Mexico

As Costs Grow, Entrepreneurs Find Stability in Collectives

After the pandemic devastated business, entrepreneurs in a Mexican tourist town found solidarity and resilience in shared stories.

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As Costs Grow, Entrepreneurs Find Stability in Collectives

ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Ecosana, a collective store, sells natural medicines, honey, snacks and other health products.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Before the coronavirus pandemic, Antonio Hernández López sold his Poxantun line of herbal medicines in street markets and consignment shops around San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a picturesque tourist town in the southern state of Chiapas.

But even for Hernández López — whose products incorporate ancestral Mayan remedies and native plants like aloe, chamomile and rue to treat ailments such as cough, fever and flu — the pandemic was a blow to business. “The entire city was paralyzed. A lot of stores had to close, and jobs were lost,” he says. “There were no sales. Everything was stopped.”

But as lockdown measures eased, Hernández López and dozens of other local entrepreneurs found success in a new business model gaining traction across Mexico: collective stores.

At consignment stores, a single owner decides who can sell products and their cost. But the members of a collective share the responsibilities of running the store. Together, they decide who can join and the conditions of participation.

Over the past two years, a handful of collective stores have opened, including Productos Ecológicos La Revo, Túmin Tienda and Ecosana, where Hernández López is a member. These spaces have become an attractive option for local producers and entrepreneurs who would otherwise be priced out by the high rents in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where tourism has raised the costs of living and doing business.

“These stores are based on the solidarity generated when a farmer sells their vegetables at a fair price, or a family buys honey and meets the person who produces it,” says Jorge López Arévalo, a professor of economics and local development at the Autonomous University of Chiapas. “Trust is created, and the labor that goes into those local products is recognized.”

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Brenda González is a salesperson and member of the collective at Productos Ecológicos La Revo, a collective store that opened in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in March 2020.

For years, the only collective in San Cristóbal de Las Casas was Pangea Colectiva, which opened downtown in 2014. Though it closed in July 2020, the shop reopened late last year. These days, colorful rows of herbal tinctures, honey, crocheted dolls and wooden puzzle toys once again line the shelves and display cases.

“All of the products sold in Pangea are made by Mexican producers and entrepreneurs,” says Martha Guadalupe Sol Hernández, a collective member, as she arranges bags of Kinkavel organic coffee, produced by women in Chiapas.

Pangea Colectiva represents 10 small businesses or brands, which share the physical retail space and the accompanying administrative expenses and logistics, Sol says.

While some collective members sell their products online, the physical store helps them target local customers, who often prefer to shop in person.

Productos Ecológicos La Revo, a collective store that opened in March 2020 in a residential part of the city, aims to sell local products at fair prices. “We want to be a bridge between producers of mushrooms, honey, coffee, vegetables, and natural and organic fruits to the different residential neighborhoods of San Cristóbal,” says member Julio César Díaz Gómez.

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Pangea Colectiva, which opened in 2014, is believed to be the first collective store in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Products include these eco-friendly insecticides.

Twenty small family-owned businesses make up La Revo’s membership. Each producer decides the prices for their products.

“Many times, producers leave a percentage of products that helps to maintain the shop itself — for example, a bottle of shampoo, a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of avocados,” Díaz Gómez says. In other collective stores, members pay a monthly fee.

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a city that relies heavily on tourism, experienced major disruption during the first year of the pandemic. In April 2020, vacation time for the Easter holidays, hotels reported a 90% cancellation rate.

Collective shops don’t always prove lucrative. But their system of reciprocity, solidarity and mutual aid can help stimulate a local economy when the larger economy stagnates, says López Arévalo, the economics professor.

Bertha Luisa Escobar Bernal sells her Merme+ snacks, sweets and natural seasonings at Ecosana. To prepare her sugar- and preservative-free jams, she buys fruit from local growers and uses local printers to make packaging labels.

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Martha Guadalupe Sol Hernández, shown here inside Pangea Colectiva, notifies producers when they need to restock, coordinates monthly assemblies and ensures the store runs smoothly.

Having a fixed space to sell her products allows her to focus on production. And advice from other collective members has helped improve her business.

“We support each other,” she says. “We aren’t simply the sum of a people who share rent, water or electricity, but rather have become a family that seeks to grow together.”

Customers recognize that they aren’t just purchasing a bottle of shampoo or a kilogram of coffee. They are helping members of their community earn incomes and sustain their families.

María Luisa Martínez frequently shops at both Ecosana and Pangea Colectiva because she finds products she can trust at fair prices.

“Buying at these shops,” she says, “allows me to know who makes the jam I eat, who produces the coffee I drink, who plants the tomatoes that go on my salad.”

Adriana Alcázar González is a Global Press Journal reporter based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.


TRANSLATION NOTE

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.