CATCHING THE WIND Story by Drew Gaines
Video by Drew Gaines, Photos by Greta Diaz
rising early to the sound of their rooster crowing, Enrique Martinez and his wife and children go straight to work in their makeshift sailing shop. Today is not just another work day. The second Saturday in June marks the start of Valle de Bravo´s inaugural windsurfing regatta.
The family business has customers to greet and sails to repair for the tourists who vacation around the lake located in the valley six miles (10 km) below their home in rural Santa Maria Pipioltepec, in Mexico state. Their workshop, held together by recycled telephone poles, sailboat masts and
outdated windsurfing boards, is a sewn-together testament to a family´s dream of running its own business.
They walk a thin line between success and
disaster where a single tragedy, whether sickness, injury or a collapse in tourism, could throw the family back into poverty. ” Traditionally, windsurfing and sailing have been pastimes for the privileged class, where a single sail costs upwards of $1,000. Enrique’s business, however, has required great sacrifice for his family, including his wife and four children, who all sleep together in a single room. Despite the long work days and their struggle to make ends meet, the Martinez family hopes to join Mexico´s growing middle class. Their task is made more difficult by the country´s fragile economy and entrenched corruption and by encroaching drug violence which threatens the tourism economy. Though the family business has grown little by little, it is still a part of Mexico´s multi-billion dollar informal economy. The Martinez family doesn’t pay business taxes, which has made them ineligible for small business loans or any help from the government. What money the family makes goes back into buying equipment or food for the week. They walk a thin line between success and disaster where a single tragedy, whether sickness, injury or a collapse in tourism, could throw the family back into poverty.
Such an unexpected event – Enrique’s greatest fear – occurred recently. Enrique Jr., the youngest of the three Martinez´ sons, fell and broke his arm walking home from school. The 16-year-old was set to compete in the one-design class for windsurfing in this year’s National Olympic games. But he fell one month before the competition. “The fear is because we live day by day with the money that we get from working,” Don Enrique says. “On this occasion, we had some money but our client said: ‘Finish the whole job, and I’ll pay you later.’ So we had to invest in this job…and it was that week that Junior had the accident. We were very worried because there is always the fear that something might happen in the family.” Junior’s mother, Doña Maria, now spoons instant coffee into his mug this Saturday morning, a simple task made more difficult for him due to the cast that covers his left arm.
“We have had our rough moments,” says Efrain Martinez, 27, the oldest of the family’s children. His broad shoulders and thick chest strengthened by years spent windsurfing and working in the family shop. “You learn that you know nothing. Humility makes the difference.” Tourism remains the backbone of the economy in this municipality of over 50,000 residents. Weekends draw thousands of visitors to the lake and the newly-built condos located nearby. Most visitors come from Mexico City and its affluent suburbs. They arrive here in BMWs, Audis and other luxury vehicles to relax and enjoy sailboats which may cost tens of thousands of dollars. Almost ten years ago, Valle de Bravo acquired the title of “Pueblo Mágico,” magic town, an official designation the Mexican government rarely bestows on a city. But the town’s natural beauty and modern infrastructure made it a winning candidate. The town has since benefited from the new status. The state’s tourism board uses the title as a marketing tool for radio and television ads aimed at potential vacationers. But there is a large income gap between rich and poor in Valle de Bravo and richer entrepreneurs have advantages in the competition for tourists’ spending Real estate, the town’s biggest money maker and taxable enterprise, is a business confined to a handful of companies with deep pockets. The high cost of land means small business owners like the Martinez family have little opportunity to expand their enterprises into town, which remains a dream of the eldest son, Efrain. Meanwhile, the family’s more affluent competitors benefit from their location and higher visibility at the heart of Valle de Bravo´s tourism center.
With a tanned boyish face, Enrique has the sturdy, compact build of a fullback in football. He worked for 18 years as a maintenance man at one of Valle de BravoÂ´s posh marinas and sailing clubs. In 2005, bored with his job and tired of earning a low wage, he took a risk to start his own business repairing sails and teaching lessons. Enrique had seen up close the extravagant lifestyle of the weekend tourists who came to windsurf and sail at the marina where he worked. At the time, he and his family lived in relative comfort in a small apartment on the edge of the clubÂ´s grounds. His job paid minimum wage but living expenses were covered. However, the long hours and lack of family time made life difficult. He saw a way out in his newfound passion for sailing, a sport he discovered working at the marina. With a determination to become self-sufficient, Enrique transplanted his family to the cornfields and open pastures of San Francisco, a 20-minute drive east across the lush mountains that surround Valle de Bravo. The cheaper land meant a fresh start for the family. Enrique says his roots as a campesino, or farm worker, gave him the courage and vigor to set out on his own. After nine years of independence, the family business still struggles for market share. A simple Google search fails to find the sailing school now headed primarily by Efrain. They lure their clients through small ads in the cityÂ´s directory and by word of mouth from the marina workers where Efrain and Christopher teach lessons. Christopher claims their sail repair jobs are the cheapest in town. Thirty pesos, about two-and-a-half dollars, will fix a hole the size of a cigarette burn. Fifty pesos will cover any larger rips and tears. Sail
after sail comes through the family shop during the workweek, from high dollar racing rigs to dilapidated and stained canvases. The payoff seems meager compared to the amount of time spent on each project. Days before the race, work stretches deep into the night. Lightning flashes and fat drops of rain patter the tarped roof of the family workshop. The clatter of an aged sewing machine rings between claps of thunder. Saint Charbel, the patron saint of good business, looks over the room from his shrine in one corner. The figure’s arms open towards Enrique and his 25 year-old son, Christopher, as they move from their sewing machines to a damaged sail spread out on the concrete floor. The father and son pay little attention to the downpour outside their open-air studio.
“ Days before the race, work stretches deep into the night. Lightning flashes and fat drops of rain patter the tarped roof of the family workshop. ” “Now, life is difficult,” Christopher says. “There is little money and everything is expensive. Everyone wants to step on one another.” The wind remains light this Saturday, and racing will prove to be a problem for the two brothers, Christopher and Efrain, who have entered the weekend´s regatta. They house their windsurfing equipment at an upscale, gated apartment complex on the water. Christopher walks down the gravel driveway past a heavily manicured badminton court. He greets two middle-aged maids who sit on a stoop during a break from making beds and extends his calloused hand for a shake. Under the shade cast by his baseball cap, his teeth gleam white against his brown, suntanned skin. He carries that smile everywhere he goes, a smile he inherited from his father. Years have passed since Christopher and Efrain were tasked with digging out the foundation of their homes´ first room, the kitchen. During construction, the brothers shoveled the rich black dirt for hours into the night. Sometimes it rained, making each scoop heavy with mud and Efrain would coax Christopher to keep digging. When there were no windsurfing classes to teach or sails to repair, they would spend nights without electricity, water and gas to run the stove and water heater. Lunches, the biggest meal of the day in Mexico, were restricted to a basket of tortillas for the entire family. Despite their humble origins, the Martinez children were well educated, even attending private schools. Their parents put money aside during the family´s stint at the marina in an effort to give them an opportunity at a better future. The 18 year-old daughter, Mariza, studies architecture and spends her nights constructing mock buildings out of paperboard and poster sheets. Christopher studied law and once aspired to become
a lawyer. He refuses to leave the family business until he pays off his debt and is certain that his parents are financially stable. They all exhibit the same industriousness their father learned in the cornfields during his youth and the same tenderness that resides in their mother. Her sons call Doña Maria the brains of the family, a title she is proud of. Maria acts as the voice of reason in the family democracy. She and Enrique sit at the plastic covered table in their small kitchen and allocate time and funds to their unfinished home or to equipment to keep the business running. “Poco a poco,” little by little, Enrique says.
They have big plans for the family home, which still remains a work in progress. For now, Maria hangs pieces of wet laundry on a rope strung between the unfinished rooms. Her wavy black hair hangs loose just beyond her shoulders. She seldom smiles these days and apologizes for not appearing happy. It’s the result of a medical condition she attributes to partial facial paralysis that happened to her after Efrain left the house to marry. “It is believed that people from low and middle classes can’t get into this world,” Doña Maria says. “But we have broken this scheme of being outsiders… We have seen that with hard work, we can do it.” A steady breeze gradually makes its way over the mountains and onto the lake. Christopher and Efrain stand atop their windsurfing boards and navigate their rigs through a sailboat race already underway. They struggle to pick up the speed that would put them on a plane towards the racecourse. There is little wind, but despite lackluster sailing conditions, the brothers appear at home on the water. They were each thrown aboard a sailboat at the ages of one and two and began competing before their teenage years. Now, they pit themselves against each other and against the light-skinned boys who have arrived for the weekend’s race. An air horn sounds to signal the start of the regatta. “Ya nos vemos, Efrain” — See you later, Efrain — shouts the race organizer from the platform above the committee boat. Efrain’s taped-together sail leaves him to play a game of catch-up as his brother and other competitors jump out ahead of him. They make two passes from the starting line to the far end of the lake before the air horn sounds again to signal the finish. Efrain doesn’t place, but Christopher returns with a spot on the podium. He finishes second. Later, back at home, Christopher’s small metal trophy sits on the kitchen table. It will soon find its place amongst the others scattered throughout the family’s makeshift compound, collecting dust on workbenches and between samples of synthetic sail material. The small tokens are reminders of the family’s passion for its work and way of life. But the biggest reward will be security for the Martinez’ business, something Mexico and Valle de Bravo have yet to provide.
Published on Jan 14, 2017
A narrative piece about a family's road to the middle class and their struggle to succeed in Mexico's tourism industry. Part of the Heart of...