Refuerza La Vida

This coming month we Celebrate Mezcal, but the world wouldn’t know of this delightful and delicious spirit were it not for the people of central and southwestern Mexico. In 2017 an earthquake hit the region, causing much devastation in the Mexican states of Puebla and Morelos and extending into the greater Mexico City area and Oaxaca.

Luckily, Refuerza La Vida got to work on the relief effort shortly after. They’ve reconstructed homes, rebuilt more than 140 brick ovens, and organized various social projects that have reenergized the communities. (To help fuel this important work, Jules Mavromatis—one of our Celebrate Mezcal mixologists—has chosen to donate her proceeds from this box to Refuerza La Vida.)

We spoke to Ashley Carrol, founder of BeSomeone Worldwide (the organization behind Refuerza La Vida), to get an update on these crucial initiatives.

S&S: How is the rebuilding mission in Oaxaca progressing this year?

AC: The rebuilding mission in Oaxaca has gone far beyond what we initially planned for, and expanded into some really innovative ways of helping the community. In the area we are working in, Istmo of Tehuantepec, devastation impacted a staggering 90% of communities. By partnering with Una Mano Para Oaxaca (UMPO), we were able to create a project that would outlive disaster recovery by customizing the needs of the people in each community.

S&S: What was behind the decision to make brick ovens one of the focal points of the effort?

AC: After vetting projects in several different areas of disaster relief, we decided that rebuilding ovens was a way that we could not only help with the reconstruction process, but also provide women the ability to feed their families and make an income. It goes beyond aid to restore economic independence and generate sustainability. This is one of the projects, out of all the projects around the world, that we are most proud of. The team UMPO has formed are dedicated, stretching to communities that are difficult to reach, and going beyond just construction to teaching these women how to grow their businesses.

Griss hands
Na’ Griselda, 64 years old, lost her house and her kitchen during the September earthquakes in Mexico, but she never gave up. She is full of wisdom and inspires anyone to do what they love with force and determination. That is why Besomeone and UMPO decided to support her in the reconstruction of her traditional bread oven. With her source of income replaced, she was able to give her family a second opportunity to start from scratch. We also chose Na’ Griselda to be the host of the first mural of urban art in Ixtaltepec—signed by the artist Amauri Espejel—to conserve and protect the traditional handicrafts and traditions, because she is an exemplary representative of Oaxaca’s gastronomy. She is always beautifully dressed when she goes out on the streets to sell her bread. She is also a wonderful cook, warm mole or green salsa tamales, estofado and other wonderful dishes. Her eyes light up so much when she talks about local gastronomy that the artist had no other choice but to paint her own hands, passionate, at work.

S&S: Culturally, how important are food and social gatherings in the area?

AC: Food and community is the way of life in Oaxaca. Within days of the earthquake, some members had made a community kitchen and started cooking meals for anyone in need. Families would come contribute what they had and together they would be able to provide full meals to anyone in need. This is also one of the reasons we are helping build a community center. So much of the life revolves around traditional cooking, being social, and taking care of one another.

S&S: Logistically, what have been some challenges in the area? And have there been improvements in accessibility so the teams can get where they need to go?

AC: Logistically, the hardest area was San Francisco del Mar by far. We assessed all the areas who were requesting assistance and identified highest needs for first priority. There were not a high number of ovens needed for San Francisco, so the cost of repairing the fewer ovens was going to be very high due to transport costs. But on the other hand, it also made those few ovens even more valuable, since there were not many that served so many people. After weighing the costs, UMPO’s team decided we could make the bricks on site in San Francisco. (A practice we use often actually in Tanzania, saving on transport, but that isn’t extremely common in either Mexico or Tanzania.) It is very important to both UMPO and BeSomeone that we go where there is need. It is an advantage of being small; we can be nimble and communicate easily with our board or donors for special cases like this. We don’t get tied up on the numbers of what makes sense logically and we can do what we feel is right. In this case, it really turned out well for everyone involved.

S&S: Have you noticed a recovery over the course of this year in terms of that culture and mood?

AC: Yes! There is a very interesting shift happening in terms of culture and mood. We are currently using a small space for a community center until we can build a permanent center, and these workshops have been very well received. One thing we have noticed is that there is a resurgence of the need to teach and pass down some of the traditional weaving or broidery to the younger generations. And the younger generations are expressing more and more pride in their roots. We also have had mini-projects born, like our mural project, where artists are putting color back into these communities by painting ovens, schools, and buildings around town.

Brodiery and traditions
Oaxaca without flowers, without threads, without textiles, without huipiles would not be Oaxaca any longer. Its identity depends on the traditional colorful handicraft, and BeSomeOne/UMPO seeks to rescue these traditional trades. Globalization has affected the passing down of traditions from one generation to the next. Some have lost interest, but the country still depends economically on the old generations and their knowledge. This is why we feel it is important to rescue those treasures and show youth their economic importance for the state and the nation. The earthquake was a watershed that helped open the minds of many. The losses did not only shake them emotionally, but made them realize they needed a permanent and lasting change in their lives. Our broidery teacher, Mística Aquino, explains, “We need to preserve the Istmo’s traditions because it sustains the families, unites its people. After the earthquake, it brought us together to focus on our traditions.”

S&S: Are local artists involved in the making of these murals? What is the planning process like for those?

AC: The artists of the murals are from all over Oaxaca (30%) and around Mexico City (70%). UMPO came up with the idea because a neighboring town had murals painted of important people of the town that were almost all destroyed from the earthquake. They thought it would be a great way to bring joy, through color, back to the community. Since most of the architecture was lost as well, it would be a way to beautify the town, while also telling the courageous story of the people who have been pivotal to the rebuilding process. The murals were not only well received by the community, but the artists were also moved by the stories shared while getting to know Ixaltepec. The murals will now not only be a rainbow from the aftermath of the earthquake, but will also serve as a source of pride, preserving the history of how people came together to rebuild their community.

A colorful little school
The day Besomeone/UMPO’s Community Center opened its doors with the murals of the artist Emigdio 21 decorating its walls, a man came to us for help. Misael, director of the primary school Tenorio, knew the importance of color for the kids after the earthquake. “Our school got destroyed, but a group of potters gave us some land, and with the help of another organization, we were able to rebuild small wooden houses where we can continue to teach our kids. But the school is missing joy and color. Do you think you could do a mural for our school?” It has been shown that urban art helps reduce post-traumatic stress, sadness, and violence. So we decided to fill with color the villages that lost not only their traditional architecture, their homes, parks, and trees, but also the feeling of security and integrity of its people.

S&S: How can people get involved?

AC: There are plenty of ways to get involved with Refuerza La Vida, either through volunteering your time on the ground in Mexico or here in the states. We always need help promoting our efforts through translating stories for blogs, fundraising, marketing, or helping us find partners for our social entrepreneurship program. Reach out to and let us know what you are interested in!

S&S: What’s next for Refuerza La Vida in the region?

AC: We have big plans for Refuerza La Vida beyond earthquake relief! We are really looking forward to building our community center to also help us continue working with the community to grow small businesses. One of the components of social entrepreneurship is the recognition of how important community is to growth. Particularly with vulnerable populations, a space in which to learn and develop is essential. We are working with UMPO’s team to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses. Through our network of change makers, we strengthen local economies; creating opportunity, incubating ideas, mentoring individuals, and funding local start-ups.

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