Going the Distance

April 22, 2015 • Features, Print • Views: 1061

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By Elizabeth Zhang

Little houses sat squarely under a cloudless sky, and every sign of human habitation seemed to be shrouded by cacti. Only the rumbles of a truck punctuated the deafening quiet that characterizes a place in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

This was the community of Huixcazdhá, population: 300. Located in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, this “Twilight Zone” pueblo lives in the shadows of titanic urban centers, like cosmopolitan Mexico City to the south, state capital Pachuca to the east, and economic juggernaut Queretaro to the west. The land is arid, only capable of supporting subsistence level farming. The roads, mostly unpaved except for a few patches covered with mismatched pebbles and stones, make driving a turbulent experience, inviting horses and bare feet. Houses are three room affairs made of rocks or raw cinderblock bricks with protruding PVC pipes as substitutes for formal plumbing. Dogs, chickens, and flies tend to the liquid that drips from the pipes into dirt yards. It is the only water they will see during the predominant dry season, when natural lakes shrink to puddles, and the intermittent water supply that trickles in from state pipes goes straight from faucet to mouth.

“Marginalized.” The word seems to symbolize the current state of rural Mexico, where those who resist leaving for the burgeoning employment opportunities in urban centers are indiscriminately subjected to a unique brand of government apathy. Most rural community populations live on the border of state aid cutoff points, and there exists a permanent ceiling on politically-perceived “need.” Informal and seasonal employment accounts for much of the economic activity in these communities. Despite the existence of an impressive network of welfare programs and benefits, social assistance remains inadequate in these rural environments because of the Mexican government’s ineffective spending and their own inaccessible nature.

As a result, everything is half done. Water systems are built, but shortages are more common than adequate supply. Clinics are constructed, but they stand empty of health professionals for all but three to four days of the year. Schools are erected but only serve up to the eighth grade. (The families of those students serious about completing a high school education must often scrape together money to send them to larger towns.)

Rural communities respond to their disenfranchisement by further reverting to traditional practices, the last available means of maintaining their loose kinship networks. This strategy has succeeded in providing local governments with some autonomy and the ability to manage community affairs. Yet, it has done little to counteract  rural-urban migration. In most rural families, everyone knows a friend or a family member who has endured a treacherous journey to the United States or scraped a living in an urban Mexican slum for the shot at a better and more inclusive life. Some even return, drawn back to an idea of home and family, but discover that isolation has turned “home” into a refuge of festering conservative attitudes, particularly regarding gender inequality and infectious diseases.

Above: An example of an unfinished water system in Huixcazdhá (Zhang/TYG). Here: A dirt road extending out of Huixcazdhá (Zhang/TYG).

A dirt road extending out of Huixcazdhá (Zhang/TYG).

A potential solution to this marginalization lies in the work of small non-governmental organizations, which have stepped up to address rural communities’ unmet welfare needs. One such example is Proyecto Estela, an NGO partner of Tecnológico de Monterrey, which chiefly distributes donated books to rural communities. Proyecto-Estela also attempts to highlight the possibility of higher education for students, who, without proper encouragement, would otherwise drop out of middle school in order to support their families financially as soon as possible. The program’s director, Alejandra Cortes, explained that only by selecting communities with the motivation to send children to school can the organization be effective; otherwise, it’s wasted effort: “Unfortunately, communities that care that deeply about literacy are rare in rural Mexico.” Proyecto Estela likens long-term educational goals to sustainable development—a short-term investment that, while a little more costly at first, will hopefully begin a feedback loop to improve the future welfare of the community.

Governments and NGOs often use “sustainable development” as a blanket term in development strategies, though  just what sustainability is has become unclear. It started out as a cry for environmental consciousness, a concept for reforming detrimental practices that reaped short-term profits by means of practices that dismissed long-term prospects for resource perpetuity. The concept of sustainable development has since expanded to encompass economic and social development theories in order to bring together disparate cohorts, genders, or income gaps. Public and nonprofit entities are attracted to the model because it represents a move away from a strict regimen of free market economics. They support its focus on local self-determination as opposed to a reliance on anemic national governments. But private for-profit entities may offer an unique perspective with which to turn the idea on its head.

San Miguel, a food-processing company based in Huixcazdhá, has played an extraordinary role in implementing sustainable development. In the 1970s, Benito de Manrique de Lara, then a young, successful doctor in cosmopolitan Mexico City, uprooted his life and medical practice to live in Huixcazdhá, seeking the peace and isolation of the Mexican countryside to meditate on the next steps of his life. Despite his isolation from the world he knew, he became fast friends with the families of Huixcazdhá, many of whom would pass by his small residence on their way to collect water from the local watering hole. Seeing the empty standing clinic, he soon began offering his medical expertise to treat the people of the community. In the process, he became well acquainted not only with Huixcazdhá’s public health issues but also its socioeconomic hardships.

Dr. Manrique knew that only work and self sufficiency could imbue the people of Huixcazdhá with meaning.“Work is the means to express our human potential,” he said in an interview with the Yale School of Management. “A company is a privileged organization, providing an opportunity to educate, grow, and learn by doing. For me, a company is more than a part of the business system but can act as a facilitator of learning and education within society.” The company that he and his brothers started took amaranth, a protein-rich grain familiar to Mexico’s pre-colonial civilizations but since long forgotten, and processed it to be consumed as a baby’s formula and cereal. The company has contracts with mostly state governments to produce dispensaries, as amaranth covers vital amino acid deficits inherent in the traditional Mexican diet.

What distinguishes the company is a progressive philosophy that, despite resistance from local governments over the years, heavily influences its labor practices. A major goal of San Miguel was to hire locally, as well as to provide women with more economic power. Mexico is known for its lack of gender equality, a problem shared among the majority of Latin American countries. This is especially true in the rural working sphere, where men act as primary earners, working as masons, farmhands, and shop owners. Many women, given few opportunities to work, subject themselves to a systematized pattern of marriage, childbearing, and housekeeping. Although Mexican women thus have significant control over their own households, an extraordinary national income gap remains, and domestic violence against women is prevalent. San Miguel has responded by both offering employment to both men and women in the community and being accommodating to its female workers’ hectic schedules during childrearing. The company enables them to work flexible hours in increasingly technical fields like product development, record keeping, and communications. As a result, some of the most technologically literate women in rural Mexico can be found in the small compound of San Miguel’s flagship factory headquarters.

The company’s advocacy for cleaner water infrastructure has been crucial to the community’s growth. The federal government often overlooked Huixcazdhá, as it did to many other communities, when allocating money for community resources, like clean water infrastructure and sewage systems. With support and input of locals, San Miguel spearheaded the construction of a well, tapping into aquifers that provide a valuable and renewable source of clean water. San Miguel has also invested in a community center where unemployed women can develop crafts to then be sold in town. The idea is to equalize the balance of payments; when someone from Huixcazdhá receives a paycheck, her first instinct is to spend it outside of the community. By providing more people with the means to sell and to spend money on goods, the community can become more self sufficient and develop from within.

Should Huixcazdhá’s experience with sustainable development become a viable model for other rural communities, certain issues must be solved. Though constantly careful to take into account public sentiment, local government leaders have seen their authority diminished, and they continue to push back against San Miguel’s efforts to bring additional government projects to Huixcazdhá. One of Huixcazdhá’s three rotating mayors resentfully told the Globalist that the company had taken over much of the community. That such a large percentage of women in a rural community actively take part in the economic life remains a point of contention, both publicly and privately. “Rural agrarian societies are very conservative and slow to change,” Diego Manrique, one of San Miguel’s co-owners, acknowledged. “This is both good and bad… the social changes that have taken place due to our presence and activities, especially with regard to the role and position of women within the community, have not always been met with immediate approval.”

Many are rightfully wary of companies that use “social responsibility” and “sustainable development” projects as a mere publicity stunt. Yet, San Miguel represents the opposite. Just as there are businesses whose good intentions are distorted by the lure of fast profits, there are companies like San Miguel.

Elizabeth Zhang ’16 is a Molecular Biochemistry & Biophysics major in Davenport College. Contact her at elizabeth.zhang@yale.edu.

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