Happiness Arrives at the Border
By Jesús Aguado
In the area bordering San Miguel with Querétaro, Apaseo el Alto, and Comonfort, there are several rural communities where now just the memory remains of times when they had to use gas lamps and candles for lighting their houses, times when they had to put an iron over the embers for ironing their clothes and, although they prefer the taste of a molcajete salsa, they are leaving that rustic tool behind. Now the residents of those places are different. Now they sing, dance, and can even see in the dark. They can also get information by turning on a TV or a radio. In the past this was possible only when they were in the city or in other communities with electricity.
This community is situated on one of the highest mountains bordering San Miguel and Querétaro. To get to this community by truck though Jalpa, we had to drive more than 30 minutes along an unpaved, curvy road that eventually leads to the settlement. There the dried up cactus and crops reflect the name of the community: stony. As a matter of fact, they are not productive because after the seeds have been planted, “they are eaten by the rabbits, squirrels, and other animals,” said nine-year-old Priscila, our first contact in the community.
In this small community the houses are made of stones and mud and are fenced by large stones standing one upon another. Priscila invited us to her backyard to see how the solar cells that provide energy to them are placed. She explained that her mom—and all the señoras of the community—had gone to San Miguel for a school meeting. Priscila, acting like a mature girl, commented that having electricity is very important because now she is not afraid of walking in the backyard at night. “In the past our patio was lighted by the moon and the stars, but when the moon was not full, I was afraid. Now I can play at night with my brothers even if it is 8pm. Later I go inside and watch soap operas and the news, with Adela Micha, of course,” said smiling Priscila.
El Pedregudo is a place that looks as if the clock stopped on the edge of evolution. There is no drainage service, but latrines constructed by the local government remained after were handed over solar cells. There is no school, just a small edifice constructed for a classroom. There Luis Ángel Martínez, a 16-year-old boy, has a multi-level group with five children. Martínez, a volunteer from the National Council of Education, has been a teacher in the community since August 2014. He commented that what he loves the most about the community is the tranquility and the security because everybody knows and respects each other.
After crossing a stone fence, we saw a young girl approaching, riding a horse. She was Esperanza, one of three 16-year-old girls who live in the community. She highlights that in el Pedregudo there is no potable water, but in the ravines there is a pond that has water the whole year, and from there they used to take water to their houses for drinking and cooking. Now, once a week a tanker truck from the Public Services Department of the local government provides them the liquid, “but when it does not come and we have run out of water, we have to drink and cook with water from the pond,” expressed Esperanza, “but we are acclimated”. She explained that with the arrival of the solar cells, her family’s life changed because in the past they had no information about what was happening around, just what she heard at school in a community of Querétaro called El Herrero. Although they had a battery for connecting a TV there, they had to charge it somewhere for two days, and if they wanted to connect a TV, they would run out of power after a few hours. Now she does not use a molcajete for making salsa, but a blender.
This resident also stated that the men of the community emigrate to the United States where they work, and the women (who go to the husband´s communities when they get married), stay and work the land. Sometimes, “we do not harvest anything, just livestock fodder.” She showed us how her solar cells work and, to prove that they work, she turned on a bulb. She invited us for a glass of water from the puddle before leaving her place.
Leaving the community and going down the mountain was easier, as easy as getting to Santa Anita, where the residents also benefited from solar cells. There was nobody there. The houses in this community have a similar architecture to those at El Pedregudo, but now, commented the guides from the Ecology Department, Juan Reyes and Adolfo López, they have been improved because an expat purchased a large piece of land there and has taught the residents how to take care of the environment. In the distance, two children without shirts were shepherding skinny goats.
Although there are some more modern constructions of bricks and concrete in the community of La Joyita, the architecture is not that different from the other communities. There are some pens where goats and thin pigs are sheltered. In an old kitchen, doña Josefina was boiling beans in a clay cooking pot, and her father-in-law welcomed us. Once we were seated on their patio next to the smoky kitchen, he told Josefina, “Invite them to have a glass of pulque (alcoholic beverage from the juice of the agave plant),” and took advantage of the time to explain to us how to make pulque. This drink is very popular because there are agaves everywhere.
Señora Josefina explained that she was from the community of El Charco de Sierra. When she got married at the age of 17, there was no electricity. Her life did not change when she moved with her husband to La Joyita. She remembers how they used to light their rooms with a lamp made of a bottle, threads, and oil, “but when we got up in the morning and looked in the mirror, we could see our faces covered with soot,” she remarked, smiling. Then the stores stopped selling oil when the electric service came to many places. They changed from oil to candles. “To have a radio turned on, we had to buy batteries, and they were very expensive,” said Josefina. She also remembered how she had to use an iron heated on the embers for ironing the clothes. “And I never burned a T-shirt or a blouse, nothing. I knew how to use it.” Now she can watch TV, and she makes the salsa in a blender instead of a molcajete. Despite the move to electricity, in this community there is currently no potable water, but there are latrines.
Thinking about the past, Josefina remembers that they used to look at their community as a sad place at night, but last December there was happiness with the series of colorful, lighted nativity scenes.
Víctor Manuel Velázquez, director of the Ecology Department of the local administration, commented that the idea of providing solar energy to marginalized communities emerged with this administration through a petition from the Green Council. It was also a way of fulfilling environmental regulations. They looked for the farthest and poorest communities, where not even the Federal Commission of Electricity wants to invest and change people’s lives, and they found them.
In 2014 the investment in solar cells cost 800 thousand pesos to change the lives of 17 families (180 people) from La Joyita, Santa Anita, and El Pedregudo.
This year, said Velázquez, the project continues and the investment will be 850 thousand pesos to benefit the inhabitants of three more communities located in the mountains. Among these communities could be Tres Palmitas, Chiquihuitillo, La Mesa, San Isidro de la Cañada, and Chiquihuite. The state government has supported three additional rural communities with solar cells: El Xotolar, Cuatro Hermanos, and Los Ugalde. These communities include 18 families (75 people).