie stars' multimillion dollar mansions in Beverly Hills. Then, after clearly denouncing racism, he told me that black people were lazy. I told him that I didn't think so. He said they were. No, I said, not the ones I know. "Would they work in the fields?" he asked. "Yes," I told him - but not if they were being exploited. Americans would be willing to do that work if they were paid fairly and given fair working conditions.

Shortly before we left, the store owner's wife came outside to chat. She had three small children, she told us, and did not want any more. Then she said something that I didn't quite pick up, but I think she was saying that she would have more kids if God gave her more. Birth control is nonexistent in these little ranchos.

Last, I inquired about the town's water supply. Half the town used wells. Her half had a manmade lake that they used to collect water and then pump it to their homes. They used this water for bathing, irrigation, and everything. That was the first I had heard of any rancho using water for irrigation. Typically, the people we met grew one corn crop per year during the rainy season. Sometimes campesinos grow a crop of garbanzos after their corn harvest, a crop that requires less water. Then their land is dry and they allow cattle to graze on their crop residue while waiting for the rains to come in the next year.

She told us that she adds calcium carbonate to the water before drinking it to disinfect it, but for the past several years she had bought her drinking water in 5 gallon bottles from Cuquio. (I don't think adding calcium carbonate will help disinfect the water, although it would likely be less harmful to drink than bleach, used in another rancho we visited to disinfect water. Calcium carbonate, referred to as "cal" in Mexico, is the main cause of what we call "hard water" and it's a common calcium supplement, although it can be toxic in large doses.)

Some families had received composting toilets, given out for free by the municipal government. She wanted one but did not get one. When she asked the city for one, they told her they were done distributing them. Her family had to go to the bathroom outside.

With that, it was time for us to go. We hopped in the back of our pickup truck, grateful that it was no longer raining (as it was on the drive out), and headed back to the hotel.

Mexico Diaries: Day 8, Part 3 - Trip to the Edge of the World

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. This is my third post about our 8th day, when we visited an incredibly remote village tucked into the side of a mountain, overlooking a gorgeous valley.

The view from the rancho

If reading about the people I've visited inspires you to help, you can donate to the Center for Farmworker Families. Every penny given goes directly to these families for clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and more.

Mexico is organized into municipalities, which each include a central town or city as well as the outlying rural areas. We visited five "ranchos" (tiny villages) within the municipality of Cuquio, which you can see on the map here:

Map of Cuquio's municipality. Out of all of these zillions of ranchos, we only helped five. How many other people are in need, just in this one municipality?

On the map, you can hopefully see the various highlighted areas. The large highlighted spot in the middle is Cuquio itself. Each of the other highlighted areas are the ranchos. On the 8th day of the trip, we visited the northernmost rancho. Unlike the other ranchos, which were each about 30-40 minutes away, the road to this one took an hour and a half, almost entirely on dirt roads. Actually, on that particular day, they were mud roads. We made the drive in the back of two pickup trucks in the rain.

Piling into the truck for our trip. Notice the pirate pinata.

A view of Cuquio from just outside of town

After a long drive and a few moments when I thought our truck wouldn't make it, the truck stopped. Normally, we stopped in front of a house where a crowd of kids were anxiously awaiting us, but not this time. We parked in the middle of nowhere on a mountain. The rancho was only accessible on foot, and we had parked at the trailhead. Ann had warned us to wear pants and closed-toed shoes and this was why. Now she instructed us to follow the path all the way to the bottom. With the various suitcases, pinatas, and watermelons we were carrying, we were all grateful that the hike was down and not up.

A first view of the rancho, looking down on the roofs of the homes

About halfway along the trail, the kids found us and started eagerly hiking along with us and showing us where to go. A young boy noticed the soccer ball I was carrying, which I had bought at the tianguis (flea market) the day before to give away. "Futbol!" he said excitedly. I gave it to him. "Para ti," I said ("For you"). He didn't say much to me, and the ball disappeared soon after I gave it to him, but he hung around me all day with a smile wider than Texas. A member of our group noticed and said, "I think you've got a boyfriend."

The home of our hosts in the rancho

The side of the home and the bathroom, a composting toilet distributed by the municipality

Like each of the two homes we visited before, this house sported a plaque announcing that it had received a cement floor from the federal government recently. Before that it had a dirt floor.

Before long, we began our usual routine. First, we let the kids put our ailing pirate pinata out of its misery. Then cake, shoes, clothes, school supplies, etc, etc. My job this time around was handing out toothbrushes and toothpaste. First the kids, then the adults. I hit one difficult moment when I was handing the toothbrushes out to the adults and the next person in the row was an elderly lady with nearly no teeth. Does she need a toothbrush or is it too little too late? I didn't want to insult her, so I gave her one.

This time, our party included a new element: pictures! As you can imagine, the people we were visiting don't take too many pictures. Often, the kids didn't even get the concept. We'd tell them to smile and count to three, and they'd look at us like we were aliens. Ann had visited this rancho and taken pictures before, so this time she brought a set of 4x6 prints to give out. The pictures were a huge hit. I wouldn't be surprised if these are the only pictures of themselves and their children the people in the rancho have.

When I wasn't handing out toothbrushes and soccer balls, I was scoping out the corn. As usual, I observed intercropped corn, beans, and squash. This time, I noticed something that looked like salt next to each of the plants. Urea fertilizer. The good news, however, is that this rancho still plants exclusively maiz criollo, instead of the hybrid, Green Revolution seeds. Ann Lopez, who hopes that this village will continue to plant maiz criollo, brought along corn expert Juan Alba for this trip and he spent a while chatting with our hosts about corn and agronomy.

Corn with beans

Urea fertilizer

The cornfield in front of the home we visited. Notice the slight slope.

The home next door to the one we visited was located on a steep hillside, entirely surrounded by its cornfield. There was no way you could get a tractor on that slope. They likely did all of their farm labor by hand.

Home with cornfield on a slope

We took a quick hike down the mountain a bit to see where the families got their water from. They built a water collection tank where water accumulated, and then pumped that water to several homes. I don't think they had running water per se (and certainly no water heater and hot water coming out of the tap), but at least with the pump they didn't have to hike up and down the mountain every time they needed water.

The water supply

In addition to their cornfield, they also had a cow for milk, a donkey, and about eight hens and a rooster. I asked if they had any fruit trees and they gave me a long list: apple, peach (both yellow and white), mango, pomegranate, banana, capulin (related to cherries), lime, lemon, guava, mandarin, bitter orange, grapefruit, guamuchil, sapote, pitaya, tuna, and plums. Additionally, they had mesquite, nopales (prickly pear cactus, commonly eaten in Mexico), calabash gourds, and "fungus but not mushrooms" (I assume they were talking about huitlacoche, a corn fungus eaten in Mexico, which I would best describe as an acquired taste).


More chickens

While I was taking my inventory of fruit trees, the rest of our group left for a hike. Our hosts had made us quite a bit of food, which we did not eat (I assume this executive decision was made by our group leaders due to fears of food poisoning), so when they wanted to take everyone on a hike, our group couldn't say no. We'd already offended them once.

When I peeked out from behind the house, there were no gringos left. "Everyone went home," my host told me. I panicked and began to run up the path, collecting my belongings as I went. Surely, they would count to make sure everyone was in the truck before they left, I thought. Then I stopped and turned around. "The police are still here!" I exclaimed. The police were our ride. No one went anywhere if they were still standing around. Everyone had a good laugh at my expense.

Speaking of the police, it was about this point in the trip that people began talking to the police and to others in town to get the scoop about local drug cartel action. Apparently, Cuquio is an oasis in between other municipalities that have experienced quite a bit of violence. I saw signs in Cuquio advocating staying drug free, and I even saw D.A.R.E. shirts. If I remember correctly, Ann told us that there was only one narco in the area that she knew of, and he was tolerated because he did things like pay for surgeries and other expensive medical care for those in need.

At any rate, there I was, stuck on a dramatically beautiful mountainside in rural Mexico, which really did seem like the edge of the world, alone with a few Mexican cops, some of the locals, and Juan Alba the corn expert. The man who had been telling me about his fruit trees spoke Spanish in a way that was more or less unintelligible to me and Juan (bless him) was translating his words into more understandable Spanish, well enough that we could all carry on a conversation.

We talked a lot about the benefits of growing food without chemicals and not contaminating the environment (a major concern among the Mexicans I spoke to who didn't use any pesticides). He ran over to his peach tree and eagerly brought back a handful of ripe peaches. "Here! Try it! A clean peach!" I did not want to try it. I love peaches and I was hungry, but did I really want to risk food poisoning for a peach?

There was no way out. No polite way out. I ate it. He gave me a second one, and then ran to get some more. I insisted that his peaches were delicious but I was full. I told him I would put the peaches in my purse to share with a friend, so the other Americans could try his delicious, clean peaches. I'm not sure if he bought it, but sooner or later, he dropped the subject and I stashed the peaches in my purse. (And fortunately, the peaches didn't make me sick.)

I continued to stand there until the group got back from the hike. The breathtaking scenery never got old. I can't imagine living there, on this untouched, gorgeous side of a mountain. The residents of the rancho know how beautiful their home is, as many of them asked me what I thought of it. One decided to play a joke on me, and when I replied "Muy bello," she answered, "Muy FEO???" ("Very UGLY??"). Nobody in their right mind could call this place ugly.

One more look at that beautiful view

At last, when our group returned from their hike, it was time to go. Our hosts guided us up a steep path that served as a shortcut to our trucks. When we reached the top of the path, we had one last item of business. Ann had arranged to have a minivan donated to the town because the children had no way to get to school otherwise. Through her efforts, now the town's children were able to have a chance at education and perhaps, hopefully, a better life. Before leaving, we needed to get a picture of the kids in front of their van, to send to the donor as a thank you.

What a day. We said our goodbyes, piled into our trucks, and made the cold, wet trip home.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 8, Part 2 - The Shoe Factory

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. This is my second post about our 8th day, when we took a chance on visiting the local shoe factory and ended up getting a tour.

The shoe factory

If reading about the people I've visited inspires you to help, you can donate to the Center for Farmworker Families. Every penny given goes directly to these families for clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and more.

As we traveled to the little ranchos, we heard again and again about young people employed in a shoe factory in Cuquio. We didn't expect to actually get a tour of the shoe factory, but it seems that the shoe factory had no idea why Americans might be snooping around and, for some reason, had no problem giving us a guided tour. And I must say, I will never think about my shoes the same way again.

The shoes they were making were for Price Shoes, specifically for a line of shoes called Pink. They were to be sold within Mexico, and they were all incredibly attractive women's shoes that I would probably take an interest in if I saw them in a shoe store.

See those sequins? They were put on there by hand. Some young woman has to glue those things on all day long, 8 hours a day, with no breaks.

They were making several kinds of boots for a new line. First one worker cut out the pieces of leather that would become the shoe. Then those pieces went to an assembly line where each worker did a very simple task - applying glue, sticking two pieces together, putting the boots-to-be in a machine that heats and then cools them into a mold to give them their shape, etc. As the boots passed through the 30 or so different stations, they slowly went from a few scraps of leather that looked nothing like boots into incredibly attractive, very trendy women's boots.

One person in our group asked one of the workers if her hands hurt. Yes, she replied. How could they not? She was repeating the same task over and over again for 8 hours every day. The workers got no breaks, unless they had to go to the bathroom. There were two shifts - 6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm. No breaks, no lunch. Each work station had a sign that said no standing, no cell phones, no smoking, and no talking. And the fumes in the place from the glue were awful. (One member of our group waited for us outside because of them, and another felt an asthma attack coming on.) Many of the workers who were applying glue did so with their fingers instead of with a brush or other tool.

As I've noted before, we had the police providing free transportation for us, so the police actually accompanied us when we visited this factory. One of our group's leaders is a lawyer in the U.S. so he asked a few questions of the police about Mexico's laws requiring companies to allow their workers to take breaks, etc. He noted that many of the locals, including the cops, were rather uninformed about Mexico's employment laws, so if the shoe factory was in violation of those laws, there's little chance the laws would ever be enforced.

Some of the workers wore yellow smocks but most wore blue. We found out later that those wearing yellow were part of a government subsidy program to bring employment to the area. The workers in yellow were hired for three month apprenticeship periods, during which time the government paid their salaries of 700 pesos per week (17.5 pesos per hour, assuming a 40 hour week, or about $1.75 per hour). After that, if they were employed permanently, they switched to blue smocks and their salary dropped down to 500 pesos per week (12.5 pesos per hour or $1.25 per hour).

The factory produced about 300-400 pairs of shoes each day. Each pair of shoes sells for 180 pesos retail (about US$18). Assuming they sell for half of that wholesale (90 pesos), that means the factory earns 27,000-36,000 pesos per day ($2700-$3600). Assuming there are 40 workers per shift (based on what I saw), and two shifts per day, the factory pays out 8000 pesos ($800) per day in wages.

The workers here are receiving wages well above Mexico's 2010 minimum wage, which ranges between about 54 and 57 pesos per day, depending on where you live. That equates to roughly US$5.40-$5.70 per day, although right now it would be less with the current exchange rate (closer to US$4.50-$4.75 per day). That breaks down to US$0.56-$0.59 per hour. Can you blame them for heading north to the U.S. to work in miserable conditions for less than the U.S. minimum wage, when it's easily 5-10 times what they are earning in Mexico?