A quiet revolution in Chiapas
By Roger Hamilton

The spirit of revolution still simmers in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. You see it in slogans spray painted on walls and hear it in perorations delivered in the main plaza in the graceful city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Sidewalk bookstalls offer tables full of works on revolution and social justice. Women make tortillas the traditional way even as they participate in a credit program that is giving them new self-esteem.

This revolutionary spirit is rooted in poverty—Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico—and also in the pent-up grievances of a large indigenous population that has long been relegated to society’s political and social margins.

While some revolutionaries appear in the headlines, others are barely visible. Among them are thousands of indigenous women, shy, mostly housebound and unschooled in Marx or very much else. Members of the Tzetzal, Tzotzil and Tojolabal ethnic groups, many do not even speak Spanish.

For generations, these women have lived in the shadows of a traditional indigenous culture that is itself marginalized within the broader society. They care for their children, make tortillas over smoky fires, do the wash, and produce handicrafts. They work hard and shoulder a great deal of responsibility. But in their families and their communities, men rule.

Now this is changing, at least in some families. In the hills and city outskirts across Chiapas, many women are beginning to enjoy an independence and respect that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

The driving personality behind this quiet revolution is a woman whose exuberance and volubility makes her the very opposite of her indigenous counterparts. Her name is Maricela Gamboa, and she is executive director of Grameen Chiapas, an organization that provides small loans to some of Chiapas’ poorest people.

Gamboa is eager to be on her way to visit clients in the community of Zinacantán, and bustles around her sunny headquarters building, dispensing last-minute instructions to staff. Before leaving she sits down to sign a pile of loan applications.

María Asunción Hernández (left), Grameen's first borrower, today works as a credit agent and right-hand woman to the organization's executive director. 

Credit for self-esteem. Clearly, ten-year-old Grameen Chiapas is doing a good business, making loans to “solidarity groups” containing a total of 7,000 clients. Ninety percent of these clients are women, and most of these are indigenous. Grameen’s loan portfolio totals US$2.9 million. The credit program is being financed with the help of a US$300,000 loan from the Inter-American Development Bank approved in 2002 along with a US$165,000 technical cooperation grant that was used to help strengthen Grameen’s financial and administrative systems.

As she signed her documents, Gamboa explained how Grameen is having a social as well as an economic impact among the poorest Chiapanecas.

In Chiapas, as in many traditional societies around the globe, men make the decisions, handle the money, and expect their wives to perform their duties quietly and obediently. But now, as members of “solidarity groups,” the women have entered a bigger world. They plan how much to borrow from Grameen, how to apportion it among members, and how to pay it back. “They feel like bankers, and they are bankers,” said Gamboa. “The husbands show them more respect. The women now have a new place in their family. They are no longer the servant who cooks and cleans, but a partner who also makes decisions.”

Even little things make a difference. Most of the women are illiterate, but Gamboa early on decided that they would no longer sign credit agreements with a thumbprint. At the very least, they would learn to form their initials at the bottom of the page. They do so with an uncertain hand, but they do it with pride.

“We see credit as a means to achieve much broader social aims,” said Gamboa. “Credit is a path to self-esteem.”

Then she made a personal admission: Grameen also helped her to break out of a gender stereotype. Although she looks, talks and acts like the very modern woman she is, her husband at first assumed that she would play a traditional role. He was taken aback when she announced that she was taking a job that included overseeing a large staff that included men. He has since gotten used to it, she said.

Off to Zinacantán. Over the crest of a pine-covered hilltop lay a valley filled with adobe-walled houses with tin roofs. The village of Zinacantán had the look of a place where people struggle to make ends meet. It is typical of communities where Grameen works, where many residents earn less than US$5 a day. 

In the midst of the drab landscape was a low building with a courtyard awash with vivid red-, blue-, orange- and yellow-patterned textiles. A group of women wearing heavily embroidered traditional dress sat around the courtyard’s perimeter.

Elena Aurora López and her husband now make decisions together on spending and household management.

The women belonged to Center 97, one of Grameen’s solidarity groups. Its leader was Elena Aurora López Pérez, a six-year veteran of the Grameen program. Most of the loans the individual women receive are tiny, as little as US$100. The women use the money to purchase materials used to produce their crafts, in this case, thread to weave and embroider textiles.

López offered her own personal experience as evidence of the social changes Grameen is producing. Her husband and most of the men in town are farmers who grow corn and beans, as their ancestors have for many generations. López, however, was doing something new, which has won heightened respect from her husband, and even something approaching equality.

“Generally the man makes the decisions,” she acknowledged. “But this is changing somewhat, because now we are equal.” They decide together how they will sell her products, and they both manage their earnings. But she admitted that not all the women in her group have been so liberated. “It varies,” she said.

The marketing conundrum. But while López's personal status and her textile production are improving, sales of her products and those of the other members of her group have not.

Marketing is the nearly universal conundrum of handicraft producers everywhere. Often uneducated and isolated from commercial and communications networks, artisans do what they know, which is to make beautiful objects. Most don't know marketing, and have no other recourse other than to leave the sales of their products to fate or to the middleman.

Making textiles is a lengthy, labor-intensive process. The women of Zinacantán can weave a textile in a day, but then spend seven more days embroidering it. Meanwhile, they are cooking meals, taking care of the house and tending to the children. Once their piece is finished, the artisan may sell it to a middleman for perhaps 120 pesos, who will then sell it to a tourist for 200 or 250 pesos. Of the 120 pesos the artisan receives, 80 pesos must pay for materials. (Meanwhile, her husband working in agriculture makes 350 pesos weekly.)

This is clearly not a way to get rich, even in good times. “Sales have been really down this year,” said López. Tourists visiting Zinacantán generally bypass the town market where the women sell their products. Instead their tour guides take them directly to several private houses where they have made prior arrangements to receive hefty sales commissions.

The handicraft market in San Cristóbal de las Casas draws foreign tourists, but often effectively bars artisans looking for a place to sell their products.

Another marketing avenue could be the big handicrafts market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which occupies several hectares of tree-shaded hillside up against the church of Santo Domingo. But to do so, a woman must first pay the cost of a bus trip, and then if she wants a spot to sell her wares, she must deal with “coyotes” who apportion out spaces for a payment of 20 or 30 pesos daily. And then are the other “service” providers, each expecting their payments, right down to the garbage haulers who demand a couple of pesos a day. It is a place where the strong take advantage of the weak, and women who work there have to deal with what López called “very abusive people.”

While López spoke, Gamboa listened sympathetically. “These poor people work hard, both in the fields and in their house,” she said. “The authorities promise to help, but in the end they forget about them.”

Grameen is very much aware of the marketing problem, and in 2005 opened up a new channel for their clients through which they sold handicrafts through distributors in the United States. They also plan to open a shop in Mexico City, hopefully before 2007. 

When sales are off, the women must deal with two problems: first, they are not receiving a return on their labor, and second, they must still make payments on their loans to Grameen. In some cases, if a woman cannot meet her payment, she must get help from her husband or other family members. But in almost every case, they do not miss their payments. In fact, microentrepreneurs the world over take their credit responsibilities very seriously, and while microenterprise programs might run into problems of all kinds, serious arrearages generally are not one of them. In the case of Grameen, the arrearages rate is about 2-5 percent. But all loans are eventually repaid. In the worse case, if a member of a solidarity group were to die, Grameen would absorb that person’s debt.

Despite the problems, Gamboa points out that most of her clients have been with them for years. They clearly value the credit, both for the economic opportunities it opens up to them and for the changes it has brought in their own personal status. “The truth is they are getting benefits,” said Gamboa.