Sunday, Soup, and Community

Domingo was always on that corner. He would greet me from his stool while chewing tobacco and with a toothless smile, “como estamos Santiago?” Every day I would sit on the stool next to him and he’d tell me his life’s story. Domingo told me everything, from his proudest moments to his lowest. He’s an alcoholic and goes to AA meetings every week. He was an engineer in Puerto Cortez where he worked alongside several American engineers who were veterans of World War II. It wasn’t long before I exchanged some of my own stories, even if they didn’t compare in meaning. I could only talk to him for a few minutes at a time, and before long I had to interrupt him and ask him to tell me the rest the next day.

Walking through the streets of ‘El Progreso’ can be a jarring experience. The most popular reggeaton, bachata, and merengue songs ring through the streets. Taxi cab drivers tell their dirtiest jokes as they stand idle by their cars. Vendors yell about their newest bargain from store fronts. The crowded streets, the festive melodies, and the colorful characters project a feeling of excitement rather than a place of business.

Walking about the city center, I was always bound to run into a few people I knew. It was common to run into a client and her children, “Hola Santiago, como esta? Vaya pues, que Dios le bendiga!” We’d stop, greet, chat, and wish each other goodbye. Always a few minutes at a time.

There are a few “spots” I frequented. Chepe’s Restaurant, which was more of an open air cafeteria, served my favorite chicken soup. Even on a hot sunny day, chicken soup always hit the spot. Steamed carrots, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, and juicy chicken all served together with a delicious broth… my mouth waters even now every time I think of it. I had it so often that Chepe knew my order by heart. “Vistes el Atletico?” he’d ask me. Chepe loves Atletico Madrid. While I slurped my soup he would tell me about their latest win.

On the opposite corner from Domingo is a small shoe repair shop. Gerson is its owner. It has one large window without a glass pane. On any day of the week you can find Gerson behind the counter, with his glasses on, a sewing needle and special tools at hand, hard at work on a shoe. The first time I went to his shop we shook hands and I was taken aback. His hands are huge. They are as big as a basketball player’s, his fingers are thick as cigars and rough like sand paper. “Y su familia como esta?” Gerson is a man of few words, but he always asked about my family.

It’s been a year and a half since I left Honduras. Except for a brief visit, I haven’t kept in touch with clients and neighbors. I don’t know if they think about me. I don’t know if my presence left an impression. The longer removed from Honduras, the less I remember about Domingo, my neighbors, and my clients.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It’s a Spanish speaking country, it’s soccer crazed, and it’s in the Caribbean, and thus very hot. If this is all you knew of Honduras, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding so much of what makes the country and its people unique.

Despite the fear and caution that the news can inspire, my experience endeared me to El Progreso. I found meaning in the serendipity of running into someone you know on the street and the satisfaction of dropping what you’re doing to catch up with a familiar face. There is a strong sense of community in that town.

Community is a collective attitude. What every one of those relationships, from Domingo to clients, had in common was mutual affection. By affection, I don’t mean of everlasting friendship, I mean of a level of curiosity and friendliness that comes with knowing someone well enough to be vulnerable with them. I mean the type of relationship that isn’t defined by status, competition, or transactions. I mean the connection you feel with someone with whom you share a space with and interact with on a daily basis over and over again. Essentially, community is defined by geography, but it’s also defined by some level of love.

When I left Honduras, I lost that community. Living in DC, I feel a different attitude in the collective conscience. There is more distrust, more isolation, more individual expectation and less collective culture. I worry that I’m losing perspective. I’m more distracted by technology and in constant need of stimulation from anything that will suppress my angst.

While in Honduras I felt a strong connection to the place and people. But, I’m mindful of the fact that I could never fully be a part of that community; my identity and privilege will always provide a certain degree of separation. Nonetheless, I still took part in this collective attitude of acceptance, free from judgment, driven by love, and defined by a common thread: the unspoken understanding of community.

Santiago Sueiro, Former Program Director of La Ceiba MFI
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Our Sacred Tree

Image by Jessica Foster via Facebook

The Mayans believed it to be sacred. That it connected the underworld, the terrestrial, and the skies. It was the stitching that held together the spiritual with the earthly. The descendants of the Maya leave the La Ceiba tree standing when harvesting forests and cultivating the land.

The La Ceiba tree in Villa Soleada is impressive. It is about 70 feet tall, surpassing all nearby trees. It has a thick, smooth, branchless trunk, and a wide sprawling canopy. The roots themselves are impressive. They act as a buttress at the base of the tree, in a distinctive cuneate shape, the full height of a person. The tree stands alone at the edge of the community, overlooking the naked fringes.

There is a wooden conference table in a small room of the economics house. During La Ceiba class, students gather around with Dr. H at the head. Class after class they gather at that table. They talk about Villa Soleada, microfinance, and Ivan Illich. Dr. H asks the impertinent question, encourages scrutiny, and students respond in kind. They accept the challenge, explore their motivations, and take ownership of their work. This is where La Ceiba started. In that small room, around that wooden table, on the fringe of campus, a small group of students decided to start a microfinance organization.

In the midst of organizational change, I went to Honduras for a few months. There was no escaping the reality this time. With the distance removed, the time constraint lifted, I was exposed to the reality of Honduran life. Over time, the exposure revealed to us what we already suspected: beyond our product, something special was crystallizing. It drew strength from the trust and respect that we worked so hard to earn. So much so that a baker and his wife were willing to take a chance on us, to place their faith in our judgement, that we would do the best we could to offer them a useful product. That moment in our growth was defined over the phone. During that call, feeling high tension, and 2,000 miles apart, a small group of devoted students decided to let La Ceiba grow.

The seats on Spirit airlines don’t recline and seem intentionally narrow. I squirmed in my seat as the man next to me snored loudly. I had just said goodbye, I thought perhaps I should be more emotional. But at 1 am with a sore butt and an achy back, I just felt empty inside. As we landed I was shepherded off of the plane, walked to the next gate, and waited in a crowded room with a low ceiling and dim lighting. A creeping anxiety had taken over. The realization that it was over began to sink in. As time when by, the days went unfulfilled. The search for meaning dwindled. How can we just walk away from something to which we devote so much? Why can’t this thing, this idea, this beautifully flawed tree, grow into a beacon? Why can’t we give it the light and the water that it needs to continue its work? Or the space to grow tall and wide? What is the next step, the next defining moment in this story of a slow steady struggle toward meaning?

We try wholeheartedly to make a difference, in the process we undergo a transformation that changes us forever. But we leave our work behind, unfinished and full of potential, and we enter a world that asks us to compromise. We are taught to suppress that which we let blossom, we are conditioned not to question, encouraged to forget what gave us so much power, and if we resist we are dismissed as naïve. Too naïve.

The work must go on. The class needs to evolve. Despite living at the margins, the La Ceiba tree makes itself noticed, it grows and flourishes, it does the quiet work of holding our world together. 


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI
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A Quick Cameo

Microfinance isn’t what I thought it was. My understanding was based off of a simple narrative: give a poor person a loan, they use that loan to start their own business, and they lift themselves out of poverty. Embedded is the assumption that loans are positive, and that they should be extended to as many marginalized people as possible.

Over the last two years I’ve changed my expectations, not because I wanted to but because I had to. In the course of my job, I found that several of my assumptions, my expectations for Microfinance, and my ability to change things, were off.

Loans are inadequate in fighting poverty and can lead to negative outcomes. Progress against poverty requires all type of tools and strategies, not just a loan, because poverty is not a simple condition, it affects many segments of ones life from health care, to education, to civil rights… loans are only one of many tools that can be employed.

Loans can cause harm. If a client doesn’t understand the product, if institutional incentives are distorted, if a loan is not applied carefully, it can lead to negative consequences. Missing payments and accumulating debt causes anxiety and loss of self-worth. Clients feel personally indebted to the loan officer and worry about their judgment. Where client protections aren’t enforced, an institution can employ harsh repayment policies that can further impoverish clients.

Loans aren’t for everyone. Many aren’t interested in a loan and don’t need one. Some don’t see the benefit of taking on more debt. Others don’t trust financial institutions. Sometimes a client wants a loan where an alternative would have worked better.

I am not as powerful as I thought. Changing things isn’t naïve if you know what it takes to do so. I was naïve because I didn’t know enough. I thought I could change things if I just worked hard and believed in myself. The reality is much more complicated. The culture and history of Honduras deeply affects attitudes towards credit and foreign intervention.

Hondurans embrace of Americans is cynical. The community never questioned my presence and it was assumed that I had the means to “help.” Association with an American is a sign of prestige. My idea for relationship collateral suffered because I misinterpreted my role and relationship with clients.

I discovered significant forces working against me: lack of economic opportunity, lack of quality and affordable health care, lack of quality education, unsafe streets, an unresponsive government. These are systemic problems whose challenges are not easily met. Many clients fall behind on repayments because of those forces: a fatal illness, high medical expenses, a robbery, large debts to other providers, lack of access to insurance, or poor administrative skills.

My knowledge about the context and culture of clients is incomplete. Categorizing the conditions of poverty, and conducting surveys, cannot sufficiently capture what it means to be a Honduran living in Villa Soleada. That is why it is important to approach MF with skepticism and development work with humility. No matter how much we research MF or immerse ourselves in local culture, we wont know what the best solution is for clients.

Poverty is not emotional. It doesn’t go away if we pity it, it doesn’t disappear when we show it love, it doesn’t care if you give it affection especially from a foreigner. Progress against poverty requires real tangible results. My good intentions are useless if I can’t apply it to something meaningful and impactful. The poor don’t need a friend or a caretaker, they need self-determination, they want the means to decide for themselves, they want to pursue their goals, they want to take care of their own family, and they deserve the means to do so.

Our actions, no matter how small and narrow, lead to unintended consequences. We live in a web of social connection. When we give to some but not all, those on the fringes of the web notice. The people who didn’t receive that dollar or donation, they ask themselves why. They wonder what they have to do to get the same and they change their behavior. And, government institutions feel less accountable because the foreigner is claiming responsibility over their constituents.

It’s difficult to establish honest relationships when the local perception and expectations for your presence don’t match your goals and parameters. Especially when our service consists of giving, we invite a relationship based on what we have and what we can give instead of who we are and what we can learn from each other.

Despite those limitations, I believe that my presence and the tool I chose to offer can lead to change. To do so I’ve had to challenge my expectations and the expectations of those I work with. Change is possible but not in the fashion we imagine. A loan can work if it is designed and applied carefully, but it’s not for everyone, and when it works, don’t expect it to be the silver bullet we were told it could be. It’s on the margins where we find our role. Not as the protagonist, but as the friendly adviser with a short cameo.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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Coffee and Donuts

Image by Kim Geiser via Etsy Shop

“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 donuts 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, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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Mirtala and her Machete

I always wondered how she kept such a nice house. From the outside you could see that her walls had been plastered and painted. Her windows were reinforced with elegant black iron, and she just started to build a cement wall around her property. What stands out most about Mirtala’s house however, is the large pile of chopped wood on the side of her house. It’s a huge pile, about 4 foot tall comprising about 10 large bundles.

Mirtala is a small woman with a stern and grim face. She looks fierce with a large nose, deeply embedded eyes, dark hair, and sharp wrinkles on her face. She is a single mom of three and caretaker of her granddaughter.

One day I asked Mirtala where she got all that wood and what she keeps it for. She chopped and gathered it herself, she said, and she keeps it for her and her family, she sells the rest. Curious how this seemingly fragile and elder woman could gather all this wood on her own, I asked to come with her on one of her wood gathering trips.

Mirtala’s home is nice from the outside, but on the inside its virtually empty. She had a wood table with a few pots and pans in one corner, plastic chairs stacked upon one another in the opposite corner, and open space everywhere in between. The inside is dark and solemn, with dim lighting, the grey color from the cement engulfs the room.

She told me to come by her house at 1pm. As I walked up to her door I found Mirtala sweeping outside her house, with a machete hanging from her hip. “Hi Mirtala.” When she looked up, it looked as though Mirtala was surprised to see me. “Grab that machete over there and let’s go.” I grabbed the dull machete and followed her into the palm trees. Along with her daughter, we walked deep into the adjacent palm tree farm.

Mirtala has a son in the US. Her son supports Mirtala financially and will fund construction projects through monthly remittances. Between this son, another who lives with her, and her wood selling venture, Mirtala meets most of her needs. She has an outstanding loan with La Ceiba.

“You have to tap the wood to see if it is dry.” We seemed to reach an area where the wood was ready to cut and gather. “Hold the wood at an angle, like this, and strike it hard.” Mirtala swiftly cut through a thick piece of wood, cutting through it in two strokes. She watched as I tried to do the same. I fumbled through fallen branches. Grabbed one that I thought was adequate and hesitantly whacked at the branch. Mirtala laughed at my halfhearted attempt to cut through the piece. It took me several strokes, many adjustments in positioning and handle on the machete, but I did it.

Mirtala has a tough appearance but a gentle manner. Any time I see her in passing she gives me a hug and kiss on the neck. “How are you Tiago?” she says. She’s gained the respect of all of my colleagues. Once described as, “one of the hardest working women in Villa,” Mirtala earned her reputation through her constant activity, seemingly endless energy and focus on her kids and granddaughter.

After 30 minutes of chopping wood, we gathered all of our pieces and organized them in a bundle. I had about 10 pieces of wood, each about 3 feet in length. I tied them together with a thin piece of rope and hauled them up on my shoulder. Mirtala had twice as many logs as me. She roped together her bundle, carefully placed a clumped t-shirt on her head and lifted the bundle of wood onto the t-shirt. My bundle must’ve weighed at least 40 lbs. I had to switch the bundle onto the other shoulder several times. Each time I did this, Mirtala asked, “are you ok Tiago?”

“Listen Tiago, I know I am late on my loan. Be patient with me, I have a lot going on right now.” When we got back to her house, Mirtala gave me a glass of water and spoke about her loan.

I thought about Mirtala, this tireless woman, caretaker of two, single mother, with nothing but her machete, her stern look and gentle nature, and I knew that the loan didn’t matter. Whether she paid her loan or not, she would continue to chop wood and make incremental progress towards her goals. Her granddaughter was in school learning English, her son was sending money to improve the house, and her daughter was close by. Perhaps what little she earned from her wood sales would be better spent on supporting herself and her family rather than paying a loan to foreigner who can barely chop wood.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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Two Santiagos

There are two Santiago’s. Santi the student and Santi the Program Director. They are on the same team yet, like all teammates, at times they are odds with one another.

Santi the student employs self-doubt. He was given the space to explore his insecurities and his fears, and to create something from nothing. He did it with the support of his teammates and guidance from his professor. In the end he learned to engage with his fear and use self-doubt.

Santi the program director is confident. If there was little structure in La Ceiba class there was even less in Honduras. No supervisor, no professor, no teammates, it was Santi, on his own, trying to figure out how to deliver loans to 40 clients. There was no time for self-doubt, and confidence wasn’t a choice, it was a requirement.

Santi the student faces an abstract consequence. The consequence of his conscience. He isn’t worried about disbursing loans on time. Santi the student is refining his moral compass, is thinking about what is right, about what he wants to stand for, and about what he wants to do, not now, but 15 years from now.

Santi the program director feels tangible consequences. He is where the clients are, available to them almost 24/7. If a loan fails, if the service is bad, if the product isn’t good, he hears it in person, face to face with no filter or buffer. And, if clients aren’t happy, if the Board isn’t happy, then his time with La Ceiba could end. He isn’t worried about next year; he needs to get through this year.

Santi the student is an idealist. He believes we should be wholly responsible for tackling injustices. He rejects historical precedents. He has a fresh take, a creative flare, and a habit for questioning authority. He wants to talk about the merits of loans, not the practical matters of loans. He wants to discuss the culture of credit, to challenge our assumptions and create new, more fair, products.

Santi the program director is an idealist too but he understands how hard the fight is. He’s seen first hand how capable clients are and believes they can do more to achieve their goals. He’s also seen how difficult poverty is. Clients should do more, we should do more, its complicated. He values the practical and pragmatic, the efficient and institutional. He wants to create checklists and procedures. He is good at getting from point A to point B. He doesn’t have time for new ideas; he’s busy making the machine to run on time.

Santi the student has a life. La Ceiba is a top priority but it’s not the priority. He has lots of friends, an active social life, he’s interested in other subjects, he loves sports, and he has a family who he loves. Sometimes he misses deadlines or forgets to respond to an email. “It’ll be there tomorrow,” he says.

Santi the program director is La Ceiba. He lives a block away from his office. He visits clients almost daily. He thinks about La Ceiba all day. La Ceiba is the top priority. It’s what he’s working on when no one is looking. Its what he works on when he turns down invitations to go out. It’s what he thinks about at night before going to bed. He never misses a deadline or forgets an email. “Lets set a time table for this,” he says.

Santi the student doesn’t take himself too seriously. He understands the world beyond La Ceiba. He knows that he’s in this for the long haul. He’s planning something big that takes time and space to take flight.

Santi the program director understands that this isn’t a game anymore. This is for keeps. The stakes are high and the challenges in our way don’t sleep or rest. If I don’t deliver, the consequences are real and I don’t get to party this weekend.

Both the student and the program director understand that sometimes its necessary for them to work together, sometimes the student has to lead, and sometimes the program director needs to take over. In the end they both have their role to play. Sometimes I need to be Santi the student and sometimes I need to be Santi the program director.

The same is true for the organization. At times we need the students to take over, at times we need the program director to take charge. The difficulty is in deciding when.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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Little by Little

She recently finished construction on her cement patio, extended the roof of her porch to reach the sidewalk, installed a six person picnic table, and built cement steps for customers to step up to the window. Inside, Josefa shows off her economic engine. “Esta vacío ahorita,” its empty right now. Josefa’s pulperia, or convenient store, is run out of her home. She sells everything from candy, to rice and beans, from bags of water, to 3 liter bottles of Pepsi. Her pulperia is what allows her to make improvements to her home and business.

Josefa (40) has a pleasant demeanor. She is soft spoken, generous and motherly. She is small in stature, about 5 ft. She has a young face with delicate eyebrows, rosy beige cheeks, a warm smile, and soft eyes. Welcoming in nature, she offers food and drink to all her guests. With such a tranquil and gracious manner, it is hard to guess that she is a single mother with 10 children, that her only husband died 15 days before their wedding, that she’s never attended school, and that she was one of 10 children.

Josefa grew up in San Jose de Negrito, near El Progreso. San Jose de Negrito is a remote mountain town accentuated by thick vegetation and rolling hills. The nearest pulperia was a two-hour walk from her home and the nearest school was a three-hour walk. Josefa is the second oldest of her brothers and sisters. Her siblings looked up to her and depended on her to take care of them. Josefa’s mother worked as a maid during the day and expected Josefa to take care of the family while she was gone. Thus, Josefa spent most of her youth cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, fetching water, and caring for sick siblings.

Josefa was 18 when she met Dionosio Escobar. Dionosio was a farmer who lived near Josefa’s home. Josefa remembers him fondly, “le amaba mucho,” I loved him very much she said. They were together for six years and had four children. Dionosio worked on a farm for a wealthy landowner. He made enough money for the family to live comfortably while Josefa spent time at home with her children. She remembers those as happy times and planned to officially marry Dionosio. Tragedy struck however, when, just fifteen days before the wedding, Dionosio was shot and killed.

“Jueves, 19 de octubre, 1997.” Josefa murmured, in a low sad voice, the date Dionosio was killed. Her eyes watered and tears ran down her check as she sat silently in thought.

With no wealth of her own, no job, no status, and coping with the loss of her fiancée, Josefa took to cultivating the land. She had enough land to grow beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers and coffee. Soon, Josefa was growing enough food for her family to live from and there was enough left over to sell in the market. What’s more, word got out throughout the community that Josefa was growing her own food. Eventually Josefa found herself juggling job offers from three different commercial farmers. She worked for a respectable wage of 140 lempira ($7) a day. It was an unsustainable venture however, as agriculture punished Josefa physically. After three years of farming, she decided to move.

Josefa found an opportunity in the community of Siete de Abril. Josefa could buy and own the land, an ambition of hers for many years. It came at a cost however: the conditions were dismal. Her house was built from cardboard, rusty tin, scavenged wood, and cloth. To start a construction project on a worthy home in Honduras, one needs a total investment of about $10,000. With her salary of $2.50 a day working at a restaurant, five children to take care of, and another on the way, Josefa’s dream seemed far off and unobtainable.

Josefa moved to Villa Soleada in 2008 through a project of Students Helping Honduras. Her home is small yet comfortable. The front room is divided in two, by the pulperia, on the left side of the room, and the living space, on the right and backside of the room. A multi-colored hammock hangs across the front of the room near the door. A couch lines the right wall. A frail metal stand houses a small television and stereo set. The grey cement walls are decorated with pictures of her children with friends and family. The pulperia claims two large refrigerators and a 4 by 6 ft shelf stand. The shelves are neatly filled with rice bags, cookies, bread, eggs, and beans. About 50 chip bags line the left wall. Her pulperia is the only one on her side of town, and serves about 22 households.

Josefa doesn’t keep formal records of her financial activity but she knows that the pulperia produces enough money to cover most of her needs. The pulperia produces enough money to pay for food, electricity, water, school tuition fees for most of her children, and enough is left over for cell phones, transportation, and construction projects.

Josefa currently has a 5,000 lempira ($250) loan with La Ceiba. She’s had nine loans dating back to 2009. Josefa used half of her current loan to pay off other debts. The other half she invested in her pulperia. For example, Josefa’s mother was sick recently and she didn’t have enough money to pay for medical expenses. She asked a neighbor for help who agreed to lend Josefa 3,000 lempira ($150). Josefa used previous loans to pay off more toxic debts. For example, the furniture in her home was bought on credit. The store let’s customers buy furniture on credit and will charge interest on payments. Some stores charge as high as 30% monthly interest and exorbitant late fees. Additionally, Josefa or her home might get robbed on occasion… the life of a Honduran. Josefa was recently robbed in El Progreso and she found the La Ceiba loan useful in supplementing her lost cash.

Josefa acknowledged that she has come a long way. She listed improvements from a year ago: a cement porch, new home furniture, a refrigerator, shelves for her inventory, she is planning new investments in her home, her pulperia is growing, almost all of her children are in school, and everyone is healthy.

As Josefa finished telling her story, she settled her stare on the cement brick wall as if her story were hidden in the cracks. Suddenly her posture changed and she sat back in her chair. Her expression went from that of a pensive and serene one, to one of satisfaction. A slow smirk came across her face. She looked at her daughter attending to customers at the window, at her son Nelson, laughing and playing outside, and at the pulperia. Her gaze turned to the wall where the pictures hung of her, her children, and her daughter in a graduation toga, and finally, she looked at me. Completely silent and peaceful, her thoughts turned to the future. “Poquito a poco,” she said, little by little.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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(Originally posted to on March 14th, 2014)

Norma the Magnificent

She was furious. I was flustered. I gathered my belongings, my papers, folders, pen, and phone, briskly shoved them into my backpack, bid a hasty and nervous farewell to my hosts and bolted for the door. Outside, she was already 30 yards away. “Norma!” No answer, no slowing down, no acknowledgment of my yell for her. Unsure of myself, I walked after her. She walked towards her house. The closer she got, the more I yelled. No answer.

I had a queasy feeling in my gut. I was uncomfortable. It was like knocking something over in the dark, you know you did it but you don’t know what it was. I retraced my steps, my words and my gestures, anything that could have caused an offense. But, to no avail, I was too busy trying to keep up.

She reached her house and fiercely shut the front door. As I stood outside I was embarrassed to discover Maria Yaneth’s daughter, Jocelyn, whose house I had just left, was at my side asking what happened. Of further embarrassment, the neighbors across from, and next door to Norma’s house were all standing outside or looking through their windows, watching the scene unfold.

“Norma? Would you like to talk?”

Nothing of the sort had ever happened to me before. I was beloved in Villa Soleada, or so I thought. Residents routinely invited me into their homes, fed me and spoke kindly to me. I couldn’t understand why Norma was upset.

A man answered the door: Norma’s husband. With complete indifference, he opened the door, looked at me, looked at Norma standing across the room with her arms crossed, and said “would you like to come in?”

I didn’t know what to say or do. Norma certainly didn’t want me to come in. I was frozen. The man didn’t wait for a response. He left the door open, turned and sauntered back to his room.

“Norma?” She turned her head away and stood idly.

Jocelyn stepped inside. “Let him talk to you Norma.”

I couldn’t bring myself to step inside. I was unsure of my footing and didn’t want to disrespect Norma any further. A long silence passed. Norma was still, statuesque, magnificent and dignified. I felt small and pitiful.

“He only buys from people who are young and skilled and who have help from their family. I’m old and have no help! Why do you always buy from them and buy so little from me?”

My thoughts raced as I scrambled to piece together a coherent answer. With each passing second, it became increasingly clear that any response I gave would only disappoint Norma further. I told Norma that the products we buy from artisans have to be of a certain quality otherwise they wont sell. Indeed, it meant her products did not sell and didn’t meet the standard. As I spoke I could see Norma’s demeanor change. The rage in her eyes and voice were replaced by melancholy and despair. Her arms weren’t crossed; instead they were drooped by her side. Her shoulders were slouched and her head was lowered. My words seemed to suck the life out of her. “I’m not sure what I am supposed to do Santiago.”

It was a debilitating moment. I was powerless. There was nothing I could do or say that could make Norma feel better. I had nothing to offer her.

“Its ok Santi. I’ll walk you out.”

Her demeanor changed again. She seemed to regain her confidence. She walked with her usual pep. As we walked out together she put her hand on my back is if to console me. Norma asked about La Ceiba, my plans for the future, and about my family. I answered feeling no less confused than before.

“I’m sorry for reacting the way I did Santi.” She apologized to me? I thought I was the guilty one!

Norma was excluded from the program in part due to circumstances that were out of her control. She was missing out on an opportunity. It speaks to a larger question: how do we implement policies in a fair and just manner without compromising (too much) our ability to fund operations?

My interaction with Norma was one of the first honest exchanges I had with any client or artisan. It was refreshing. If honesty is necessary to build trust, Norma’s reaction was an indication of her faith in me not to dismiss her and move on. Today, Norma and I incorporate this trust into our working relationship. Norma isn’t shy about telling me where our policies fall short.

I recognize that my organization is imperfect and can be unfair for those we work with. If we are to address our imperfections, we must do so together. The process of fixing injustices, especially the ones we perpetrate, starts with honest communication. By listening to those who are directly affected by our actions, and working together to adjust our practices, we are sure to stay on the path of understanding. It can be messy and time consuming, inefficient and uncomfortable, but it’s non-negotiable and essential. It might not be the best business practice, but it’s the cost of doing business if we are to adhere to our convictions.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (

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(Originally posted to on January 20th, 2014)

Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo

Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo, 28, is from La Ceiba city. Eight years ago Tania settled down in Las Brisas where she still lives today. Tania followed her sister Maria Carcamo to Las Brisas, whom married a man from the town. For two years Tania lived with Maria and her husband. During that time, Tania worked at the nearby pool hall. Maria’s husband was the owner and he needed someone to help manage money and sell drinks. Tania learned how to budget, save money for the business and manage operations, all while serving drinks until late at night.

During her time at the pool hall, Tania met Nelson Discua. Nelson proved a gentlemen, he walked Tania from the pool hall to her house every night after work. They married and Tania moved in with Nelson and his family. Tania remembers those as uncomfortable times, “I didn’t get along with Nelsons mom very well.” Tania wanted to move out. Luckily, Maria’s neighbor happened to move out. Tania and Nelson moved into the new home, it was an improvement but Tania was not satisfied. The land belonged to Marias brother in law. They didn’t have to pay rent but they couldn’t stay there forever.

La Ceiba met Tania in 2010. At the time, Maria was already working with La Ceiba. Maria explained to Tania how La Ceiba loans worked but Tania remained skeptical, “I thought it was propaganda of some kind.” But, Maria and another good friend, Suyapa Santamaria, convinced Tania that La Ceiba loans were real. Tania reluctantly accepted her first loan of L 575 ($28.75).

With money from the loan, Tania invested in silver with the intention of selling to residents in her area. Her operation was mobile, she went house to house and over time she developed a strong client base. Additionally, she set up a credit system of her own. Tania allowed clients to pay for her silver in parts. That is, they paid for some of the silver at the point of sale, and paid the rest in monthly installments for two months. This system worked well for Tania because, as she recognized, it gave clients a flexible method of payment where they might not be able to pay large sums all at once. Tania recognized other benefits. She never had worrisome amounts of cash at the house and if sales were slow the next month, she could rely on payments due from the previous month to cover costs.

In less than a year Tania received and paid five loans and worked her way up to a loan of L 2,500 ($125). As her loans grew, so did her income.

Tania’s plans changed a few months ago when a family member left the country. The family member left behind two businesses that were unmanned and in bad shape. Tania, along with her mom and two sisters, jumped at the opportunity. The family could benefit from a group endeavor where everyone involved received a steady income. So, Tania left the silver business and prepared herself for the new challenge. The two businesses were a chicken restaurant, and a food stand at the local school.

Tania’s mom is the boss, everyone works equal hours, and everyone splits the profits evenly. After three months on the job, sales have increased. Additionally, Tania increased her savings and covered all her home expenses.

Tania estimates that the food stand makes between L 2,000-2,500 ($100-125) a day while the chicken restaurant makes L 8,000 ($400) a weekend. However, their success is not without its challenges. Two weeks ago the food stand was robbed. One morning, Tania’s mom opened the stand only to find the door broken open and their products were gone. They had nothing to sell that day. Tania happened to be eligible for a L 5,000 loan with La Ceiba. The loan was large enough to replenish most of the inventory and Tania paid back the loan ahead of time the next week.

With her new income, Tania and Nelson, who works in a factory, are able to take a step towards Tania’s dream. Together, the couple saved enough money for a down payment on a plot of land. The sight is nearby in the neighboring town of Primero de Enero. They are paying what is left in installments and are on schedule to finish the payments by February of 2014.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (
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(Originally posted to on September 20th, 2013)