por Tiffany Nguyen
Tiffany is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Texas at Dallas, and she is studying public and nonprofit management. She does not want to leave Oaxaca but feels grateful to have met everyone that she did.
When she was a child, Angélica Martínez Pérez would play in the dirt and “bake” pastries. Pasteles de lodo, she told me with a chuckle: dirt cakes. And how curioso, how curious, she mused, that she would eventually return to bake for living. How funny that fate led her back to pasteles.
Like the majority of women who receive micro-loans from Fundación En Vía, Angélica did not attend secundaria or middle school; the highest level of education she attained was primaria. But her eldest two children seem to be on a different trajectory, one aimed at the medical field.
She laughed as she recounted how much her 22-year-old son, Germán, loved school because school had simply bored her. The natural sciences she enjoyed, but it was matemáticas that got her. She never learned how to divide. She could multiplicar, restar y sumar, but dividing was just a mystery. At least with calculators, you can do everything quickly, she said.
We sat across from each another in her kitchen on a slow, warm Sunday afternoon. Like when I had first interviewed her three weeks earlier, the sunlight was golden, but the concrete patio kept us cool at 4 pm. Together, we ate Nongshim Soon Noodle Soup that her visiting sobrina brought her from Los Angeles. Pica mucho, it’s very spicy, Angélica warned me, and I was tickled that I enjoyed the heat more than she did.
Angélica has ruminated upon her children’s futures, their careers, and what she wishes for them. As a kid, Germán dreamed a lot, she told me. Él soñaba mucho. But he had failed his first semester of bachillerato, and she feared whether he would achieve all his dreams. She stressed to me an acceptance of whatever her son might choose to do: she had no conditions for Germán’s future except that he pursue something about which he is passionate.
If Germán decided that he did not want to continue with his current studies to become a physical therapist, Angélica would still welcome him back home with open arms. She would encourage him to be a repostero or to take on un oficio—she sees no shame in thoses line of work. Pero si puedes más, ándale, she cheered. But if you can do more, go on! To her, the only bad thing is delinquency.
As we talked about her son’s career plans, I realized the truly humble upbringing Angélica had compared to my own. No sabía, she said, she didn’t even know what terapia física was when Germán initially told her about his university plans. But upon hearing about how he would help others in need, Angélica felt muy alegre, muy contenta, very happy. Pienso que es muy bonito, she said, to help those who cannot care for themselves. It’s very beautiful work, what he’s doing, she said. And as she told me of her joy, I couldn’t help but think that the career fits his caring nature.
Angélica had her son to thank for her cookie business: Germán was her probador—he tasted the cookies for her and told her, ¡Están listas! They’re ready to sell! And from a lottery drawing at his school, he won 1500 pesos and gave Angélica 1000 pesos of his winnings so she could buy her baking oven for her galletas. But Germán wasn’t her only helper: her 18-year-old daughter, Alejandra, who just moved to university to study bioquímica, brought foot traffic to Angélica’s triciclo in the form of her high school friends. Come, let’s get cookies, Alejandra would tell them.
Angélica placed her hand on her chest as she proclaimed that it had been her lifelong dream, su sueño to learn how to make un pastel. All the way from her childhood, she had obsessed over baking a cake, long regarding it as an impossible feat. And I wondered to myself, weeks after we met, why would such a competent, kind woman like Angélica doubt her ability? Why was un pastel so important to her?
Her response, in actuality, had little to do with baking a cake. Sometimes, one thinks one can’t do things, she said to me. But she had realized—lo que yo puedo hacer, tú lo puedes hacer. What I can do, she told me, you can do also. I think God cannot, she said, and did not give more to you than He did to me. Yo pienso que Dios no te puede dar a más a ti que a mí. I can be, do everything that others can do, Angélica said. Yo puedo ser, hacer todo lo que los demás pueden hacer.
And so it was some kind of fortune that she heard about a free baking course offered at the municipio of Santo Domingo Tomaltepec. At the time, in 2008, Angélica was about to complete a two-year class on costura, learning how to mend clothes. The Mexican government had sponsored the course as part of free adult education to the residents around El Tule. Two hours a day, Monday through Friday, for almost 800 hours, Angélica had learned how to sew and tailor clothes; she only needed three more months to receive her certificate.
But baking un pastel had captured her heart—a free course offered by a political party’s 2009 campaign was too perfect. So Angélica followed her heart: she told la maestra de costura that she would drop her class on costura to finally learn how to bake a cake. Every day, the students of the baking course learned how to make different recipes, and with this knowledge, the door opened for Angélica to begin her business selling galletas.
There is never a day that Angélica doesn’t sell cookies when she’s out on her tricycle. The school year brings young children flocking to her triciclo after class, each of them aiming to stock up on the assortment of her 1 peso cookies. Even on the slow days, she earns about 100 pesos; the more lucrative days, she earns closer to 500 pesos. She tells me with some satisfaction that she doesn’t even have to go out and sell every day. The days she does ride out into the pueblo, she only pays 10 pesos to the city for permission to sell as an ambulante.
For Angélica, the hardest part of her business is the administrative side. Her family sometimes encourages her to switch her negocio, to expand to sell tortillas, to rent a local that has refrigeration for cakes. She pictures trying to fit a mini-fridge on her modest triciclo and giggles. Where would I put it? She wonders aloud. The many costs of un local – from rent to electricity to permission from the city – all deter her from converting to a brick-and-mortar business.
From what I’ve learned, tortillas are much more labor-intensive than galletas. In the corner of her kitchen, Angélica has an enormous plastic bag full of tostadas. Together, we eat frijoles y queso in addition to our bowls of Nongshim Soon. And as she prepares lunch for me, I hear the scraping of her spoon that spreads black beans across crisp toasted corn. For breakfast, she offered me chocolate con leche from the chocolate her mother made, and as accompaniment, we dipped in it sweet bread baked by her aunt. And I think back to her family’s suggestion that she instead sell tortillas. I think of the labor of soaking corn in cal, grinding los granos with the metate, mixing the masa, and patting out tortillas to toss on un comal. Isabel from Teotitlán del Valle showed us that many families of Mexico are not above making their own food from scratch, whether it be chocolate, pan, or empanadas. But the earnings of tortillas are not worth it to Angélica compared to the mere two hours she spends baking on the mornings she plans to sell.
She told me of the ebb and flow of her sales; such is business. Competition is stiff and sometimes, as new vendors sprout up in Tomaltepec, her sales drop. One has to think ahead and save for the sparser times, she advises. But with her most recent En Vía loan of July 2017, Angélica looks toward expanding her negocio; she bought a new triciclo that she will lend to a woman who agreed to sell Angélica’s galletas, and they will split the profits and help una a otra.
But she circled back to a central theme in our later conversations: one must have patience both in business and in life.
One also has to treat one’s customers well. Angélica’s cookie stand sometimes serves as a counseling space where she listens to people of Tomaltepec. Many people’s voices go unheard even in their own homes, she told me. Sometimes her customers come to her and she realizes as they keep talking on and on without pause that they want her to hear them. They don’t necessarily want to buy a postre or piece of flan. People who don’t feel listened to, people who don’t feel loved: these are many of Angélica’s customers but more than that, they are also her neighbors.
So while many ambulantes may appear in Tomaltepec, few of them last—hers being one of those few. No aguantan, Angélica says—they don’t endure. Ultimately, I suspected Angélica remains in business for many good reasons. Her warmth, her compassionate ear, her porrista, cheerleader attitude—all these things she offers graciously to those she meets, even to gringas like me. However, when I first entered her home, little did I expect her to also give me some sage advice on my love life, my family, and my future.