By Marielena Castellanos
Alma Rosa Sandoval smiles when she recalls coming to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico, when she was 23 years old. The mother of three grown children works part time and earns minimum wage caring for older people, but dreams of having her own business.
“It’s always been in me,” she says, adding, “I want to grow as a person. I would like to move forward, find the way to provide for myself because I am a cancer survivor.”
Last year Sandoval was not thinking about her dreams, saying, “It is better to leave things here, not continue or continue. You have a lot of different thoughts when they tell you that you have cancer. What am I going to do? Your mind gets clouded.”
“Apart from the fact that you are fighting for your life, you see yourself in the mirror losing all of your hair, your eyebrows, you think about the future, if you are going to be able to survive, do you have the strength to keep working, cover your expenses. So many things cross your mind. It’s very difficult.”
One year later, Sandoval is one of several women in a savings group class run by the San Diego based non-profit Project Concern International (PCI) with the Women Empowered (WE) initiative, a social and economic empowerment program for women that have been excluded from participating actively in their communities.
For approximately 18 to 24 months, students in the savings group class like Sandoval will have the opportunity to learn how to create their own social and financial capital without external inputs or long-term support. The class is free and open to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“One would like to dedicate more time to one’s education, but when you have to work, you have to decide between paying your bills or do what you want,” Sandoval says of the obstacles.
Sandoval, who said she doesn’t like to depend on others, worked cleaning homes and in retail before studying to become a medical assistant and a certified nurse assistant. She chose the path because she likes helping people and wanted to keep going, but because of her finances she had to devote all her time to work.
“Your mind is going, I have to work so many hours to pay my bills. It’s somewhat stressful. Money and the income you need each week to pay your gas, your insurance, all your bills,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval’s classroom is full of immigrant women and two students with newborn children.
“Each one of you is responsible for knowing how much money you have,” Sandra Martinez, the program manager of the Women Empowered Program with PCI who runs the class, tells her students.
Martinez explains some of the women were educated in other countries, but their credentials are not valid in the U.S. Others have not had those educational opportunities, but all of them are interested in running a business and want to know what the American laws are and how to successfully navigate setting up a new business.
Martinez, who has been with PCI for four years and has a background in economics, explained why she works in the field of microfinance. “I believe in helping microentrepreneurs to be successful entrepreneurs is one way to help people out of poverty,” she said.
Bookkeeping, accounting, creating a business plan, online marketing and managing credit are among the topics students will learn about.
Video courtesy of The Pulse
Martinez tells her students, “Bravery is required to express what we feel. Lots of times we worry what others will think, but lots of times what we are thinking is what others are keeping inside. It’s not acceptable that you have a doubt and that you leave home with the doubt because the doubt is going to create resentment and conflict. It’s important that you express yourself and that you learn that here,” Martinez said during a discussion about how much each student has earned. The accounting records are kept by fellow classmates, some of which had no previous accounting training.
One room next to the Savings Group class is a storefront for the WE Boutique or Women Empowered Boutique in City Heights, located on the South side of 43rd Street and University Avenue. There you can find handcrafted products, an ideal place for those who prefer things not mass produced. It includes a cafe that is run by a trained chef who has worked in New York and several other businesses. Each business is the dream realized of a former Savings Group class student.
The store is part of the PCI microenterprise learning incubator in PCI’s Wealth Generation Pathways framework, where women from underserved communities have an opportunity to run a small business.
Inside there are more than just high-quality products.
Mayra Mache is the owner of El Taller de Mi Tatis, which sells multipurpose tote bags made by several members of Mache’s family, including her daughter and grandson. Her smile and friendliness will make anyone fell at home.
The bags are made for men and women. They include an attached towel or an attached blanket, and when turned inside out become a complete towel or blanket. Some are hand-painted. Mache said the idea came to her during several family trips to the beach and someone would forget to bring their towel.
Pride in Mache’s voice can also be felt as she explains, “We’ve been here for a year. The process to make the bags is not easy. It takes us a lot of time, cutting the form, creating the ends.”
Mache said everything about the Savings Group class helped her, including how to add the cost of her labor.
Jessyka Lizarraga is the owner of Tienda Lunar, who sells natural products including natural disposable wash cloths, a medical grade silicone menstrual cup, facial masks, essential oils, Quartz and jewelry made from Quartz.
Lizarraga moved to San Diego from Tijuana eight years ago and was already a merchant. PCI’s programs helped her learn the requirements for merchants in the U.S.
She has a background in holistic therapy and aromatherapy and is also a trained Doula who can help women during childbirth. Lizarraga is focused on a bigger goal than just making sales.
“What I sell is holistic, but I want to teach people how to make these products,” she said. “We are consuming like crazy and throwing away too much trash. We are also using too many chemicals in our bodies which are causing all kinds of imbalances.”
Back at the class, Martinez tells the students, “The impetus you have, I have not seen. You are going to go far.” The women have already organized fundraisers without the training.
Sandoval speaks about how much she enjoys helping people and how she envisions a business where she can help others. “It’s always been in me, that’s what I like to do,” she explained.
In spite of the challenges before Sandoval, she plans to keep going to the class.
“There is fear. It goes through the mind. We’ll see what happens. It’s something I’ve always wanted,” Sandoval said. “Right now, with the life God wants to give me, this is my dream. One has to work hard, but I’m going to try. I’m a fighter.”
This story was originally published in La Prensa San Diego as “Shop the Holidays at City Heights’ WE Boutique and More” on Nov. 22, 2018.