Before heading to our work site this Wednesday morning we stopped in Valle Verde—a colonia of Tijuana that Esperanza has worked in for twenty years—to check out a “micro-finance” project in the shape of a tortillaria (a tortilla shop). The shop lay on a small dusty compound with a view of the Tijuana sprawl—the only evidence to distinguish the shop from a regular casa, a small sign in the dashboard of a van parked out front.
We were told the shop was a cooperative: that the tortillaria collaborated with other businesses to help ensure their collective success by together taking out and repaying a small loan and, if necessary, by helping struggling member businesses to make their monthly payments. (There is of course far more to micro-finance than what I’ve said here, and I apologize if my description of it is lacking in detail; http://www.kiva.org/ is a much better resource on the subject than I). After speaking with Allegra, the daughter of the owner of the shop, it quickly became clear, however, that “cooperative” was a misnomer. The tortillaria had no other business with which to “cooperate.” They were working on their own.
Now, to be sure, the tortillaria was doing no wrong by flying solo. And Esperanza had done the owners of the shop a load of good by referring them to the government initiative aiding small business and by helping them secure their first Mex$50,000 loan (about $4,500 US dollars). My (very selfish) issue lay in the lack of accurate information we were receiving about what we were seeing. The whole point of taking MDLG 480 prior to coming to Tijuana was to contextualize our experience. And while I may have been spoiled by the thoroughness of our preparation in class, I was regardless frustrated by not having (at least temporarily) the information we needed to understand things (i.e. the tortillaria, the work Esperanza does, etc.). My frustration at this lack of information at first made me grumpy. That means childish scowls and over-exaggerated eye rolls with the occasional dismissive hand-flip (see Jenna Maroney from “30 Rock” when a younger actress is on set). Mercifully for all, grumpiness soon became curiosity which manifested itself as the relentless questioning of Eduardo, our ever-patient and compassionate Esperanza rep and translator.
I wanted to know everything. Why are we labeling it a coop? How are the workers paid? Why are they struggling to make their payments? Why was their second loan taken back by the bank? What Eduardo couldn’t answer, we asked the workers and what the workers could’t answer, well, that was that. I should have been satisfied with what I’d learned (which was a lot) but I wasn’t. I kept feeling like there was more to the story, like I wasn’t asking the right questions, like I hadn’t really learned anything. And I was ready to dismiss the whole project as pointless and doomed for failure.
As we were leaving the shop, however, I asked the same questions of each of the three employees at the shop, “Do you enjoy working here? Are you happy here? Are you paid well?” The answer? Always a resounding, “Sí”. And maybe that’s all that matters.