I can’t believe 3 weeks have gone by and I still haven’t blogged sharing with all of you my experience so far. I’m truly sorry for this but I’m hoping to redeem myself and be able to write and describe everything I’ve lived this past days. So back to the beginning…..
I believe (not sure if I’m totally right) that I’m the only fellow who is working in her own country. When I first applied to Kiva’s fellowship program what was in my mind was to go somewhere in Asia, be it Cambodie or Vietnam, or maybe Indonesia. I started conversations with Kiva staff, but when they saw I was Mexican and of course fluent in Spanish, they explained to me that I would be really helpful in a Latin American country, where I could leverage my Spanish facilitating and improving the communication between the MFI/its clients and Kiva. At the beginning I was a bit discouraged by the idea, since I really wanted to be a fellow combining both, a thorough learning about Microfinance with a different and authentic traveling experience. Somehow, being back in Latin America was not that interesting for me. After some conversations with Kiva, I actually started liking the idea and even asked them to place me in Mexico. I had been one year away from home studying in Australia, so going back for the summer didn’t sound that bad. As I accepted the placement in Mexico, I lost the idea of a “traveling experience” and got really excited just about being in the field of Microfinance and at the same time volunteering for my own country. When I was told that the MFI was in San Cristobal de las Casas, I even got more excited. Last year, I had visited this beautiful colonial town only for the weekend since I had to go back to work in Mexico City. Despite my family’s efforts to convince me to stay, I kind of got out by saying that someday I would come back and have a long stay here, since I had loved it!. So when Kiva announced me I would be placed in San Cristobal, the puzzle started making sense. I became really thrilled about the idea but as I said before the traveling concept escaped my mind. I got here thinking I would feel at home. That there would not be any cultural challenge, no adaptation or no shocks as when you travel in different countries having constant experiences all day long, seeing people, places and things that you had never seen before. As for me? I had been in San Cristobal, I am Mexican and I’ve traveled quite a bit around my country, so in terms of cultural challenge it wouldn’t be that interesting. And, how wrong I was…thus, the title of this blog!
I got to San Cris (as local people call it) on a Monday. The following day I started at the local MFI, Alsol. I met Karina, she is the one that kindly arranged everything for me: where I would be staying, where I would be working, and introducing me to everyone in the office. It was a really fast and informal introduction but it was good enough for the first day. I met more than 40 people in less than 30 minutes, so that made it hard for me to remember names and responsibilities, but through the 3 weeks I have been working with them, I have come to know pretty much everyone at Alsol. So many things to talk about Alsol (an amazing MFI in so many ways) but I’ll probably leave that for my next blog.
So going back to the whole experience… in less than a week I was exposed to a different face of my country. Yes I knew Mexico is a developing country, yes I had visited poor communities and had done social service with them, yes I knew we do live in a non-equitative country, where there is 20 million people living in extreme poverty while 80% of the country’s wealth is distributed amongst 5% of the population (including the wealthiest man in the world) But, one thing is to know and a different thing is to acknowledge it, to see it, to just live it. Its not just poverty that has shocked my mind, it is also the ignorance and the state of acceptance in which people live. I knew Chiapas is the poorest state in the country and I knew of the 4 million people from Chiapas, 1 million is indigenous people who live in marginal conditions and segregated from the rest of the country. Yes, all the facts where there…but not the images. It is so easy to play blind, to live your daily and satisfactory life, to hear things but not really process them. The opportunity I have had through this fellowship has been so unique; it has just unfolded my eyes showing me a different Mexico.
Alsol only lends to women, most of them coming from indigenous communities. Some communities are close to San Cris others are 2 hours ride away from the city, just beautiful sites of a rural Mexico that very few people get to see. Yes there is indeed some charm from what I have seen. People who have been holding to their roots for ages, living like they lived centuries ago: harvesting, weaving, embroidering…..but at the same time people who have been forgotten in time. Maybe I did not travel to a far away continent but I did enter a time tunnel in my own country. I never saw this coming. Last time I experienced something similar was traveling through Myan Mar, what an amazing feeling it was to be transported through time, I never thought this could happen in the same way so close to home.
There is so much I have learned from and about the indigenous people. Just to start: there are seven different languages spoken in the region. Each community has a defined language…be it tzoltzil, tzeltal, maya, chol, tojolabal …Each has its own traditions, clothing, economic activity and religious rituals. Traveling from one community to the other is just like changing countries. The first thing you distinguish is the change in clothes; each community has its own clothing, varying its embroidery and its colors, all of it reflecting their history and local traditions. Then, even if they speak the same language, the tones and conjugations vary (making it almost impossible to learn one language). Their attitudes also vary. If you go to Chamula, people are very reluctant from strangers, they don’t talk to you nor allow you to take pictures of them. If you go to Zinacantan (15 minutes drive from Chamula) they are traders, so they embrace tourism and external commerce, they are way more open and inviting. Most of the women I’ve met barely speak Spanish, this has been both, fascinating but at the same time frustrating. How can they live in a country with out speaking the official language? Some people say they are trying to conserve their own roots, traditions and language. But I believe this is a tremendous barrier between them and the rest of the world. Also is a lack of ability from the government to design education programs where they can learn Spanish and at the same time they can conserve their own language. Interviewing these women has been one of the most challenging tasks of my entire life, especially when I was not prepared for it. I thought Spanish would be more than enough to do these interviews, but I have had to use translators in order to be able to communicate with them. Also they see me as a tourist, the other day I was asked if I was American (they actually used the word “gringa”) which made me laugh a bit, specially when I have dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes….but I look so different for them that they never thought I would be of the same nationality. Also, most of them are so shy; they feel really intimidated by an outsider. After some days of practicing I’ve kind of learned how to break the ice, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. All of these women just amaze me. Despite the harsh conditions they live in, they don’t give up, they are so hard working, so enthusiastic, even (despite their shyness) manage all the time to be smiling. I have met 18 years old girls that were married at age 15 and have more than 3 children.
Most of the time these women are breastfeeding a child. That is something that can not escape my mind. These women travel miles from their houses to join the group’s meeting. They arrive sometimes barefoot, carrying and breastfeeding a child, and followed by 2 or 3 or more of their kids. They say hello to the loan officer and give him the payment. Then they just stay standing (still carrying and breastfeeding their child) waiting for the others to complete their payments. No words spoken, no complaints. All I see is a proof of their responsibility and compromise. Also a look of gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the borrowing programs with Alsol.
Just to conclude (I just realized how long of a blog I’m writing) the experience has been the most exciting, challenging and rewarding traveling experience I’ve ever had, with all the needed ingredients to call it “traveling”, where for me everything is new and everything is different, making me feel like a foreigner or stranger and all these just taking a one hour flight from home. I hope to write to all of you really soon….. “Texacomic” (my way of writing “see you later” in Tzoltzil).