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I promised a long time ago to write about housing in Nuevo Laredo.

So I will exercise self-control and delay the gratification of writing about my recent outing to a lucha libre pro wrestling extravaganza. I will write instead about how housing gets built here in Nuevo Laredo – more of a sweaty struggle than the lucha libre on any day – and why housing microfinance is important in this process.

Hopefully this post will serve to dispel rumors that all I do here is go fishing, write medical adventure stories, and nearly get arrested (see previous posts).

Visiting Kiva borrowers and writing journals represents a big part of my work for Kiva at my partner organization, FVP (Fundación para la Vivienda Progresiva, or Progressive Housing Foundation). For those of you who not yet gotten addicted to reading them, journals are updates that give a fuller sense of the Kiva client and the impact of the loan. (To check out current journals on the Kiva site click here.) So far I’ve visited over 100 borrowers to interview them for a journal. More than 50% of FVP’s portfolio is in housing loans, so I have spoken to many individuals and families who have borrowed Kiva capital to make housing improvements.

One sure icebreaker in Nuevo Laredo when talking to borrowers is to ask if they built their house all at once.

That usually gets a big laugh – a kind of “you don’t know how things work around here, do you?” laugh.

To understand how housing works in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (and in a lot of Latin America) requires rewiring (or maybe discarding?) the typical 21st century American conception of how a house gets built. Houses do not just look different here; most of the process that brings them into existence is different from the process by which new houses are born in the U.S. – different in terms of the time it takes, how the capital flows, who maintains control of the process, and many other factors.

My icebreaker usually gets a laugh – or a sneer – because it often takes years for families to build their houses to fit their needs. The relatively low household incomes of FVP clients mean that it takes a long time to gather the capital to make housing improvements. Most families thus make housing improvements in stages, using gradual savings and occasional windfalls to purchase building materials and incrementally build their houses, wall by wall, sometimes block by block.

Behind every incrementally-built house there's a unique story. Out front there is usually a dog.

Behind every incrementally-built house there is a unique story. Out front there is usually a dog.

When you drive through some neighborhoods many of the houses look like construction supply yards, with future building ambitions measured in stacks of concrete block. The same number look like construction projects abandoned at various stages of completion. On one block you can sometimes see houses ranging from a wooden shack up to a two story concrete home with balconies – a textbook graphic of the stages of the housing process in that neighborhood. If you have never been to a developing country, this afternoon drive through one such neighborhood gives a sense of how the housing stock is in a perpetual state of evolution.

Time moves slow on housing improvements because money does not accumulate quickly for most families. Traditional mortgage financing is not an option for most low-income families. Part of the reason is that low-income households simply cannot make the payments that would be necessary to carry even a modest (say $15,000) conventional mortgage. Furthermore, many are self-employed or work informally, making it difficult to prove income even if it were high enough. And the land that they build on often falls short of having full title, so they lack collateral to secure a bank loan. These are only some of the reasons.

Even if these factors were in place for low-income households, most banks are not set up to offer small housing loans and would struggle to break even on small loans. Some government programs have had success in helping low-income families, but are typically only available to workers in the formal sector, i.e. not those who are self-employed or work in informal enterprises. (Probably more than half of FVP clients with Kiva capital fall into the latter categories.)

So households rely on their own wits and resources to build their own housing. This process is called by various names: progressive housing, self-help housing, incremental housing, and informal housing. Variations of this strategy account for the great majority of housing production in the developing world. (By the estimate of one author, Diane Mitlin, upwards of 80% of housing in the developing world is built this way.) The main characteristics of this process are 1) an almost complete lack of involvement on the part of formal institutions (banks, government permitting or inspections, formalized contractors or developers) 2) an incremental approach, building in stages over several years 3) household control over most aspects of the process.

house of block

Step One: provisional wood house; Step Two: house of block

This latter point means that each household, in a sense, becomes a micro housing developer. Each family acquires its own land, buys its own materials, provides its own labor or pays an informal contractor to complete the work. All of these inputs to housing require capital, which the family raises however it can – self-financing, you could call it.

As you might have guessed, the process of building housing in a low-income neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo is not exactly like building a house in, say, the suburbs of New Jersey.

To start, the order of the construction process in neighborhoods built incrementally is almost the opposite of building a new house in the U.S., as this crude comparison shows:

Typical new house in U.S.:

1. Land purchased
2. Installation of services (water, sewer, electric)
3. Paving of roads
4. Construction of home

Typical incrementally built house in low-income neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo:

1. Land purchased
2. Provisional home construction starts
3. Home construction gradually transforms into more permanent materials
4. Installation of services, usually electric and water first, then sewer later if at all.
5. Paving of roads, if at all.

Households acquire land by various means – some by purchase and some by occupation. (Purchase seems to be more the norm in Nuevo Laredo now.) Low-income families usually purchase in relatively unsettled areas on the outskirts of the city, where prices are most affordable. For many if not most families, this is likely the biggest sum of money that they have ever paid for anything in their lives. (The average salary of a factory worker here is about $2,000 dollars a year. I never heard of a plot of land costing less than $1,500 in 2008) Families often buy the land in installments, paying a downpayment to the seller and the paying the rest over several months or even several years.

Other families acquire land through occupation. This is a much longer story that would take another blog. To generalize, it means that a group of families “invades” (that’s the word they use here) a plot of uninhabited land (often owned by the city), typically on the periphery. The city often “regularizes” these settlements once they have grown into neighborhoods, eventually granting some form of legal title to the occupant.

For many families used or found materials build the first house. Those who have invaded land also use this house as a marker to stake their claim.

At this point families are landowners, but that’s about all. It is typically land without services – no electricity, no sewer, no water hookups, definitely no cable or internet. Often they have a bill of sale or some proof of an exchange of ownership, but less frequently have an actual title to the land. This is a longer story of informal land divisions that I will get to in another post if I can.

María, a Kiva client and single mother, is one example of how families persistently and progressively build up their home over time. Her parents acquired the land through occupation about 13 yrs ago, a 7X20 meter (about 23X65 feet) plot in a neighborhood that was basically monte — desert brush — at the time of occupation. Their first step was to build a single room house out of wood. This is a typical of families with limited capital; they often build this first part of the house out of found materials or buy used wood and materials at one of the many pulgas (flea markets) in the city. The variety of materials that you see is impressive: old pallets, sheet metal, big cans pounded flat, old signs, the works. Why is this the first step? Two main reasons: some families can afford to pay rent for a more decent place, but paying rent means not being able to save to build a house. So people build a provisional house, live there, save on rent, and can put away some money to build a “casa de material” – a house of more permanent materials.

In the case of María, after four years of being on the land, the city began to install water lines, followed by electric. After about five years she and her family had saved enough to begin building a second room made of wood. Many families at this point do not yet have the resources to put down a floor, and the roof is often made of makeshift materials like second hand plywood and sheet metal. After this point María began saving up to build the first room of permanent materials..

Three years later María applied for and received her first housing loan from FVP, for $8,000 pesos (about $800 dollars). María combined this loan with her own savings to start building the first structure of new concrete block, a two room house behind the original wooden house. (By this point, she said, the original wooden house was already in bad shape.) María told me it would have probably taken her at least another 1-2 years to put together the money to build this first phase of the concrete block house if she had not received the loan.

At FVP, this is often the point at which housing microfinance enters the scene as a source of funds for these “microdevelopers” of housing i.e. when families are already addressing their housing needs, but need to access capital to move their projects forward more quickly. Not unlike the way that microfinance capital can unlock the potential of microentrepreneurs, housing microfinance helps to loosen the bottleneck of capital that can impede housing improvements.

This family bought a "piece of the desert" about 15 years ago, built a small house out of wood and gradually expanded it into a 2 bedroom concrete block with their own savings and the help of three housing loans from FVP (the last loan was Kiva capital)

This family bought a "piece of the desert" 15 years ago, built a small wooden house, which they slowly transformed into a two bedroom house of concrete block, using their own savings and three loans from FVP (the last one was Kiva capital).

Based what I have seen as a Kiva Fellow at FVP, here are some major reasons why I think housing microfinance is a valuable tool in a housing context like Nuevo Laredo:

1. Households are already accustomed to improving their homes in stages, so small loans complement this incremental approach. Having a small loan – in the case of FVP usually between $500 and $2,000 – allows families to move forward with improvements and then pay back the capital at a pace that they can handle. It is a like a miniature home improvement loan, tailored to a strategy of progressive construction.

2. The requirements for the loans are flexible – alternative proofs of land ownership are accepted, and the land itself does not serve as the collateral for the loan. (The guaranty on the loan comes from a friend or family member who serves as a kind of co-signer.) Loan officers understand have learned how to determine the income of self-employed or informal sector employees, recognizing that just because they don’t have paystubs does not mean that they don’t have incomes.

3. This capital allows households to make improvements at a much faster pace. This means that families get to live in healthier, safer, more comfortable conditions sooner than would have been possible without a loan. The potential positive ripple effects, in my view, are numerous.

4. Housing microloans enable households to make improvements that require a large infusion of capital and cannot be completed incrementally. For instance, a family can gradually build four walls for a new house, but you need to pour the concrete roof all at once. Many families use a loan for relatively big ticket items that are hard (or much more expensive) to achieve incrementally. Having more capital also means being able to buy more in bulk, get better prices, and get more brick for your buck, so to speak.

5. A housing loan contributes to the creation of an asset that helps to stabilize the family in the present and into the future: a home. Having a house of one’s own means not having to pay rent – and being able to save for other purposes. This asset is probably the greatest representation of wealth that the family has, and, theoretically, could be sold or serve as collateral for a loan in the future. Even if a weak housing market means that the house does not necessarily have a high exchange value, it has a high use value for families, both in the present and a patrimony for their children.

6. Improvements in housing conditions can have positive economic multiplier effects. Of the businesses I visited (about 50) 75% were located in the home of the entrepreneur, ranging from a tailor to a small grocery store to a tortillería. Many families have told me that they had always thought about starting up their own business, but they were waiting to have their own home to be able to do it. Home improvement loans can thus play a role, direct or indirect, in fostering the conditions to start or to expand home businesses.

To continue with the story of María: after finishing the first phase of the two room house, she continued to save, and just completed the two room house by combining Kiva loan capital (a second loan of $1,000) with these savings. It took thirteen years to go from blank land to a house of permanent materials. The newly-inhabited house looks great, stuccoed smoothly and painted a peach color. Right in front of it stands the bare frame of their original makeshift wooden house, a testament to how far they have come. She now uses the second room made of wood for her hair salon, which she started with her sister a few years ago. She makes enough income from the salon to support herself and her three sons, who play under the wooden structure that was their home when they were toddlers. She is thinking of applying for another loan to put up walls around the rear of her property and a new roof on this original structure, to provide a shady place for her children to play. All of this would have been harder to achieve and much slower, María and other families have told me, without having access to microfinance capital.

Stories like María’s are important because they describe the housing process for a large part of the population in Mexico and the developing world: progressive, incremental, largely informal. The way that houses, neighborhoods, and cities evolve has a lot to do with the way that low-income families build progressively in reaction to a housing market that has not offered them many other options. It is easy to look at the first steps some of these houses – scrabbled together plywood, half-built block walls – and think that they are constructed in a helter-skelter manner. To the contrary, there is, in fact, a system by which people improve their housing and a pattern to their resourcefulness. Housing microfinance can play an important contributing role in this system, serving as a powerful resource for these “micro-developers”. It loosens up the blockage of capital that can prevent improvements from moving forward, clearing the way for families who already know how to be resourceful in addressing their housing needs.

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The border by foot

There are two bridges that cross the river between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, called Bridge One and Bridge Two. They have other names, if you look at the signs more closely, something like Bridge of Fraternity and Solidarity or International Friendship Bridge or Bridge of Everlasting Cumbaya. But everyone here seems to refer to them as “1” and “2”. On a recent Friday night I was one of the only people crossing Bridge One on my way to Laredo, passing a line of informal merchants who looked bored and ready to go home. The last of these was an accordion player propped up sleepily against the bridge rail, the hat at his feet holding barely any change. As soon as he saw me approaching he started pumping out a Mexican love song, and then abruptly stopped after I walked by him. Fleeting love, I suspect.

When I approached the end of the bridge it became clear that there was a crowd, a line of people and families in that linear pose of conversation that only happens in crowded hallways and slow lines. I asked the rear guard of the line what people were waiting for, and the answer was one word: “Permiso”. Two hundred plus people were waiting for permission to get into the U.S. Nothing unusual or special, but it is hard not to feel a bit of something (guilt? empathy?) at moments like this when geopolitical realities are laid bare by long lines of real people.

This feeling was compounded by an unfortunate linguistic coincidence: I then had to make my way through the crowd saying con permiso, “excuse me” in Spanish but literally meaning “with permission.” Kind of embarrassing.

By the end I started to say perdón, but by that point it just seemed like an admission of guilt: pardon me.

The Border Patrol officer on the other side looked quickly at my passport and asked me what I was doing “over there”. I briefly told him where I was working, and he gave me a funny look. He then asked me how crime was these days “over there,” and a couple more “over there” questions. He was talking about it as if it were a town somewhere in Spain or in Puerto Rico. The “over there” we were talking was about 200 yards away.

I had a desire to take him by the hand, lead him over to the line of people waiting for permiso, have a short conversation with each of them to see what they had to say about “over there”, walk across the bridge (pointing out its short length and the pleasant river breezes) and then treat him to tacos in Mexico.

If I took a photo of the border crossing I might be blogging from jail, so instead this is an excuse to include a photo of my longtime friend Ed and his novia, Renee. It qualifies for this blog because they crossed the border to visit me on their way from Louisiana to California.

If I took a photo of the border crossing I might be blogging from jail, so instead this is an excuse to include a photo of me and my longtime friend Ed (on the right) and his novia, Renee. It qualifies for this blog because they crossed the border to visit me on their way from Louisiana to California.

The border by water

I remarked in my first posting that the river that acts as the U.S. – Mexico border seemed neither big (Rio Grande) nor angry (Rio Bravo), especially considering what a well-known international demarcation it is. I have since been corrected that the Spanish name translates more as “rough river.” And I have since been told that its placid look is deceiving, especially when it has just rained.

I live about 4 blocks south of the Rio Grande/Bravo. The river still looks tame to me, nevertheless, and on a hot desert day its water looks pretty inviting. I have been told by a family that lives next to the river – the second house in from the border – that even good swimmers have been drowned by the strong undercurrents. Still, would-be migrants arrive at the border wanting to cross over; some don’t have money or don’t want to pay a coyote to cross them over clandestinely, so they decide to try their luck at crossing what seems like a short distance. Just a couple weeks ago, said the mother of this family, they pulled two men’s bodies out of the river. She called the river a “traitor” given the way that it looked so smooth but could be sinister.

I recently chatted with a Texas journalist who just did a tour of the border with the Border Patrol. (She said they’re a lot nicer than the INS, or BICE, as they’re called now.) They showed her the strategic points where people cross clandestinely. When people swim or wade across they get really muddy. So when they reach the other side, she explained, they remove their clothes and put on a change of clothes that they bring along.

At some point along the banks of the Rio Grande there is apparently a long colorful string of wet discarded clothing, forming its own kind of borderline.

I’d like to take a photo of that.

Thorny issues

Standard border photo of cactus and river, replacing photo I would rather have of clothes on shoreline

Border by train

When I walk home in the evening I come to a railroad track that takes commercial trains across the border, loaded with goods coming from other parts of Mexico and the world, from factories and Pacific ports. I prefer to just walk across the tracks rather than duck down into the foul-smelling underpass.

With the slow-moving train blocking the way, I stopped to talk to a guard there the other day. The train slowed down at this point in order to pass through a big sensor that could supposedly detect the heat of a human body. I noticed the signs warning you not to remain for an unnecessarily long time in the area.

Never did I think that small talk could have a slightly dangerous edge to it.

He told me that about 1,000 train cars passed across the border rail bridge every day. Since the track across is only one lane, there was a schedule for going north and schedule for going south. He said that right before the border every northbound train was checked by U.S. Customs and, I think, DEA officials, four men and two dogs on each side of the train, inspecting the contents car by car.

As I write this, my next door neighbor’s dogs are marking their third hour of almost constant barking. Either they don’t like the sound of me speaking into my voice recognition program or something serious is happening in Dogland. I wonder if the Border Patrol K-9 squad accepts unsolicited deliveries of mutt poodles and chihuahuas.

Northbound train

Northbound train

I’m liking Nuevo Laredo as a city, don’t get me wrong. But part of its charm is its occasionally throbbing volume, its slight undertone of chaos, a certain smoky grit, and a texture that sometimes means you just stepped on a melted mango-chile candy. So I jumped at a recent invitation to spend the weekend inhaling the fresh air of a small fishing village. A facebook-esque string of social contacts – I love nice people connecting you to other nice people – led me to Hector, who works for a Mexican environmental NGO advising shrimp-fishing cooperatives along the gulf coast of Tamaulipas. After getting to know me through a couple three line emails, he invited me to check out the cooperatives and, why not go fishing while you’re down here?

I took an early morning bus that traced the Rio Grande as it passed through little border towns – Miguel Aleman, Ciudad Mier – on its way east to Reynosa and then Matamoros, my destination. The night before I had slept the sleep of someone afraid of getting up late, so I dozed off and on for the first couple hours of the trip. I was awoken by the television in the bus, which displayed the opening credits to a movie, all in Hebrew characters. Looking around me at the scrubby landscape and the desert dust, I had one of those “where-am-I?” moments.

The opening scene of the movie featured three Hasidic Jews closely inspecting a ritual citron fruit, arguing over whether this citron was, in fact, the finest specimen of citron they had ever encountered. I couldn’t see the screen well enough to, umm, gauge the quality of the fruit, but I could understand their exchange since they were speaking in perfect Mexican Spanish. And it’s funny, even though the film was in Jerusalem, everyone spoke perfect Mexican Spanish! I started to doze off again as two Israeli ex-cons started to get involved in the Citron plot, shouting, of course, in Mexico City street slang.

Someone recently made the (flimsy) argument to me that Mexicans do not speak English well because most of the films are dubbed into Spanish. I guess there won’t be much Hebrew learning, either.

Matamoros looked and felt a lot like Nuevo Laredo, but more spread out, a little bit more green, its intense heat relieved occasionally by merciful gulf winds. The bus station had the same hustle and bustle, filled with people going north and far south, with duct-taped gift boxes and duffel bags with misspelled American sports brand decals. Hector found me, greeted me, and immediately asked what happened to my hand. I told him that had I punched out George Bush. This has proven to be the most popular response to questions about my cast, and, as I explained in my last post, could occasionally be unexpectedly useful. Hector did not seem that amused. I made a mental note about the importance of contextuality.

Within minutes we were in the countryside. It’s easy to get into the middle of nowhere when you’re leaving these border towns, since they were built in the middle of nowhere. Soon we are driving through the matorral espinoso, a semi-desertous ecosystem where the spiny look of the plants says “don’t touch me”. The landscape blurring by was streaked with beautiful purple-flowering cenizo bushes, taking the edge off its dry harshness. The other flashes of color came from the reddish tuna – the fruit known as “prickly pear” in English – growing in abundance out of the ubiquitous nopal cacti.

I will not take the almost irresistible imaginative detour offered by the Dali-esque image of tuna growing out of cacti in the desert (on the way to a fishing trip, no less). I will advise you, though, not to pass up an opportunity to try a prickly pear margarita, as long as it is advertised as such and not as a tuna margarita, which would be a colossal marketing blunder that we should not honor with our beverage choices.

Ahem, I digress. Since the North American land mass sharply narrows in Texas and Mexico, this terrain near the Gulf is where the bottleneck begins, Hector told me, and is essential as a habitat for migratory birds. (Apparently the matorral espinoso on both sides of the border is a Mecca for birdwatchers.) Much of the land had been cleared to farm sorghum, a grain used for animal feed. Part of the work of Hector’s organization was to try to convince landowners not to further clear their land for farming.

Our destination was one of the small fishing villages that lined a body of water called the Laguna Madre. The “Mother Lagoon” ran several hundred miles up the coast of Tamaulipas, separated from the gulf by a relatively thin strip of land, and sometimes just a sandbar. The shallow, calm lagoon apparently offered perfect conditions for shrimp, which was the main catch of these fishermen.

The fishermen kept unusual hours, Hector told me as we bounced down the unpaved road. They set out in their boats around six or seven in the evening and return between three and five in the morning. Their nets are set up to form a long chute that leads to a trap. They spent much of the night pulling the shrimp out of the trap and, from what they told me, a lot of time waiting.

Most of the population of the Laguna came from Veracruz, the state directly to the south that also hugs the Gulf of Mexico. According to Hector, many of the fishing grounds in their native Veracruz have been overfished. The earliest migrants to the Laguna sent back word of the plentiful fishing grounds in the Laguna. Apparently the original, non-migrant inhabitants of this area mostly lived from farming, whereas the jarochos – the nickname for natives of Veracruz –were expert fishermen.

The leader of one of the fishing cooperatives migrated from Veracruz with his family about 30 years ago, when he was only a few years old. He has been a member of the cooperative since he was a teenager, and just assumed leadership of the cooperative a few months ago. One of the main tasks of the cooperative was to get the products to market. The biggest, most dependable market with the best prices was in Mexico City. This meant that most cooperatives regularly traveled the fifteen hour plus route to Mexico City with a truck full of fish, shrimp, and a lot of ice.

The leaders often coordinate logistical details like this or spend their time contributing their own catch to the cooperative. Just like in any organization, everyday demands often crowded out long-term strategizing. Part of Hector’s role was to counsel these leaders to spend more their time on improving the cooperatives as organizations and streamline their strategies in order to reduce their costs and get more profit out of their catch.

Introducing more sustainable trap posts was one of the strategies that Hector was developing in collaboration with the cooperatives. The shrimp traps are identifiable in the water by the posts that are driven into the mud and serve to support the traps. The wooden posts were costly, corroded in less than a year in the saltwater, and were cut from a forest somewhere. The proposed alternative was a post made out of recycled plastic that would initially be more expensive, but would last for years and not incur the same future costs for the fishermen or for the environment. Hector was working out the details of a pilot project to test out this alternative strategy.

Shrimp traps on the Laguna Madre

Shrimp traps on the Laguna Madre

I asked Hector if he thought there was a threat of overfishing the Laguna. He said that the productivity of the catch had gradually gone down over the years, but it was hard to tell where this pattern would lead. The government and other entities had done studies, but the results did not always reach or were not always accepted by the fishermen. In an age–old pattern, those most intimately affected by information are sometimes the ones with least access to it.

We contemplated these questions as we sat on the shore eating salty dried shrimp – shrimp caught in the Laguna and spread out to dry in the sun. Hector’s nine year old son and his fourteen year old nephew practiced casting into the water as Hector untangled the fishing lines we would use early the next morning. Children from the village came to play by the water, leading a small goat, and dogs sniffed around at the shrimp shells. I sat there happy to be quenching my salty shrimp-induced thirst with a cold Tecate.

The fishing part of the story

We woke up very early the next day and made our way to the house of Adán, the fisherman who would take us out on his boat. He himself had just returned from the graveyard shift trapping shrimp, but graciously betrayed no signs of fatigue. Hector and the boys each had his fishing rod at the ready. A failed test run of trying to cast my own rod convinced me that there was little hope in trying to fish with only one working hand. (Actually, casting was fine; it was reeling back in that was the problem.) The “One-armed Fisherman” sounded great as the name of a microbrew or a WWF wrestling move, but in practice did not seem like an effective technique. I resolved that I would play the role of official expedition photographer – the one-armed photographer sounded more feasible.

Hector Jr. and Beto ready to cast their lines

We anchored in the middle of the Laguna, the rising sun serving as the backdrop to the glassy stillness of the water. It occurred to me that I didn’t really care what I did for the next four hours. I was pretty content to hang out, watch the live shrimp (the bait) do their translucent dance across the boat floor, and remember how overrated thinking can be.

Hector’s son, Hector Jr., was super excited to go fishing. It was only the second time he had been fishing in his life and the first time had yielded no catch. It turned out that I would have plenty to photograph – Hector Jr. caught enough fish to earn a bit role in a Hemingway novel, and theatrically relished each catch by enthusiastically shouting “Otro!” – another one! His dad was clearly proud.

The Young Man and the Sea

The Young Man and the Sea

After a while, the others began to catch fish, throwing back the small ones. The fish were mostly trout and two other kinds whose names I have forgotten, one of them a bluish gray fish that made a low croaking sound. Hector Jr. even caught a manta ray, which thrashed around its stinging tail as Adán struggled to release it from the hook.

Hector with prehistoric manta ray

Hector with prehistoric manta ray

All hope was not lost for the one-armed fishermen. Adán rigged up a fishing line for me that was wound around a plastic soda bottle – the bottle was Sprite, the cap Coke, to be specific. As other boats arrived near us, I learned that this is actually the way that many people fish recreationally here. Mostly I just donated fresh shrimp to the fish of the Laguna Madre, but I did manage to catch three fish using this, um, traditional technique, which would sound great if not compared to the fourteen fish and manta ray caught by my nine year old boat mate.

I love getting the opportunity to be in circumstances that are unlike my own, to hang out with a father and son and nephew, to use a soda bottle to catch fish I don’t know the names of, and to learn about a way of life that is unfamiliar to me. There is something about this dynamic of the unfamiliar – pardon the fishing metaphor – that can unhook one’s expectations of how people approach life. I tell myself that these little doses of benevolent alienation from my usual thought patterns help to keep my mind open.

The movie on the bus on the way back told the story of a Mormon missionary who saves the people of a Tongan island from natural disaster and internal strife, all the while keeping his necktie properly knotted and speaking perfect Mexican Spanish.

This is not, for the record, the kind of benevolent alienation that I´m talking about.

Let’s just start this blog entry by saying that I didn’t mean to wind up at the police station.

One of my coworkers has an extra truck that he’s trying to sell, and he insisted that I take the truck while he was away for the weekend. It gave me a chance to explore on my own some of the outlying neighborhoods in Nuevo Laredo, and I decided I would go see if the desert really did turn into mountains on the way to Monterrey. On Sunday I dropped off my laundry, ate some huevos rancheros at the local diner “Mar-La”, and headed south. The “provisional” license plate tag on the car seemed a little too provisional, but my desire to get on the road overwhelmed rational thought.

At first city, then housing developments, then land with cattle being sold for housing developments, the cattle, then cactus, cactus, cactus. I stopped for directions at a gas station, and picked up a hitchhiker, acting in contradiction of all State Department advisories. He was an eighteen year old farmhand. I was wearing funny sunglasses, asking a lot of questions, and might have been the first gringo he had heard who was not dubbed into Spanish. He was probably more scared of me than I was of him.

Luckily, the “free” road went to Sabinas Hidalgo, my destination. The toll road could itself be the subject for an incendiary blog. The one way trip to Monterrey (2.5 hours south) on this privatized toll road costs 192 pesos ($19+/-). This represents three days wages for a factory worker in Nuevo Laredo – a clear case of socioeconomic apartheid.

Road trip!

Road trip!

The mountains started to rise out of the desert, beautiful in an extreme way. I was happy to be driving through a place that was not city and not totally flat. I’m a big fan of mountains. Soon we crested over the mountain ridge and caught a view of little Sabinas Hidalgo. I dropped off my passenger, who had come to check out the Sunday fair. It was a nice town. I drank a fruit shake. A man half jokingly asked me to give him a ride to Nuevo Laredo so that he could cross the border. I visited a nature park with “family water attractions” and took a hike. I mildly surprised a bull that then made a lot of bull sounds at me. I meditated in the woods as some hawks flew overhead. In other words, I did very little but enjoyed it.

Exiting Sabinas Hidalgo, I followed my typical scientific travel MO, which consists of seeing a sign, deciding whether the name of the town sounds interesting and turning the steering wheel. On the sign that day was Villaldama, which sounded vaguely Lebanese but for the fact that Arabic doesn’t have a letter V. (Bil Al-Dama?) A winding road led to a small historic (read: deteriorating?) town heavy on adobe buildings and light on people. I saw a sign for delicious tamales, and resolved to loop around the one-way main road and experience tamales in the countryside. Sometime during my return lap, the proprietor had cruelly removed the tamales sign and the restaurant had retreated back into the anonymous line of whitewashed facades.

So I went to a bakery instead and bought some pecan pastries, and pulled the car over and curbed my appetite. (whoops, pun apologies) Halfway through the delicious pastry of pecan and molasses, I noticed a truck pulling up behind me, then another. And still another, all three painted black and white.

A policeman approached and asked, “What are you doing?” as he eyeballed the interior of the car. I responded that I was eating a pastry. Then I quickly regrouped when I realized that he was asking me what I was doing in town. I told him I was “paseando,” kind of “touring around,” which sounds innocent enough. Then he asked me “De donde vienes?” This question could mean either “Where are you from?” or “Where are you coming from”, so in a split second I contemplated my response options:

  • I just left the bakery
  • I was meditating in the woods
  • I was hanging out in a children’s water park
  • I’m from New Jersey
  • I’m coming from Nuevo Laredo

I decided on the last option, which kicked off a series of questions: whose car is it, what are you doing in Nuevo Laredo, why did you come to this town, etc. In the meantime, the other officers began circling the car, opening doors, pawing around. The first guy kept picking up things in the car and asking me how much I’ve paid for them, saying that they looked very expensive, insinuating that I must have a lot of money. I decided this was the right time to employ Tactic #1: act like poor, naïve, lost gringo student. “Oh sir, I just got lost and gosh don’t know where I am and did I mention that I’m a volunteer here?”

But the others kept asking the same questions (now there were five of them) and they were starting to talk to others on the radio. I began to wonder what percentage of the village population was on the police force. One of them got called away (chihuahua caught in a tree? Roosters crowing at an unauthorized hour?). I counted the police: four left. I counted the pastries: four left. I could take them on. It was time to implement Tactic #2: kind offer of local baked goods. Before you could say “que rico” three of them were brushing crumbs off their uniforms. Or their clothing, I should say: two of these guys looked like they were on the way to a friend’s BBQ.

The pastries loosened them up some, but did not do the trick. They told me I would need to accompany them back to the station house for something like a “routine check.” They said a similar car was just reported stolen, and I didn’t have the right paperwork on the car to prove that it was legit. (They were right, I didn’t, apparently.)

One of them got in the car with me. I began to apply Tactic #3: getting to know each other better. I told him that I love mountains. The local baked goods are really delicious, aren’t they? I asked about the ruins of an old church that I saw as I entered town. He told me that it was the ruins of an old church.

We arrived, and they asked me to pull into the enclosed back parking lot of the station house. This is when I began to have visions of handcuffs, jailhouse dinners of mealy tortillas and beans, or, if I was lucky, just a modest payoff.

I’m all for fighting stereotypes of crooked cops, but it is a challenge when an agglomeration of all of your stereotypes is shaking your hand at the station house door. The Lieutenant’s smile exposed teeth framed in gold caps, and his half buttoned shirt revealed spotty archipelagos of chest hair and barely concealed a paunch that was the result of some serious long-term investment. He wasn’t chewing tobacco, luckily; I am told this is a sure sign of corruption. I scanned the ground for evidence of recent use, but only saw his recently polished reptile skin boots.

He asked me all the same questions and I gave him similar answers – I volunteer helping the poor, don’t know much about the rules, just here to get to know your country and your quaint yet sleepy village. In the meantime, the rest of the crew had opened the hood of the truck and seemed to be inspecting the engine.

I mentally reviewed the tactics that I had used and considered what I could still do to get myself out of this situation. Offering him the last pastry seemed potentially insulting. He didn’t seem to want to get to know me. Political humor seemed like one of the few tactics I still had at my disposal.

He asked me what happened to my arm, giving me the perfect opening for my typical cheesy response: “I broke my hand when I punched out George Bush.”

He laughed!

One of the few highlights in the darkness of recent American political history is that so many around the world share a love for Bush-bashing, forming a common ground for bonding between travelers and locals on all continents. The lieutenant was no different: my dumb joke served for him as a launching point for a diatribe against Bush, the war, how Mexico shouldn’t be involved when there was already a war against the narcotraffickers here (Mexico is involved in Iraq?), and did I know that the whole damn thing was about oil anyway?

With the lieutenant showing glimmers of Noam Chomsky, the situation seemed suddenly brighter – things took on a friendlier tone. The policemen pointed out to me the pecan trees growing in the courtyard. The guys leaning over the engine had checked the water level in the radiator and scolded me for letting it run low. The lieutenant told them to fill it up with the hose, and clapped me on the back.

What they then told me amounted to this: you were driving around in a car that didn’t have the right paperwork. We could have really screwed you, either by impounding the car or by asking for a fat payoff. A lot of police out there, they said, would have held me there for a long time until I forked over some cash. So get back on the road, drive back to Nuevo Laredo and don’t come back to our sleepy village until you have the right papers.

Then they told me this about another six times in different forms, using an impressive variety of forms of the swear word chingar. In an oddly friendly way.

They directed me as I reversed out of the courtyard, waving me on my way. I stopped only once on the way back, when I saw an irresistible sign for fresh avocados. (OK, I admit it, I stopped for tacos too.) They were the same kind of avocado I had seen growing on a tree earlier in the day, and the woman told me that it was a variety that you eat whole, skin and all. She insisted on giving me some avocados for free.

I’m not sure what the moral is in this story, but it’s clear that the policemen gave me more than a free avocado. I like having my expectations contradicted, especially when it means that I don’t wind up getting into legal trouble. And I was sorry that I had expected the worst of the situation at first.

There are a million nicknames for police here, many pejorative and some making reference to their brown or tan colored uniforms. Maybe I’ll start calling them pecan pastries, so that I’ll have reason to tell a story with a good ending.

Police mug shot of avocado. You eat it with the skin on - nam nam!

Police mug shot of avocado. You eat it with the skin on - nam nam!

Ever since I can remember, I have seen steps as kind of a wasted resource. I tend to only use every second or third one, is what I mean. And when I am busy, I really move fast up steps. This is what happened last Thursday morning at FVP: arrived at office, ran up the steps, slipped, dived heroically to save defenseless laptop, and landed on one of my fingers.

My friends and family would express surprise that it has taken this long for me to break something running up steps, so I will begin by agreeing that this might be a case of karmic backlash.

Strangely, my hand didn’t hurt that much. I brushed myself off, opened up my computer and started to check my e-mail. When I looked down at my hand, it looked like one of those signposts where three signs are pointing right and one pointing to an awkward fork in the road. Yikes. This was not a good sign. One of my coworkers offered to take me over to the hospital.

The receptionist in the emergency room distinguished herself with her sincerity and command of linguistic nuance. When asked how long the wait might be, she smiled and said, “Va a tardar un pooooco” – it’s going to take liiiiittle while. This phrase simultaneously meant 1) officially, I can tell you how long it will take, but 2) you may be here for an eternity. In a second bout of sincerity, she revealed to us that the hospital’s x-ray machine was actually broken. So we politely stepped out to reconsider the options. An illuminated sign reminded me that the phrase in Spanish for “emergency room” – sala de urgencias – translates literally to “urgency room”. This had always struck me as a little funny, in a non-participatory way.

It didn’t take long for my coworker to convince me to go to a private hospital down the road. I would probably leave the hospital with a case of privilege-induced guilt, but they would take care of me, and quick. So we went in, I paid my entrance fee, and within fifteen minutes I was spreading my fingers out under an x-ray machine. Soon after the doctor had a film of my skeletal hand up on the illuminated board, my own version of the day of the dead. The doctor confirmed that I had broken the ring finger on my left hand
(the third metatarsal?) and told me that I needed a cast.

He told me that it was not his specialty to fix broken bones, so please wait for the traumatólogo.

The traumatologist? I love how Spanish makes a word out of everything. While I waited, I remembered the Nuevo Laredo neighborhood called Doctores, where all the streets are named after medical specialists. I kid you not. Calle de Endocrinólogo, Oftalmólogo, Reumatólogo, etc . Can you imagine the exchanges? (“Oh, no way, Pedro, you grew up there? My cousin used to live on Gynecologist Street!”)

The trauma doctor was a friendly guy who – as you might expect – cracked morbid jokes about every 30 seconds in both Spanish and English. He was born in the United States, he said, but he grew up in Nuevo Laredo. His mother had traveled across the border to Texas to give birth to him and all but one of his siblings. Five years ago, and already in his late forties, he moved his family over to the Texas of the border. He lived there, and commuted to work in Mexico –the opposite of the typical trajectory.

My new mummy hand holding a tuna, fruit of the nopal cactus

My new mummy hand holding a tuna, nopal cactus fruit

So here I am, mostly fine but with a cast halfway up my arm. I get a lot of attention from strangers – having a cast is a good icebreaker (only figuratively). And interpretations from friends are starting to come in; one friend commented that a broken left ring finger is a sure sign that I’m not supposed to marry anyone in Mexico.

It’s kind of tough to wash dishes, unscrew caps, and type. I’ve never been that fond of doing dishes or unscrewing caps, but I do need to be able to type. So I trained my computer in voice recognition, reading in my best newscaster voice excerpts from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell and a children’s book. The voice recognition is mostly accurate, amazingly. When I accidentally start speaking Spanish with the headphones on, it starts kicking out text that sounds like either avant garde poetry or the English on the back of a pirated Japanese t-shirt:

You also anonymous and being on a stool be no Cassandra be on a mano that dominate cold and hot idea it has come into

That’s the computer’s translation of me saying in Spanish, “I’m just a silly gringo who broke his hand running up the steps.”

Next post: The one-armed fishermen

To help support my work in Nuevo Laredo, you can chip in here:

http://brendan.chipin.com/kiva-fellowship-mexico

To see all currently fundraising loans from FVP on Kiva.org, please click here.

Two weeks have passed since I started work at Fundación Para La Vivienda Progresiva, or Foundation for Progressive Housing. I am still very much in absorption mode, so for now I will rely on broad strokes to paint the picture of what FVP is all about.

The organization is located right across the border from the U.S., with offices in the border towns of Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Acuña, and, soon, Piedras Negras. In short, FVP helps people in the border region to build housing and to start or grow small businesses. Housing is in its title because FVP started in 2002 as an affiliate of Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF), an international NGO based in the U.S. It was initially founded to address the housing crisis that had resulted partly from the large post-NAFTA migration of Mexicans to work in industries along the border. FVP is now independent from CHF, but the latter continues to advise the FVP on its development.

Housing is a big part of its heart and soul, but FVP has grown into an organization that addresses more than just housing. FVP’s work is dedicated to improving the livelihood of Mexicans of modest means who live in the border region. As one of their leaders explained to me, grinding poverty – not knowing where the next meal is coming from – is not nearly as common here as in other parts of Mexico. But poverty persists in this relatively affluent region, what he called pobreza patrimonial, which I will badly translate as something like a “poverty of assets”.

In other words, even if a family is getting along from day to day, their stability can be fragile. FVP builds up the foundation on which its clients stand, providing tools to actually build a foundation – housing loans – and to strengthen their source of income – small business loans. I will talk about this concept more in future posts.

For FVP, this means more than just giving a loan to an individual or household. It means creating a relationship with each client and helping them to build their business or their home up over time. Enduring growth, they call it here.

The organization’s work philosophy is to make borrowers feel like they are all part of a common project to improve their way of life – and you can see this in the way that the loan officers interact with the clients.

Please flash on your mental screen your picture of a “Loan Officer”. I know I had my own preconceived image, warts and all. And I have friends who work as Loan Officers. Now put it to the side for a moment.

Now imagine Mireya, a Loan Officer at FVP. She is by trade an accountant, she knows her numbers, and she dresses in a business suit, but that is where the similarities with my former image of a loan officer end. Mireya drives her hatchback car out to neighborhoods that paving has not yet reached, braving the rain and seeming to instinctively avoid the flooded streets most likely to swallow her car (we actually saw a truck here that was completely taken down by a pothole, so this is no joke).

When she arrives at clients’ homes or businesses, it has the feel of a cousin stopping by, not a financial officer. Even when she talks shop – getting an update on a business or helping to open a new loan – she and the client have a rapport that is more collaborative than hierarchical. Somehow, she does all of this without getting a speck of dirt on her light tan pants. I, meanwhile, look like I have been in a mud wrestling match.

We were fed tamales on our last stop, and stayed for almost an hour at the client’s house. Mexicans don’t feed tamales to people they don’t like.

The example of Mireya is emblematic of how FVP works. They emphasize forming a connection with clients that will extend beyond a loan, they try to treat each client as a special case, and their rule of thumb is to be honest and transparent with the client about all aspects of the loan process.

Can you imagine this from a bank? I have known loan officers in the U.S. at banks and mortgage companies who have really stretched themselves to help out their clients. I am sure they exist here, too. In general, though, banks are a place where many of the clients do not feel welcome, much less a place they would seek out as a source for a loan.

The conventional wisdom, amongst FVP clients and staff, is that most clients would not get a loan from a bank. I am still unpacking the reasons for why this is the case, if, in fact, it is true. Is it that they don’t qualify for a loan – that the bank’s requirements are too stringent or inflexible for the small entrepreneur without much collateral? Is it that banks are just not interested in giving out loans less than, say, $10,000 pesos ($1,000 dollars +/-)? Or is it that clients just don’t seek out a loan from a bank, because they are afraid of a bank or have a perception that the bank won’t serve them? Are there other small entrepreneurs that do go to banks for a loan, i.e. is it just that I am looking at a skewed sample?

It is probably a little bit of all of these depending on the situation. How it breaks down is something that I will explore over the next couple of months. So far, though, my instinct is that most of FVP’s clients just would never ask a bank for a loan. From initial conversations, it seems like most clients – mostly poor or working poor – just do not consider a bank loan one of their options.

Turn on that mental screen again. Imagine that you have a wealthy great-aunt who has historically has spurned your siblings in public, didn’t invite you to parties because she assumed you couldn’t afford the formal wear, and made you feel really uncomfortable when you walk into her house. Would you ask her for a loan?

Similar reasons have been offered up by the thirty-some clients with whom I have spoken: they don’t think that the bank would give them a loan, they view banks as a friend of the wealthy and the middle class, not the poor. And they just feel downright uncomfortable when they enter a bank.

Just to dilute my speculation with some empirical evidence, I looked at some of the research that has been done. A 2004 World Bank study estimates that only 23% of adults in Mexican cities have a bank account. The percentage of urban Mexicans that access bank loans, I would guess, is much less. (The percentage that has bank accounts in NYC and LA, for instance, is about 2.5 times this, at approx. 63%)

So, back to FVP. Their strategy is largely a response to this feeling of alienation. In the neighborhoods where they work, confianza is king. Confianza is a great word, a combination of a few concepts. It is trust, but also good rapport, a social familiarity amongst people. And it is these tendencies that bind people together in these neighborhoods, if I am reading things right. In other words, FVP’s strategy follows the contours of the way that people actually relate to each other in poor and working class neighborhoods of Nuevo Laredo. Their tactics build up confianza, so that the client trusts them and grows to count on them for collaboration in the project of improving their livelihood in an enduring way.

From what I can tell from some other Fellows’ blogs, this tendency is characteristic of other quality Kiva microfinance partner institutions around the world. They are not just micro-versions of banks giving out micro-loans – their approach to working with people is fundamentally different from the typical banking institution.

Now, I feel remorseful about being hard on banks. But that is probably a requisite way to kick off a microfinance blog, since microfinance is largely about providing financial services to those excluded, for whatever reason, from the traditional financial sector. I am not anti-bank. My work in the U.S. is in developing affordable housing in cities, so I fully recognize that responsible banks are essential to the well-being of communities in my own country, as well as being necessary for the health of our economic system. Here in Nuevo Laredo, I’m looking forward to seeing how all of these different models fall on the continuum of financial services available to the working poor.

To right the balance, I promise that this week I will enter at least one bank with an open mind and ask a loan officer some questions.

We’ll see if I get fed any tamales.

To see all currently fundraising loans from FVP on Kiva.org, please click here.

To help support my work in Nuevo Laredo, you can chip in here:

http://brendan.chipin.com/kiva-fellowship-mexico

This is my first blog entry. Many Kiva Fellow arrival tales involve foreign airports, sweaty travels across long stretches of rural countryside, and the onset of intercontinental jetlag. In contrast, I am probably the first fellow who arrived at his placement by Greyhound bus.

I write you from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the border from Laredo, Texas. On one of the local radio stations (local to Texas? local to Mexico? Hard to tell, since radio waves don’t obey borders) they refer to them as “Los Dos Laredos” – the two Laredos. If you just looked at the people, it would be hard to guess where one place starts and the other begins. As I walked through downtown Laredo, Texas I rarely heard English, the majority of the stores announce sales in Spanish only, and nearly everyone looks Mexican. The chile selection in the supermarket is overwhelming, and the only sign of the Texas that I had imagined was a lanky aging cowboy in line at the supermarket. His belt buckle was studded with shiny Texas stars, matching his sunglass holster and his cellphone clip. At least one of my simplistic stereotypes of the Lone Star state was satisfied.

You can’t mistake the border between the two towns. To English speakers it is the Rio Grande (“Big River”), to Spanish speakers the Rio Bravo (“Rough River”, “Angry River” (?)). Putting aside the philosophical questions raised by this difference in names, it should be noted that the river looks neither big nor angry. It seems too small, in fact, to be the demarcation of this, one of the most storied and frequently traversed borders on the planet. Maybe it used to be bigger and angrier before they installed the dams upriver.

Drawn neatly on a map, borders always seem like such an objective but imaginary line, as if you could step across them the way that you could step across a line drawn by a playmate in a childhood game. At this border the asymmetry is clear. Those who enter the U.S. are scrutinized (residents and non-residents both) while walking into Mexico is effortless, not even requiring the flash of a passport. I considered declaring my recently purchased groceries just to right the balance a bit.

Rio Grande/Rio Bravo looking over toward Texas

Rio Grande/Rio Bravo looking over toward Texas

Once I stepped into Mexico the environment changed, reminding me of the Latin America I knew from previous travels. The informal businesses (let’s call them entrepreneurs) started at mid-bridge with a squeegee man about a boot’s length over the border, squeezing out his living (sorry :) washing cars heading to the U.S. On the other side of the bridge the streets had a Sunday bustle rarely found in any small American city I’ve ever visited (Correction: any affluent section of an American city). In the crowded town square near the bridge, walking merchants were ready to satisfy your every need, whether it happens be a pack of razors, 3D soccer cards, or a yummy mouth-staining shaved ice. (were any of these Kiva borrowers?) Unless, that is, your immediate need was a map of the city, which took me an hour to find.

A clown entertained children in the middle of the plaza, his bullhorn competing with a group of parents asking for donations for a seven year old girl’s eye operation. Cars strapped with sound equipment announced the latest sales, mingling with a 20 mph chorus of reggaeton. I had forgotten how high the volume is turned up in Latin American cities.

The first night, Sunday, I spent at a budget hotel, where big groups of young Mexican men spilled out of their shared rooms into the parking lot as they relaxed on their day off. (Apparently migration to the border area from poorer southern states is common.) The next day I looked for an apartment, and I found a little place with a fig tree in the back yard, about a 15 minute bus ride from the office of the Kiva field partner. The old ladies across the street already have started to churn the rumor mill about what I am doing here. When I step out my door the blast of dry heat reminds me of that I’m at the edge of a desert extending south. If I walk a block north I suddenly get American cell phone coverage, reminding me how close I am to the U.S. Although this place feels very Mexican, it is also clear that I am living in a place between places, and it is going to be interesting to see how this impacts people here in Nuevo Laredo.

I just started work at the microfinance organization where I will be working for the summer — the Fundacion para la Vivienda Progresiva, or Progressive Housing Foundation. The first day is still sinking in, so I will blog about that later. Stay tuned — it will be a fascinating summer!

To see all currently fundraising loans from FVP on Kiva.org, please click here.

PS If you’d like to help me help this cause, you can chip in at:

http://brendan.chipin.com/kiva-fellowship-mexico