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She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “Nowadays there is a tendency to attribute micro credit for reasons for which sometimes I feel responsible, as I was a pioneer in this matter. But they have changed my idea, distorting it. Today, they function as a kind of loan company that charges women an interest rate of 5% for nothing. We shall build a social bank, with strategies to facilitate the process of empowerment. For us, credit is a means, and not a goal. A means, which allows women to organize themselves, to be active. It gives them the means to use their own skills, the means to have a better life and the means to be happy. The right to be happy can be affected by cultural matters. Nevertheless, I believe that this is fundamental. It is something that has the ability to expand you, to make you feel things fully, to make you strive to achieve things. It also makes you aware that to experience things fully, you have to live in harmony with the rest of your environment”.
She says also: “The essential part of our work concerns the organization and the personal development of rural women. We are not management offices. We do not give out grants or food. I don’t come to see if I can. I come because I know I can. I don’t like confrontation, even if I am very demanding. I look for strategies. I have worked for peace on all sides. I am a builder, a guerrilla for peace. I am always making proposals and I try to turn them into reality, step by step”.
Nuria Costa Leonardo – Mexico
She works for the National Network of Rural Women (direct website not found, but there are many rural women networks, see some down after ‘links’).
When Nuria Costa Leonardo was 13 years old, she helped in her father’s publishing house. She learned to work hard, to value her independence and to be firm in her judgments. With the richness of her background, she went to the mountains at the age of 19 and lived in rural Mexican communities for the next 20 years.
She made close contact with the women of the countryside. She has been fighting by their side, day after day, since then. When Nuria Costa Leonardo came down from the “sierra”, her parents invited her to eat at their home: “They looked at me, and I was as yellow as a telegram from the old days. They plied me with shrimps and langoustines. They took care of me. They gave me absolute freedom and confidence, and that gave me a sense of independence”.
Nuria was particularly influenced by her father. Her eyes shine when she talks about him. “He was a loving, stable, demanding and hard-working man, with principles, and with time to play and share his time with his children. On the weekends, he used to make Catalan food and afterwards we went outside, it was like having a party. He used to say: ‘The first one who sees the lake or the first one who smells the pines gets to have ice cream’. He stimulated us; he was a generous and charismatic person. Beloved, he taught us to love people and to be grateful to Mexico for letting him in”.
Her father fought against Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, and Nuria, his first born daughter, also felt the drive to fight against injustice. “He founded a publishing house, so I was always surrounded by writers, politicians and by passionate discussions. I specially remember discussions with a friend of his, an anarchist. Years later, I learned through a female friend of his that he frequently talked about me, sharing his worries. When I got pregnant at age 19, I happily went to see him to tell the great news. His reaction was to hug my legs and cry. He had a dreadful fear that something would happen to me, like me being betrayed by the people I was with. That was something he had experienced himself, in Spain, during the war against the dictatorship. However, he never told me. Instead, he always supported my initiatives”.
Nuria looks young and happy in the black and white photos from that time – her son, Viet Juan, smiling, naked, sitting on his mother’s lap, or, only a few years old riding a horse in the family house. “I and my son lived for many years in the Sierra. Now, when I look back to the past, I feel that my life is divided into different stages. Living in the Sierra was one stage. You have to work in different places and in different ways. I have already lived in the community for 20 years. I have had my experiences and now it is time to do new things. Now, I make my income giving international consultations. I’ve gained other experiences, and it has been a beautiful job. My son is marked by that time in the countryside. He is a simple young person and people love him a lot. He got that name because he was born when the Vietnam war ended. We were so happy when that happened”.
In the seventies, in Mexico, there were ’silent’ wars exactly as there is today. “In Chinanteca, Oaxaca, we were constantly harassed by the army. The fight for land was a very brutal one. It was easy to blame the agitators, as they called us, but the problem was more difficult than that. We were very well organized. Once, during a ‘tequio’ (collective community work) and an assembly in the school, the army came to look for guerrillas. My husband and I went out to protect the people who were in the assembly. He was at that time doing legal work regarding the agrarian reform. We were neither guerrillas nor clandestine. The army surrounded us and they took my husband to check his employment situation. They wanted to take me as well, but I told them that I was pregnant, even though that wasn’t true. It was necessary to delay things a bit so that people from other villages could come to defend us. The soldiers took me. Then the women set me free and told them, ‘You can not take her!’ The women lifted me up in the air and took me outside in spite of all the uniformed men. We thought that it would be a massacre, but we negotiated. They took my husband and I naively said to them: ‘Sign me a paper where it states that you are taking him away.’ He disappeared for a long time. We held a rally for several days. After our mobilization, he reappeared. He was in a jail in Tuxtepec, also in Oaxaca”.
It was her teenage son who gave her the motivation to go back to Mexico City. “We worked on different projects and almost lived in the car, going from village to village. Viet Juan exclaimed: ‘Now it’s my turn!? Yes, that was how we came back to the city”.
Nuria’s passion for the countryside is only equal to her current passion for improving the women’s living conditions. “When I lived in Oaxaca, we founded the High School of the Communities of the Federation of the Chinantecas, Zapotecas and mixed races – Chinantecas, zapotecas and mixed races, are Mexican indigenous groups. There we developed a plan for the informal training of leaders and young people of 34 indigenous communities in the area.
“I also worked in ‘ejidos’ (small plots of land given by the Mexican agrarian reform) from the state of Durango and from the South of Chihuahua. There we worked in the field of economic organization, encouraging the creation of the different Unions of Ejidos. The most important task for those unions was to negotiate support for the commercialization of the centers of supply in the community. Another important goal was to train the members in the politics of government. Between 1985 and 1991, I participated, as founder, of the National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations. I was also a public official, even if this was never my ambition. My strength and my feelings belong to the direct work with the people, in doing what I do today: networking”.
In the North of the country Nuria began working with women and also discovered the difficulties in women’s relationships. “In my family there were no traditional roles for men and women. I was not brought up with these notions. That is the reason why, at first, I didn’t comprehend the situation. I began my work with women, meeting them in the parks where the children played. Later on, I became a leader of the National Center for Rural Women. There I encountered many battles between women for leadership.”
The conflicts between women taught her a lot. “You have to change your attitude towards yourself. You have to feel that you are capable of doing things. You do not bow down to anybody. You do not allow anyone to trample on you, and you do not have to feel sorry for yourself. This implies the capacity to coexist and to organize with others. Raising self-esteem is a process that the community can facilitate. It is important that you change your inside first, but there is no real change if you don’t use it for the common good. Changing the way you live
with others is, above all, the way to achieve happiness.”
Searching for a way to make a greater impact with her ideas and projects, she was invited to work with the government. She accepted. “When I worked as a public official, I developed plans to support the organization of women from the countryside. I built a network with them so that they could apply for micro credits.” As a public official, Nuria designed public policies from the perspective of gender and promoted processes of organization at local, regional, state and national levels. Always with the goal of empowering rural women.
Of all the projects she created, the one that she has dedicated most of her time to is the social bank for women. This project is developed through the Network. “Rural women don’t normally get credit, or references, or guarantees. They never go to banks and never meet the credit requirements. Most of them can’t read or write, yet all of them are very good payers. They are reliable and persistent”. The Mexican state uses micro credits as a self-employment policy, which, due to its inefficiency, is sarcastically called ‘changarros’ (low-profit micro companies, which have been adopted as part of the employment policy of the current government of Mexico).
In this manner, Nuria has been achieving dignity and recognition for the countryside and its inhabitants. She speaks with intensity about the Network, her latest project. Showing us photos, texts, and images, she persuades us with her ideas. Suddenly she says: “Let’s go and visit our communities, so you can see how well our work is going. You can help us”.
And you then realize that, if you stay a bit longer with her, you will end up being part of her workforce for peace and reconstruction, involved with her and the rural women’s network in the entire country! (1000PeaceWomen).
Read: Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under art. 18 of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (a long UN.org-paper).
Read: an UN.doc about Mexico (1997) concerning rural women.
Read: Sin acceso a crédito, mujeres rurales, 22 Julio 2005.
Women, Food & Agriculture Network, its Newsletter;
STATEMENT BY THE NETWORK OF RURAL WOMEN ASSOCIATIONS;