The Power of Remittances
Text by Dulce Gamboa
Photographs by Maisie Crow
Violeta Cruz is an atypical rural Mexican woman. The 29-year-old businesswoman, a single mother of one daughter, is president of Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal de Ayoquezco (MENA), a women’s association that grows, packs, and commercializes cacti in Ayoquezco, a community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Violeta Cruz, president of Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal de Ayoquezco (MENA) picks nopal (cactus) that froze--due to very low temperatures--and cannot be sold at the local market. MENA, founded in 2002 with remittances that 68 local women received from their husbands working abroad, now has 170 members.
Over the past two decades, about 65 percent of Ayoquezco’s population has migrated to the United States. Gradually women in this community were left behind, alone with their children.
But a couple of courageous women, including Cruz’s mother and some of her neighbors, sparked a major change in Ayoquezco by transforming the immigration problem into an opportunity that has allowed families to escape extreme poverty.
Sixty-eight women founded MENA in 2002 with remittances from their husbands, who were working in the United States. (Remittances are a lifeline for many; in 2009, for example, Mexicans received $20 billion in remittances from family members in the United States). MENA has expanded to 170 members and benefits about 300 families residing in the municipality.
Members of MENA began growing cacti in their backyards, initially for self-consumption. But in the late 1990s, they diversified their crops and incorporated cacti into their farms.
Over the last seven years, the women have perfected their farming techniques, as well as the genetic quality of the cactus, which enables them to produce certified organic cacti. MENA obtained its organic certification from the U.S. company Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) in 2006, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States in 2007.
At the plant, women cut and bottle fresh cacti with vinegar and other condiments. They also produce mole and chocolate, especially when cacti production is scarce.
Cruz’s life has changed. “This experience has strengthened me as a human being,” says this mother, cacti farmer, and association president. "Now I am more assertive, especially in the decision-making process of the [food processing] plant.”
The mindset of women in Ayoquezco also has changed. They have had to fight many barriers, Cruz said, from husbands who did not let them work, to those who said the women were dreaming too big—that it would be impossible to start a business of cacti production—to a culture rooted in machismo. But they have proven them otherwise.
The hard work and sacrifices of Ayoquezo’s workers in the United States also are paying off. They are investing a portion of their savings in their community of origin, which opens the possibility for them to return home and work on ongoing, productive projects.
MENA still faces challenges—the association needs an agronomist to stabilize and standardize year-round cacti production, especially during the winter season, as well as machinery that will accommodate different production processes. The women also need access to new markets in which they can trade their products at a fair price. Currently, the price they receive for their organic cacti on the local market is the same as what lower-quality cacti receives.
But the women have created an important income source for Ayoquezco residents. The association initially looked for permanent places to sell cacti in the biggest local market in the city of Oaxaca. Now, the women are figuring out how to export their cacti products to the United States.
MENA is changing an entire town. And Cruz is part of this change.
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