It was the ragtag collection of broken and discarded mirrors leaning on the walls surrounding us that first captured my heart and imagination.
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of spending a half-day visit to World Vision’s program in Tijuana. It’s been a few years since my last visit, so I was very glad to be back.
The program has grown in numerous ways: It has continued to expand, from the original 2 communities to 18 today! Some 7-8 years ago, a total of $300,000 had been donated into the microcredit program there. Today that portfolio is more than $1.2 million. And 3185 active borrowers are actively involved, more than double the micro-entrepreneurs they served on my last visit.
Numbers like this are nice, because they represent the people served; numbers provide a way to empirically measure progress. But the fun is in meeting the actual people who are involved and benefiting from the program. And Thursday was no exception.
We met a group of women running their own businesses who were attending their weekly loan repayment meeting. These meetings also provide their opportunity to learn from each other, wrestle through business challenges, and be inspired by their fellow members.
Marisol is the president of this “Community Bank” group. She explained that she personally now owns and operates three separate businesses. We were impressed; but she shrugged it off. “All Mexicans work hard,” she volleyed back with a wry smile. “That’s why you hire us up North.”
These women joked and parried with us toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye. We didn’t need to see any other proof of the loan program’s impact. This in itself was major progress. These were not women who averted their faces, who were afraid that they’d be deemed uneducated. They were business owners. And they were empowered.
We asked if we could visit one of their businesses, and Tere raised her hand.
The first thing that surprised me about Tere is that she jumped into her car. Her car? This was the first time in all my trips I’d seen a borrower in a car. We followed her and parked on the precarious hillside by her home. Across the ravine was a wooden home made from plywood and old American garage doors. But neighboring homes had cinder-block sides or bricks stacked next to them–signs of major progress and commitment.
During the short drive, we’d noticed a cardboard sign nailed to a pole: ” Zumba con Tere.” Yup, Tere had used her loan to open a ZUMBA! studio. The front door opened onto a smooth concrete floor surrounded by a potpourri of has-been mirrors: detached dresser mirrors, broken wall mirrors, used closet-door mirrors… all of them leaning tightly against three of the walls: voila!, instant dance studio. It was entrepreneurial and scrappy, and I loved it.
A few second-hand workout clothes hung on display for sale in one corner, each neatly on its own hanger. On the other side, a couple of steps led down to a counter with a few refreshments and nutritional supplements for sale. Beyond that was tucked a cozy nursery and children’s play area.
All the “elements” were there, and her entrepreneurial spirit brought it together with flair, on a shoestring. And Tere told us that, while her husband’s income helps, her business provides for most of their family’s needs.
It was also quite encouraging to realize that there were some people in this community who could spare the disposable income for Zumba classes!
On our way back to the border, we made a surprise visit to Marta, a single mom who operates a tiny beauty salon. But we squeezed in, and she made a quick apology to her customer (whose hair was right then chock full of something sudsy and gooey) to talk briefly with us.
“I live for hair!” she announced. “Today, I own this whole shop. I had three small daughters when I divorced my husband 10 years ago because he was a drug addict. Then I had to support my kids with only my income. I was asking God to help me get a place like this. For 15 years I’ve wanted a shop like this. Now that I have this shop, I don’t need any more. I’m content.”
I commented that we might call that a “dream come true,” but that for her it was more “a prayer come true.” She replied, “Yes, that’s true. I started believing in Christ 25 years ago. I’m very happy. I love life!” And she proudly introduced her youngest daughter, who now plans to attend college and study Criminal Justice… surely the first ever in their family.
If I hadn’t had a walking cast on my leg last Thursday, and using my elders’ cane from Kenya for balance, I would have begged Tere to give us all a 5-minute Zumba! lesson. Then again, maybe I should have simply thrown off the cane the way these women are throwing off their shackles.
They are learning to dance; making progress far beyond what numbers could measure.