October 27, 2000

From Dumps to Beauty Salons: Coop Helps Neighbors Build Careers

Cooperativa Unión Entre Mujeres

by Colin Crawford

Sister Teresa Jaramillo is used to taking risks. The Medical Mission Sister went to Nicaragua just 15 days after the 1979 Sandinista revolution to assist the poor who had been displaced during the conflict. So it should come as no surprise that she's chosen to work with some of the most marginalized members of Mexican society; namely with young women who, without her intervention, would likely spend a life picking garbage in Tijuana's municipal dump. To many, her decision to try and help these women, most of them mothers at 12 or 13 and many functionally illiterate, would seem like another risky move.

They are hardly the sort of women society expects to become thriving entrepreneurs, which is what Teresa has reason to hope they will become.

The basis for Teresa's conviction to help these women redirect their lives comes from a lifetime of work with the poor throughout Latin American, including 25 years in Venezuelan hospitals. Her experiences, she says, have contributed to a belief in the need not just for better medical health, but for what she calls a "healing" model of community development and empowerment.

Sitting in her Tijuana house (she is the only Medical Mission sister based in the city) Teresa explains that, like others in her order, her interest in health "does not follow a medical model. Healing is just more than physical. It's about the total well-being of the person."

Teresa is implementing that model with nine women who have formed the Cooperativa Unión Entre Mujeres (one man is also a member.) The cooperative's members are all former garbage pickers. Teresa came to know them through their children who she taught pre-kindergarten in a school that sits a stones throw from the dump.

By the end of her second year teaching, she says "I could see the mothers mesmerized, wanting the opportunity for some education," something they had never had. "I asked them if they had a choice, what they would do," Teresa imagined they would say "bakers, or barbers or seamstresses," something practical, she thought. But, to her surprise, they wanted to study "beauty culture," to give hair-dos, give facials and manicures.

A class in beauty culture may not have been what Teresa would have chosen, but she believes that the way out of the crushing poverty of garbage picking was in self-empowerment. So, improbable as it were, a beauty school has risen within the confines of Colonia Fausto González, one of the shantytowns ringing the municipal dump.

Funded by a modest grant from her religious order, the local government and small private donations, nine women and one man are nearing the end of a two-year course. Every weekday a trained beautician comes to teach beauty care skills, in an immaculate two-room parlor along one of the colonia's rutted, unpaved roads. Inside, teacher and students wear glistening white lab coats, a stark contrast to the dirt outside the salon's doors.

In addition, a nursery is being built next door, where women can take turns watching their children during the workday. It should be completed by the end of the year, along with a community kitchen, which will provide low-cost meals to all residents. Meals will be cooked next to the salon, in a recently finished kitchen, complete with running water and two large ovens for baking bread. Teresa is seeing to it that some people will have a change to learn the baker's craft.

The little complex will also include two public showers, a first in the area. Showers will be available for a nominal fee to help supplement the women's incomes.

All of the changes, in Teresa's view, reflect the intimate link between health care and self-empowerment. First, she points out, beauty care and other skills will get the women out of the hazards of work in the dump; vermin, mange, unhealthy food and unsanitary conditions. Second, just as the children's example inspired to change in their mother's lives, so too will the example of a multi-faceted woman's cooperative inspire others to improve their own lives.

For more information contact Teresa Jaramillo at (619) 482-3109, in San Diego.

(Reprinted from The Border Health Initiative, Sept./Oct. 2000, Issue 27)

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