And how did you know that?” the 30-something Italian traveler asked me, a small table gathered around the savory crepes we had ordered last night. We were in Kinoki, a prosperous and hip indie theatre and tea salon in San Cristobal, where incidentally, almost all the employees were Argentines (except two Mexicans from the capital.) She and a group of Argentines intently wanted to know about investments, government bonds, passive income, how could travel and talk about buying a Texan ranch with Pete. Since everyone was nearly ten years older than me, I wondered incredulously, ‘How do you *not* know that?

…My reaction, and what was happening around that table, inspires the following post. First draft.

—–

Foreign Weeds

…Here in Chiapas, Mexico, I had noticed a trend that most successful and profitable businesses had one thing in common: they hired a bunch of Italians or Argentines to do the work. The Mexicans that were hired were ones who had experience in the capital, Cancún, Aculpulco, or Playa del Carmen. Indeed, for a region that was said to lack job opportunities, after it was rumored that I had resigned from Taller Leñateros and looking for something worthwhile until October, it seemed that everyone in charge of cooperative projects wanted to know if I could join their team, and I was introduced as the organized and hardworking girl who by now knew all the hotels and sales points in the city. It confirmed my suspicion…in a beautiful indigenous territory where foreigners were allowed to come in and out…we would out-compete the locals.

Putting myself in their place, if I were running a smart endeavor in Mexico and my goal was to achieve growth and sustainability, the first thing I would do is grasp at the Israelis, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Italians, the Argentines…it wasn’t really racial bias per sé. They knew more about building a flourishing business from their culture, from what parents taught their children, and their attitudes toward work and being pleasant to work with. From the basic fundamentals of their everyday behavior, they were far more reliable and you can depend on them to close the sale and keep the clients satisfied.

…In the meantime, bad news had circulated as warnings. Of another Mayan-Mexican who ditched her employer without notice the moment when her boss needed her the most… or another who shows up to work an hour late every single day… or another who couldn’t be counted on to simply do inventory correctly and understand basic arithmetic. Yes they were uneducated, but they couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility, and they fib a lot. Even if you overpaid them, even if you tried to teach them (and plenty of business owners really come with all sincerity to give Mayans the benefit of opportunity) but many of the adults from villages don’t want to learn, or can’t learn, or have an ingrained resentment, and gossip at work… in which contrasts severely certain foreigners who know how to win as a team and understood what it was to give service and great treatment to clients. And the locals see their opportunities shrinking, and they call it discrimination.

—-

Racial discrimination? Or realities of capitalism?

A bit of both. It reminded me of the Chinese in Tibet, which in reality, wasn’t so much of a “takeover” as it was the simple fact that foreigners and travelers crawled all throughout Tibetan territory, and almost everybody who came sympathetic to the Tibetan plight sooner or later wound up in Chinese operations instead because they were sick and tired of being ripped off, cheated, and treated rudely by Tibetan operators. Oftentimes, it was infinitely more reliable and economical, and therefore preferable, to work with the migrant Chinese, the Indians, even the Nepalese and Burmese… than Tibetans…who rightfully then claim that they’re being outrun and clobbered by foreigners on their territory. It also reminded me of foreign enterprise in Bolivia.

Well, quit messing around and giving yourselves a bad reputation,” I wanted to scream then, myself having undergone a series of hostile cartels and Tibetans who wanted to ditch us by the highway without taking us to our destination. “You’re creating a whole negative stereotype for those who really want to do right!!” They wanted to charge us a ridiculous price (in US dollars, of course) for the sixty kilometers to see Mount Everest. They had wanted to charge double the Chinese price next door. It was the same struggle with the Chileans and indigenous in Bolivia.

When traveling in Chiapas, Mexico… one can easily feel frustrated with simple business transactions. With Mayans things were (more often than not) delivered late, promises weren’t kept, and just when you wanted something most, they deliberately inflated the prices several hundred percent…hey, because you’re the rich foreigner, and technically your ancestors owed them big you’re not like them: You’re Mr. ATM Moneybags. I remember once, after having gone over fourteen times to a shop to ask for a box of chai tea, an intense craving I had and was willing to pay a premium of double for, they wanted to charge me $300 (whoa, hello!) for the box and had the nerve to insist they were being honest and good people and that was the base price it costed them. Are you kidding me?

(Annoyed that this shop had fooled me to make 14 separate trips in anticipation for the box they’d promised, I had had the product shipped to me from the United States instead and never went back again. And told all my friends so too. Word-of-mouth is devastating to indigenous enterprise.)

—-

Gringo Attitudes

In Taller Leñateros, the English version of the product cost $100 more than the Spanish version (most clientele don’t speak Spanish) and often if something was in demand at the right price, they’d increase the price to the point that nobody could afford it. Just last week a client who wanted to purchase $5000 in merchandise huffed away buying nothing because an associate couldn’t give him the 5% discount he asked for because there was no defined “rule” that gave her the flexibility to authorize this and she wanted to wait until the Saturday meeting to gain a consensus approval from everyone. Even though logically, if they could give 30% discounts to their own, umm…. And yes it looked like greed. Yes it looked like they were taking advantage of you.

And it wasn’t something you could really get angry about, because then they’d quit. Or they wouldn’t show up to work. The reality was, they were rather unsophisticated and narrow-visioned with international business practices that mostly they were thinking of that short term one-time transaction, and not thinking of the long-term relationship. Logically if you have a series of returning customers, the yield of that trusting reputation becomes very profitable over time. (The regular customer at Starbucks is “sold” and can be counted upon to keep buying every week.)

—-

Trouble With The Unquantifiable

The intangible elements—investing in good publicity, making the client feel that he got a good value, developing a multisensorial and memorable experience, getting everyone in the city to recommend future business your way—seem to hard for them to grasp. As far as the indigenous Mayans understood what foundation I had been building (emailing everyone for appointments, thanking them, courting clients, and creating a superior experience for them) mainly they believed my entire contribution over three months was decorating boxes and making maps—only the visible, physical, concrete evidence of my efforts. The many customers who did end up walking in and purchasing, and left enormous amounts of tips, the sudden and inexplicable surge in sales and profitability… well, to them, was probably the Mayan gods… so we had even more ceremonies, even more candles, even more prayers. *Whaps forehead in frustration.*

The locals were not linking the connection between how we efficiently worked and behaved every single day to the profitability of the entire team. They suspected that people who became rich did it by illegitimate or dirty means, and they were suspicious about wealth. Instead of overcoming common problems, we were embroiled in an immature but nasty witch hunt over blaming who took the used pan and utensils in the kitchen three weeks ago, and implicating one another over a few (less than half a dozen) missing postcards and notebooks in the store….which, um, *I dunno*… Considering we don’t have sophisticated security measures and inventory math isn’t exactly people’s forte…probably it might’ve been one of the thousands of visitors who stole it? And honestly, they’re cheap postcards, we’ve got $5 million debt to think about here!!! And nobody is concerned about the bleeding inexplicable phone bills and utilities bills we’re paying. (So often with the way Mexican Mayans resolved things by accusations in meetings and the sort of priorities they had, we might as well all be on the Jerry Springer Show. At least we’d be paid for that.)

To say nothing of more complex and abstract concepts like good governance, management, just-in-time supply chains, investments, dividends, and active and passive income… these things that my new Argentine and Italian friends were avidly asking me about last night. They wanted to know, how did I possibly know?

…It’s probably what her parents taught her about earning money ever since she was a kid,” my Argentine friend reasoned, “the Chinese are like the Jews and the Irish, they start working them when they’re kids. She’s super organized, saavy building that network and works insane hours. Made a hell of a lot of sales and tips, I saw it too. People come in looking for her. managers of hotels and restaurants.

…And what was I going to do now with my time, could I join their business? That’s really good that I quit, would I like to know another cooperative they’re working on? In fact, they said, if I wanted to go to Argentina or Italy, they’d refer me.

—-

Is Poverty Really External Discrimination?

And so it got me to thinking about inequality, bias, capitalism and culture. Weeks ago the indigenous were griping that foreigners like me who came to Mayan territory weren’t respecting The Mayan Way. Or the Mexican way. That when I perceived a good opportunity for our cooperative I’d seize it without first waiting for the Saturday meeting to wait for a consensus (which would delay for up to three weeks, and lose the customer… nevermind the amazing revenue for everyone, I had broken the time-honored rules, broken protocol.

Look, Victoria, we’re not in California. You can’t just make quick decisions like that, it makes us nervous. You have to talk to all of us, one by one, if we’re not here, you wait. All of us have to agree before you do something. You’re in Mexico, you’re in our land.

Which is fine… until your moneyed customers aren’t Mexican either. When globalization makes borders more porous, if talent from more competitive cultures could freely come in and out, smart businesses will hire people who’ve got their act together and work faster, better, and close the deal and make the clients happy… and guess what: they’re foreigners who can serve with your foreign clients. And here, I’ve noticed in one of the hippest enclaves in a Mexican town, all the employees are Argentines. And boy are they so much more fun. One of them hands me a free beverage with a smile, courtesy of the house, hoping to entice me on board to another cooperative. Wanna go to his friend’s Ashanti yoga class? I’ll consider it, I agreed. Let’s all go to the Italian Trattoria tomorrow. (Contrast this with the locals who tried to charge me $300 for the box of chai that I really really wanted. Punks, I’m never going back there again, I was telling my friends not to, either.)

—-

Looking Ahead and Beyond

…They say that not much has changed in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico, for the last fifty years... characterized by its indigenous Mayan population, it still lacks health institutions, financial lending institutions, the low life expectancy hasn’t changed, there’s still a high infant mortality and malnutrition. Oh but except. Except for San Cristobal the royal city. The only thing that has changed, and rapidly within the past five years, is the gentrification and increasing domination of expatriate foreign enterprise. With investment and more transparent and proper business models, foreigners from industrialized countries are moving in and Mayans are forced out into the periphery out of sheer inability to afford their own place, with much of the tourist capital going straight into the cash registers of American, Japanese, Italian, Mexicans-from-DF… of course causing bitter resentment among the locals.

Certain Mexican-Mayans agreed: “our people, really lack discipline, people don’t really want to work and they won’t show up. I’m telling you because I know how they are: we like to go out, get drunk, go to parties meet girls, they get really bothered if you want them to work. Instead of really being productive, everybody is gossiping or engaging in office politics. Actually much of Mexico is like this, we’re sitting on a land that’s so rich in resources that nobody bothered to try anymore. Did you know that for the Olympics, we hired a whole team of Chinese coaches and professionals to train our athletes in preparation for Beijing? In the end, nobody wanted to commit to that many years of hard work. We’ve only won two gold medals in a population of 106 million and a middle tier country If you see Jamaica and its 3 million, or Cuba with its 13 million, and how many world class medalists they’ve produced with the poverty and lack of infrastructure or government support they have… it’s humiliating. Anyway, I don’t like the Olympics, it focuses too much on competition. What about happiness, what about enjoying life? Having a loving family with lots of siblings? Food is pretty good in Mexico, eh? You’ve got to think about the the present.

And so there we are. Happy poor people with big families.

But then I remember the regional reports I’d been translating. The high suicide rates. The premature deaths. Not having enough provisions to survive natural disasters. The little indigenous kids I had seen to have round protruded bellies from malnutrition. The domestic abuse and wives being left to bleed to death. That’s not happy. It is so hard for me to fathom, I suppose coming from an East Asian perspective that plans decisions and investments so long term even compared to average Americans, how the relentless pursuit of today’s happiness could really result from their everyday choices

I came home gazing at the stars and nebulae at 2 a.m., and the ranchero music kept pounding in the neighborhood, thinking of ideas for poverty development. I felt sad for the local people. Not pity, but it broke my heart. I didn’t know what to do. With the way things are going, without subsidies the Mayan indigenous will inevitably be smashed by globalizing competition in a capitalist setting, and it’s not because there hasn’t been people who wanted to teach them or help them learn. It’s not discrimination or lack of sympathy, it’s the enormous difference in parenting and the education we learn from childhood at home that makes certain people far more prepared for the rapidly changing business environment of modern commerce than others. And even though the locals are generally sweet and amicable in casual settings, over prolonged relationships and in business settings they are making it really really really hard to help them: not only do they operate on a agonizingly slow sense of time, but their sometimes their business interaction with “other people” is characterized by a deadly combination of (1) mistrust and (2) suspicion and (3) envy. (It’s hard for them to empathize with foreigners as living breathing human beings just as they are, who want good things for low prices just as they do.)

—-

Real Life Parable

Let’s charge $250 for that.” “No, $400. They’re gringos, last time I heard a gringa woman was willing to pay $1000,” you can hear them discuss right in front of your face as a client. You’re sitting there, astonished they’re determining how to price gouge you (right before your presence! What, are they insulting your intelligence?)

You, not being an idiot and having traveled and asked around, know that the market value of such a service is considerably less than $150 but you were willing to pay premium just to support the Mayan locals. Yet they seem to be oblivious to the fact that you’re willing to purchase at that higher price, more as an act of philanthropy and generosity for Mayan locals livelihood, not because you’re so ignorant as to not understand what is and what isn’t a good value on the market. Your goodwill dissipates, and you leave annoyed.

“You see, it’s discrimination against us indigenous,” they remark after you’ve left, “they come to our land, they’re sitting on tons of money and they want discounts from us. The foreigners so rich and they can’t give us more, they just want to go to foreign businesses.

And in Lhasa, Tibet… violence erupted in vicious anger. They’ve burned shops and restaurants and killed in rage and resentment, only then to be brutally repressed by the more powerful military as a too-harsh reaction. It’s the foreigners, they’re imposing on us, they’re trying to change who we fundamentally are, they’re marginalizing us, they won’t buy from us because we’re Mayan indigenous. The rich bastards are trying to press down the prices and we can’t make a living.


Um excuse me,” I delicately suggest, “you might want to try and update your practices, work harder and better to make the client satisfied so they’ll come back to buy things and say wonderful things about you and bring more clients.” They smiled and passively agreed, ignored me, and in a few days I hear them complain: “who is she to come here and impose her standards on us, in our territory? We’re working hard enough.”

And they resent why foreign enterprise multiply and prosper, so they keep praying to their gods for more business.

—–

Excerpt from a Paper Making Guidebook

“Cuando las pequeñas empresas tienen problemas para encontrar financiamiento, existe un elemento económico al que pueden recurrur: la innovación. Y nótese que decimos “un elemento económico” y no un elemento “artístico”, “estético” o “técnico” -al menos no solamente. Según la opinion actual de los economistas, la innovación sigue siendo, quizás, el componente más importante del éxito en las pequeñas firmas o pequeños emprendimientos (como suponemos que será el nuestro referido a la fabricación de papel artesanal, justamente por su carácter artesanal.) A pesar de las vaivenes económicos, las empresas inteligentes invierten más recursos en investigación y desarollo. Los pequeños negocios siempre siguen innovando en áreas altamente competitivas, y de esa manera, cuando tienen problemas o se encuentran estancadas, logran salir a flote.

…Es una idea básica la de cuidar lo que poseemos, y cuando emprendemos cualquier tipo de actividad, esto cobra mayor sentido. En un emprendimiento debemos cuidar muchos aspectos tanto personales como organizacionales, que son bien diferentes entre sí pero tiene igual importancia para el progreso: (1) cuidad de la economía (2) cuidad de los recursos materiales y humanos (3) cuidado de la propia salud mental y física.”

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