Volume 18 Number 6
The Women Who are Turning Tlaucingo Around
01 December 2005

Why are the men returning to a small, impoverished town in Mexico? Andrea Cabrera Luna finds out.

WHEN ADRIANA PAOLA Palacios Luna graduated from university, there was a big celebration in Tlaucingo, a small town in the south west of Puebla province, Mexico. Palacios' family-including her mother, sisters, uncle, aunt and cousins-came with her all the way from the city. To their surprise she was known by everyone in the town. Women and children welcomed them with joy into every house they passed, expressing their gratitude to the young woman who had helped transform their lives.

The area where Tlaucingo is situated is a zone of extremes: the weather is extremely hot, the earth extremely dry, and the people are extremely poor, and generous too.

Palacios started working with the community in 1993, inspired by one of her university teachers, Marco Castillo. Her first visit with her classmates was eye-opening. 'We used to have long conversations on academic theory in Bohemian caf├ęs,' she says. 'The challenge was to practise our beliefs in liberty, dignity and happiness out in the world.' She ended up moving there for five years.

Many of the town's men have migrated to the United States, looking for better jobs and horizons. So, Tlaucingo is largely a town of women, children and old people. For this reason, women are alone with responsibilities they once shared with their partners. They have to educate the children, cook, cut wood, carry water, take care of old people, and even provide basic health services, since there are no hospitals around.

Palacios motivated them to unite so that they could overcome the conditions of poverty and exploitation they suffered from the caciques, or local bosses, who underpaid them for their products. Palacios organized talks on fair trade awareness, and they started working together to improve their quality of life.

Building trust was a difficult process for her; but little by little the women started to feel confident about her presence in the community. 'After years of working together, they admitted to me that there were significant events that made them trust me. One was the first time I ate at one of their homes. They offered me the local traditional dish, which is a plate with chilli sauce, a little bit of cheese and lots of tortillas. I was suffering from the hot sauce, and I almost couldn't stand it. But I didn't complain. They thought: if she can eat what we eat, then she is like us.'

One of the hardest tasks for women in the community was the grinding of maize. So, the first project was to build a mill. This meant they could sell their products and have money to travel to the city of Puebla, where they presented their needs to the authorities. After that, they opened a health care centre where they make traditional medicines to treat the most common illnesses in the region.

The health centre has become a place where women meet to attend workshops and learn about such themes as: nutrition, sexual health, human rights, social participation, gender issues and self-esteem.

Another urgent worry was the improvement of the children's diet, which was low in protein. The women built two fish farms-a great achievement considering the arid, barren environment. Production grew so much that they were able to sell the fish. At the same time they recycled the water to irrigate the mangoes that the women distribute in the community.

The biggest project they have created is an ochre factory. They collect stones of different colours to make pigments for vinylic paint and cosmetics. The stones are pulverized and packed in sacks and sent to Mexico City, Puebla and Morelos for processing. The factory has made it possible for men to stay at home with their families.

Palacios now teaches in the Iberiamerican University in Puebla, and has two children. She is an active participant in a network, Cuali Nemilistli (or 'life dignity' in Nahuatl), that promotes human rights. She still visits Tlaucingo with her students.

The women of Tlaucingo have assumed new roles in society, and they have realized their potential to transform things. 'We were working in complex situations; however, communal labour allowed us to live values of deep humanity,' says Palacios. 'Love and solidarity were fundamental in the achievement of our objectives.'