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.