Starting Work at the Equilibrium Fund: The Maya Nut and How I’ve Semi-Mastered the Metro

Wow, we’ve been here for nearly four weeks, and we have six weeks left. It’s going so fast, I can’t believe we’re more than a third of the way in. And it is high time to update this blog.

Two weeks ago, I started with my partner organization, the Equilibrium Fund. The first time I met the director of the Mexico Program, Cecilia Sanchez, she had me and the volunteer coordinator at the Casa, Bart, over for lunch. It was a great way to get to know each other in an informal setting, not to mention it was an absolutely delicious meal. Cecilia, her husband, Chris, Bart, and I sat and talked and ate for close to 3 hours.

That was a Tuesday, and the following Thursday was my first day of work. I have to say that I felt quite a bit of pride in making it there and back on my own (which consists of walking 6 blocks to the Metro Hidalgo, taking the green line 5 stops, switching to the red line, and walking 4 more blocks). I also first took advantage of this wonderful invention called the women and children metro cars. Because the Metro is so absolutely and utterly packed during rush hour, and because the Metro has a not undeserved reputation as a place for getting pick-pocketed or inappropriately touched, during certain hours cars are set aside for only women and children. And they are so much better! The Metro is an experience, but I must say I’m getting accustomed to it. I’m starting to memorize the stops, so I can look nonchalant and like I know what I’m doing instead of anxiously consulting the list of stops along the wall every 5 seconds so that I may as well be wearing a t shirt with I’M A FOREIGNER PLEASE HARASS ME written across it. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m still pretty obviously a foreigner, but less so than when the 4 interns are all going around together. I have even almost mastered the standing up exactly 30 seconds before you know you’re going to pull into your stop move. That is, on days when I actually get a seat and am not already standing. Also, people are selling things constantly on the Metro: granola bars, children’s toys, computer manuals, how-to mechanical manuals, children’s math workbooks, tissues. One of the most common is CDs, and pretty much every time you ride the metro, a person with a backpack containing speakers blaring music gets into the Metro car to serenade you. Sometimes it’s kind of catchy, and sometimes it’s more like “geez, not again, please.” At the next stop that person gets off and switches cars and inevitably another one gets on, selling yet a different CD.

That first day at work, Cecilia and I chose and printed 170 pictures of children in the communities in Chiapas with which the Equilibrium Fund works. Each child is holding up a Maya Nut plant in the photo- some are smiling, some are looking straight ahead very seriously, and a few are crying because they didn’t want to have their picture taken. Each of the kids was given his or her own Maya Nut plant, and we’re going to use these photos to make calendars for the kids to help them keep track of caring for their plants.

The more I learn about this organization and what it’s doing, the more excited I am about it. The Equilibrium Fund is an international organization that started in Guatemala, and has since started programs in other Latin American countries, including Mexico. The organization encourages women in marginalized and indigenous communities to utilize and sell the Maya Nut, which grows on trees native to the area, and has tremendous but little-known health benefits. What’s so amazing is that this one plant can have positive effects in so many areas. It is a means through which to empower women to both revitalize their traditions of producing this nut, and start businesses to support their families and communities and increase self-esteem. The nut itself is rich in nutrients and abundant, making it a great way to fight poverty and increase food security. Finally, recognizing the Maya Nut as a valuable food source gives incentives to protect native Maya Nut forests, reducing deforestation. Many communities also reforest with the Maya Nut, helping reduce their carbon footprint.

One of the finished calendars, and one of my favorite photos. The kids with their plants are so adorable!

The organization gives workshops in the communities about the Maya Nut, and Cecilia described them to me. I was really struck by the way they structure and talk about the workshops. At least for the workshops in Mexico, they start by cooking, and the women from the community join in as they arrive. While they cook, they talk about what the women already know about the Maya Nut, and any experiences they’ve had with it. The Maya Nut was commonly used by indigenous communities in the past, but this tradition has been somewhat lost. Cecilia said that many of the older women especially have stories about the nut, being used for such and such a purpose, or having cured a nephew of a certain ailment, or that they’ve heard the nut has such and such health benefits.  In this way, the Maya Nut comes from within the community’s own traditions and experiences and existing knowledge, and is a shared experience, rather than something being “brought” to the community from the outside. After cooking, and exchanging  knowledge and stories, and tasting everything of course, there is a short presentation with some statistics about the nutritional content of the Maya Nut, things the organization has been able to learn. As Cecilia said, she tries to emphasize that women from the Equilibrium Fund are not bringing anything new; rather, these are the same foods that the women have been making for generations, but there are ways to make them with the abundant Maya Nut, and in fact, the Maya nut was used by their ancestors and this tradition has more recently been forgotten. The Maya Nut can be used to make a substitute coffee, soups, dried and turned into flour, made into cookies and pastries, used to flavor ice cream instead of chocolate, or made into a kind of maiz dough for tortillas or tamales. It can be dried and stays good for up to two years. I can’t wait to try some of these products myself.

Cecilia and I talked about some of the things I will be helping with at the organization this summer.  She wants me to work on finding grants that the Equilibrium Fund is eligible to apply for, and to work on cataloguing and making bibliographies for some of the more recent research done on Brosimum (the Maya Nut).

Another great picture.

Last week was my first regular week of work, going in for 3 days. Cecilia wants to apply for a big grant, Iniciativa Mexico, which is sponsored by the Mexican Government in honor of the bicentennial of Mexican Independence, and which offers money to NGOs and other organizations doing humanitarian and social justice work in Mexico. The top five organizations receive 1million pesos, and even becoming one of the 20 finalists would result in a lot of publicity for the organization. The deadline is approaching, so we’ll be working a lot on that. The initiative has five categories, and the exciting thing is that the Equilibrium Fund fits into 4 of the 5 categories, because it deals with so many things: health, poverty, the environment, sustainability, community development, women’s rights and empowerment, etc.

I also spent a lot of time last week trying to make these calendars happen. They’re pretty simple- one page, with a photo of the child in the center, but getting a template of the right size and the right days and changing everything to Spanish took a while. It was a lot of me fighting with Microsoft word to line this box up here and this text here. But I ultimately triumphed, and we have a functional template! Today we printed the calendars and started to make them! It was so satisfying to see them finally come together. And it’s fun getting to work with all the pictures of kids.

Last Friday Cecilia invited me to her son’s 7th birthday party, which was a lot of fun. I was a little worried about not knowing anyone and my Spanish coming out sounding ridiculous, but I didn’t need to worry. I had a great time talking with the mothers there (in Spanish). It was also a lot of fun to meet Cecilia’s son. I got to watch the breaking of the piñata (I always used to have a piñata at my birthday parties, but for some reason in the US we don’t sing while breaking the piñata. I don’t know why we don’t sing, it makes it so much better.) I also had the opportunity to try real, homemade, Mexican Mole for the first time. It was delicious! So, I’m really enjoying working with Cecilia at the Equilibrium Fund, and can’t wait to see what comes next in my work with her. I’m about to start reading two theses done about the Maya nut to try to extract relevant data.

The first week: aqui en Mexico we like to facebookear

We learned some useful new Spanish words this week. They are as follows:

facebookear- to facebook

twittear- to tweet

googliar- to google

We’ve been in Mexico for a little over a week. The rest of the first week we had more Casa orientation, and a lot more sightseeing with Professor Krippner. On Wednesday Clay and Samantha, another full-time volunteer here, gave us an introduction to the Casa’s program on economic justice. The Casa has been working to support solidarity economies, which have as their focus the well-being and humanity of all people involved in transactions. A lot of people think immediately of free trade. According to some of the reading the Casa provided us with, free trade can be a component of solidarity economics, but it more works within the system, whereas solidarity economics really re-envisions economic exchanges. I hope I’ll be able to describe this better in future blog entries, once I start working more with the economic justice program and understand it better myself. One component is the use of Tlalocs, which is an alternate money valued in reference to the peso, which is used in certain communities in Mexico and helps to create the flow of money where cash is not prevalent and to keep the money circulating in the community, instead of flowing out of the hands of Mexican workers to big business owners. The Casa has just begun accepting Tlalocs. Samantha was excited that yesterday she bought worms (for the compost) with Tlalocs. Sustainability all around, Yay!

On Wednesday afternoon we went to the Zócalo with Professor Krippner, which is the Historic Center of Mexico City. Despite warnings from a number of people, I definitely didn’t appreciate how crowded the Metro is (the subway) until we were actually on it. We had to let one pass because we couldn’t even crowd on, and once we did, it was like sardines. In the Historic Center, we walked around the building of the Secretary of Education, which has three floors of Diego Rivera murals along its covered colonnades. They were fantastic. We also got a sense of Mexican time. Upon arriving, we were informed that we would not be allowed to see the murals without a tour guide, and that we would have to return at two (the tour guide was presumably at lunch). When we returned at 2, the tour guide was still at lunch, and about 15 minutes later we were allowed to go see the murals without a guide. Upon reaching the 3rd floor of murals, we ran into a supervisor of some kind, who absolutely insisted that we have a guide to narrate every single one of the murals we had just seen so we could understand what we were seeing, and said that a guide was on the way for us. The man was very well meaning, but really at that point all we wanted was to go eat lunch, and when the tour guide didn’t show after a few minutes, we were able to make our escape. After a lunch of comida corrida (what you call a common large midday meal that comes with 4 courses, a soup, a rice dish, a main course, and dessert and coffee) we went to the famous Catedral Metropolitano in the central plaza, and the Templo Mayor, the ruins of the most important temple of the Mexica Civilization. In the evening, we continued our nightly discussions with Professor Krippner.

On Thursday Nico, the director of the Casa, talked with us about Quakerism at the Casa. While the Casa is not formally Quaker, as it is now independent of the AFSC and the Mexico City Friends, it has a strong Quaker history and continues to operate based on Quaker principles. It also has a strong relationship with the Mexico City Monthly Meeting, which meets each week in the Casa’s library. Liv and I also got an introduction to working the reception at the Casa (so many details!). In the afternoon we went to the market for the first time. San Cosme Market is maybe 8-10 blocks from the Casa, and to get there you pass about 6 blocks of straight shoe stores (Zapaterías). One after the other, they just keep going. The market was rather overwhelming, an indoor market full of stand after stand of produce, meat, dried goods, or dairy. On Thursday night, we went to a talk about photography in the Mexican Revolution at la Universidad de California en México, which was a great opportunity to learn more about Mexican history and the use of images. After the talk, we went out with the professor who had given the talk (an old friend of Professor Krippner’s) and his family. We had a lot of fun with the professor’s daughter and her boyfriend, who are close to our age. They were incredibly friendly and promised to show us the city while we’re here.

Friday, we had more orientation and a discussion with Professor Krippner over lunch at Café Habana about the book he had assigned us to read about Mexico City, an engaging combination of Mexican history, culture, a tour-guide, and profiles of the diverse people the author had met. On Saturday we walked through the fairs in the neighborhood of San ángel, which had a lot of art for sale and many artisan craft stands, where you could be anything from little skeleton scenes and brightly painted wooden animals, to homemade bags and woven shirts, to every kind of jewelry or basket. We also got to go to Frieda Kahlo’s Casa Azul, where she lived for many years with Diego Rivera.

Sunday was the pyramids in Teotihuacán. Honestly, one of the most striking things was seeing the slums as we drove out of the City. Mexico City is at a high altitude, but it is in a valley surrounded by mountains. There were slums endlessly crowding the steep hillsides as you leave the city, row upon row of dingy, gray, dilapidated buildings. It was really sad.

The pyramids were enormous, and packed with people. They were also packed with vendors, many of whom really wanted to sell us whistles that sounded like a jaguar roaring. We climbed the two main pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, and walked along the Avenue of the Dead that connects them. The view from the Pyramid of the Sun was incredible! Sunday evening was the Comida Compartida (weekly community potluck at the Casa). We also said goodbye to Professor Krippner, who was headed back to the US. It was so wonderful to have him here to help us get oriented to Mexico City. He took us so many places, and we swear he knew everything. Sunday evening we went to the movies with one of the volunteers, Giovanni, and saw Prince of Persia (English, with Spanish subtitles). Many of the films here seem to be American Blockbusters that are either dubbed or have subtitles.

This week we are starting our work at the Casa in earnest! Joey and I have shadowed two shifts of the reception and learned how to take payments and handle receipts, check cards, and make sense of the reservation binder. I even answered the phone, and promptly forgot all the Spanish I know except “un momento, por favor.” I’m hoping this is a temporary phenomenon. We’re definitely using a lot more Spanish now, and I’m excited to become totally immersed in the language and life at the Casa. Joey and I had a successful market expedition solo today, so I think we’re on our way. We should also all be meeting our partner organizations at some point this week, and I’m eager to start at the Equilibrium Fund and see what that will be like.

First Days in Mexico City

Today was our second full day in Mexico City. Things have been such a whirlwind of orientation activities that I’ve hardly had to time sit down and write about it. The four of us (me, Lizzy, Liv, and Josephine) arrived Sunday evening and were greeted at the airport by Bart, the Volunteer Coordinator at the Casa, and Clay, the Peace Programs Coordinator at the Casa. After about a 20 minute cab ride from the airport to the neighborhood of Colonia Tabacalera we arrived at Casa de Los Amigos! Everyone has been so welcoming. It was wonderful to finally meet the co-directors of the Casa, Nico and Jill, after hearing about them for so long. Bart gave us a tour of the house, Clay had prepared a wonderful dinner, and at 8:30 pm we met (almost) all of the volunteers at the Casa over Mexican hot chocolate.

Our first full day in at the Casa begin with the community breakfast prepared each morning by one of the volunteers and served to guests and other volunteers. We then walked to Café Habana with Nico, Bart, and Professor Krippner, a professor of History at Haverford who is here with us until Sunday. Café Habana is allegedly where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro sat and planned the Cuban Revolution, and it’s where we sat to hear the history of the Casa de los Amigos.  Briefly, Casa de los Amigos, a Center for Peace and International Understanding, was founded in 1956, and run by Quakers in Mexico and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) until it became independent of the AFSC in the 1980s to be run locally. Since its founding, it’s been an organization devoted to working for social justice, and everyone involved in its work tries to live by the Quaker testimonies of peace, community, simplicity, equality, and integrity. The Casa was very active in providing support and services to refugees in the 1980s and 90s when many people in Latin America were fleeing violence, oppression, and civil war as political refugees. A variety of programs have arisen and evolved over time, and today the main programs are its Hospitality Program, hosting guests from all over the world, and its Peace Programs in Economic Solidarity and Migration and Refugees. If you’re interested, you can read more on their website, (It comes up in Spanish but you can click to read in English). That afternoon, we had delicious tortas from a stand in the Casa’s neighborhood (Mexican sandwiches on a certain kind of bread that have layers of different ingredients, like beans, pineapple, guacamole, cheese, meat, etc.) and learned our way around the neighborhood with Bart: we saw the panadería, the chicken shop, recommended restaurants, ATM, pharmacy, corner market, and the stand where the Casa buys fresh orange juice. Monday night is the weekly staff and volunteers meeting, which was a wonderful opportunity to get a feel for how the Casa runs and the different events going on this month. In the evening, we had a discussion with Professor Krippner about Mexican culture and history based on some of our observations from the day.

Today, Clay and Liselot, one of the full-time volunteers, gave us a presentation on issues that migrants and refugees face in Mexico currently, and oriented us in the Casa’s Migration and Refugees Program specifically. In the afternoon, we walked to several museums with Professor Krippner—the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, which houses an absolutely enormous mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” depicting dozens of significant figures from different periods in Mexican history; and el Museo Franz Mayer which contains the personal collection of paintings, furniture, and ceramics of Franz Mayer, a refugee who came to Mexico, became very wealthy, and began to collect art from Spain, Flanders, Italy, France, Mexico, you name it.  His collection was impressive and incredibly diverse. In the evening, a community dinner with Casa staff and volunteers, followed by another discussion with Professor Krippner. It’s been a wonderful first few days, and I’m excited to become more even more integrated into the Casa Community, and to begin working with our partner organizations next week.