Santa Cruz de la Soledad is less than 4 kilometers east of Chapala, but by many measures it’s separated from Chapala by light years.  It sits back from the coastline, connected to a string of even more remote villages by a road that seems to shrink as it unravels, seemingly a road to nowhere.

Alberto in the carpentry shop:  Contagious enthusiasm

Alberto in the carpentry shop: Contagious enthusiasm

The villagers here have fished or farmed for generations, but these days more of Santa Cruz’s 1,700 souls farm maiz, calabasas, and frijoles than fish the lake.

It’s not a lucrative occupation, and it only takes a quick walk through the village streets to confirm that prosperity has largely passed this place over.

I’m here with my Cuban-American friend Alberto to see in action a program that teaches carpentry skills to at-risk youth, and which he has helped to jump-start.

A modest home for the carpentry shop

A modest home for the carpentry shop

Upon arrival we pass through a modest house and small courtyard to reach the carpentry shop.

Carpentry instructor Joel with students

Carpentry instructor Joel Morando with students

Here Joel Morando, carpenter and volunteer instructor, patiently watches and coaches a dozen children doing everything from operating a jigsaw to painting items that they’ve fabricated.

Their finished work is sold to the public, both to help make the program self-supporting and to teach the children not only how to make their products, but also to market them.

The kids are singularly focused

The kids are singularly focused

These children are 9 or 10 years old, but there are no childish hijinks going on here.

All are intently focused on the work at hand, watching earnestly as each takes a turn at working the power tools.

About one-third of the students are girls

About one-third of the students are girls

About a third of the students are girls.  Alberto tells me that there’s a waiting list of students hoping to enroll in future classes.

The kids are at first a bit shy.

The kids are at first a bit shy.

The children seem at first shy as I begin to snap photos, but then one asks to see the digital image on the camera screen and suddenly I’m surrounded by others asking me to take their photos.

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After each shot I’m obliged to turn the camera around so that all can see each image, and there’s lots of laughter and chatter as each portrait is revealed.

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As a parting gift Joel is presented with the donation of a first aid kit that’s been on his wish list.

Older kids are just beginning to arrive for their advanced apprenticeship as we depart.

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Antonio Morales.

Alberto next takes me a few doors down and introduces me to community advocate Antonio Morales, where in short order I come to understand that the children’s carpentry program is only the tip of Santa Cruz’s self-help iceberg.

Antonio is quick to laugh and his compassion for his neighbors shines through when he talks about projects – some already launched and others not yet hatched – for their betterment.

There’s also a steadfastness about him that leaves no doubt about his willingness and ability to drive hard bargains where the welfare of his neighbors is concerned.

On this day it’s less than a week after the Dia de los Reyes Magos – Three King’s Day – and as we pass through the plaza a life-sized nacimiento is still arranged there. These figures were annually borrowed for many years until Antonio talked the owners into donating them to Santa Cruz.

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The features of thes statuary are predictably, if incongruously, European. The village, though, has placed its own subtle stamp on the tableau: At the edge of the scene beneath a Mexican clay pottery basin hangs a hand-woven blanket that Antonio tells me is nearly as old as the village itself.

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In Antonio’s nearby house it becomes obvious that the nacimiento gift pales in comparison to donated goods of every kind that he’s collected.  Clothing.  Walkers for the disabled.  Books.  Children’s toys.

It resembles a flea market except that nothing’s sold here, but rather freely distributed within the community on the basis of need.

On a table in the jardin out back sits a bottle of Antonio’s favorite tequila, and as our visit draws to a close we’re obliged to accept his profered hospitality.  Purists may drink it straight up, but for everyone else he has set out mixers:  There’s the perennial Squirt, which makes a sort of lazy man’s margarita, or (the first time I’ve seen this) Coca Cola!

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As we sip the elixir, the air is suddenly split by an announcement in blaring over a loudspeaker, and it recalls for a moment the recurring P.A. announcements in countless episodes of M.A.S.H.

In a town without its own newspaper, loudspeakers perched on poles strategically situated throughout the village are the way that folks get their local news. It’s a low-tech solution perfectly suited to the need.

It’s almost time for us to leave as Antonio begins talking enthusiastically about another unfolding project that will teach local farmers how to raise moringa trees, the leaves of which are so rich in vitamins, minerals, and proteins that they’re often called “the super food”.

The fast-growing crop fetches a healthy price on the world market, and promises to help even more of Antonio’s neighbors pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. A few local farmers have already sprouted the first moringa seedlings, learning how best to cultivate and care for them so that their experience can be shared with others.  Hopes are for a first crop before this year’s end, and I’m eager to return and see the result!

Afterwards as we head back through Chapala, I reflect on the amazing enterprise demonstrated by people who so ably apply what little they have to better themselves and their community. There’s little here by way of a social safety net except the support that these villagers readily give to one another… but which is clearly priceless.

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