Coffee and Donuts

“Somos cabeza, no somos cola”

We are the head not the tail. They sang a hymn for me on the day after my birthday. Reina on the guitar, Norma at her side, Carmen at mine, Marlenia at the opposite end of the table, and nine other women joined in.

It was Saturday morning at our weekly coffee and doughnuts gathering. This Saturday however, was June 14th, the day after my birthday. Clients found out about my birthday last month when Josefa, another La Ceiba client, spread the word. Josefa had celebrated it with me last year. In an intimate gathering, we shared an afternoon at her home. Josefa cooked a delicious chicken and we broke a piñata afterwards. On this day, the women of Villa Soleada planned to sing songs and share gifts.

“Por eso gozo y nadie me quita el gozo”

That’s why I’m happy and no one can take that away. Carmen had the loudest voice of all.

A year ago Carmen moved away from Villa Soleada. Carmen is a big lady, with dark hair, black eyes, and a round face. She is gentle and affectionate and always gives tender hugs. Carmen has a loud singing voice but a soft yet confident and firm tone that makes speaking to her an intimidating experience.

Carmen is best known for her work as an artisan. She is a leader in Villa. She often has the best quality products and sells the most clutches during volunteer season. As such, she commands respect among the other women. When one does business with Carmen, it is easy to see why.

Carmen is savvy. In meetings, Carmen usually employs a specific pattern. She will greet me, give me a big hug, she will tell her children to do the same, she will ask how my family is doing, and finally how Dr. H is doing. Only then will she get down to business in a direct manner while maintaining an affectionate tone. In a past life I am certain that Carmen was a politician. She knows how to use the art of flattery and misdirection in her favor.

Carmen moved back to Villa recently. She asked if she could receive a loan. Carmen received a loan in January of 2012, that debt is outstanding. I explained that she could not receive another until she paid her debt. This was not an acceptable answer to Carmen. She gently questioned the policy, and asked me to double-check my records. After several minutes of back and forth, Carmen finally gave in and accepted the policy. She left me uncertain however, and belabored the point so effectively that I felt unsure of it myself. I felt the need to confirm it with my colleagues.

“Despues de quitar prestado, vamos a prestar”

After getting a loan, we will lend. Reina learned how to play the guitar by reading “how to” manuals and watching famous guitarists play on TV.

Reina is one of La Ceiba’s most active clients. Reinas husband, Rigoberto, uses part of Reina’s loan to fund his medicine sales. This serves to support their family of six. Rigo lives in El Progreso, apart from Reina, and visits Reina on the weekends. In a recent visit, I found that she was sick with a cold and migraine. Reina was upset with Rigo that he hadn’t come home yet or sent any money. Reina stays at home to care for their four children. She works hard to keep the house together. Sometimes Reina feels that Rigo needs to be home more and that he isn’t fulfilling his responsibility as a father.

“Rigo sends his birthday wishes,” Reina told me before she started singing and shortly thereafter Rigo himself called.

On this day, Reina was not sick, her young ones were playing close by, her oldest was at home playing on their new (used) computer, and Reina herself was leading the group in song.

“Nacimos para conquistar”

We were born to conquer. Norma was sitting off on the corner but her presence was certainly felt. Her body swayed back and forth in her chair as she clapped to the beat of the song and sang in her raspy and off-tone voice.

Norma is a small lady. She has grey and brown hair. Her face is marked by deep lines around her mouth and across her forehead. Norma’s most prominent trait is her jovial spirit. She is affectionate, has a great sense of humor, and silly mannerisms.

A few minutes earlier Norma arrived bearing a gift. She bought me a pair of socks and wrote a short but heartfelt note. We sat as I thanked her for the kind gesture. She asked me all the usual questions until we touched upon a new topic. Another woman asked Norma how many children she has. Norma responded that she didn’t have any. She had two sons who died a while back, and a third she lost in a miscarriage. As she remembered those she lost, her eyes began to water; she stopped speaking for a moment, and wiped away tears. Her jovial spirit was gone. There was a long tense pause at the table. She looked melancholic. “It’s a hard thing to lose a child. And now I am alone.

I’ve known Norma for over two years and this was the first time I had heard her speak about her children. Suddenly, I looked at Norma differently. This woman, almost 60 years old, with no family except for her husband, had so many reasons to shrink from the world, to succumb to despair and grief, and to become cynical. It was admirable that she had kept this to herself throughout our entire relationship. Now, I understood her jovial spirit differently. It wasn’t merely a quirk or a fun character trait, it was a manifestation of something else: of her hopefulness and resiliency.

“Si se puede, claro que se puede”

Yes we can, of course we can. Marlenia Urbina wasn’t singing, instead she clapped along to the rhythm of the song.

Marlenia lives in Monte de los Olivos. Marlenia has had success with La Ceiba. She won first place in the Business Plan Competition, she participated in three financial literacy classes, she started her own business and built it into the most successful one in her community, she is supporting her four kids, she helped in leading the movement to win the land she lives on now by organizing sit–ins and protests at the mayors office, and she just recently won a jump with La Ceiba (a 4,000 lempira loan), her 10th loan.

Two months ago Marlenia took in her eldest daughter who had been living with Marlenia’s ex-husband. Marlenia was hurt and disappointed when her daughter left home. She ran away with a neighbor apparently motivated by love. Marlenia tried to advise her daughter to stay in school, get her high school degree, get a job and stay with her where it is safe and stable.

She told her daughter that nothing comes easy in this world, if she wished to start a family and find success in her life she had to work hard and make sacrifices, that everything Marlenia had done, all the success and stability she had found, came as a result of perseverance, hard work, and grit. Marlenia told her daughter to take the initiative, not to wait for good things to happen, but instead believe in herself and invest in her future by studying hard.

Marlenia’s advice was reminiscent of something Seth Godin or Steven Pressfield would say. I was also reminded of my own lessons, hard won through the challenges and struggles of my job. Marlenia had learned many of the same lessons on her own, through her own challenges, and was making those work for her and her family. This quiet, often expressionless, lady was fierce and tough under the surface. And yet, she wasn’t satisfied; she felt that she was failing as a mother; she wanted to do better.

The kind gestures and expressions of affection moved me. But that was not what resonated with me most. What I was reminded of that day was that these women, who many would classify as poor and ignorant, are, in so many ways, the opposite. They are rich in character, they are wise, they are complex, they can be mean, they can be loving, they are struggling, and yet they are confronting their battles on their own, making progress little by little.

Its easy to make assumptions about those we don’t understand, its even easier to get lost in the technicalities of interest rates, repayment rates, and bottom lines. What we cant forget is that these women are full individuals, capable of achieving great things, and yet at risk of getting hurt. We have a responsibility to learn from them, to continue to widen the path towards understanding, and to remember that they are not our subjects, but our equals.

Santiago Sueiro (@SueiroSantiago), Program Director

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