Bringing hope to Nogales

Bringing hope to Nogales

Tucson-based ProMex Group helps Sonorans get startup micro-loans

The mechanic dreams of an enclosed garage; the roadside taco vendor dreams of a permanent shop. The bread baker hopes to make wedding cakes one day and the bodega owner is saving for a refrigerator to add a butcher counter.

These four business owners are among more than 1,200 in Nogales, Sonora participating in a communal micro-credit program that helps start and grow small businesses in this Mexican border town.

Funding for the program comes from a nonprofit group in Tucson, which works with area Rotary clubs to raise money.

The loan concept, which originated in India, has been very successful in Nogales with a repayment rate of 97 percent, said Carlos Mendoza, who oversees the program called Encomún Crecemos (We grow in common).

In Nogales, there are 1,250 business owners in the program, which began in 2004. The success there has prompted plans to expand into neighboring Sonoran towns of Magdalena de Kino, Santa Ana and Imuris later this year, Mendoza said.

"There's an improved quality of life," he said. "In some cases, before they started their business these families kept the kids home from school to help with the family's finances," he said. "Now, they're enrolled in school."

To qualify for the program, the business owners must apply in a group of 10 to 15 people.

Initially, they can each borrow up to 2,500 pesos (about $200) and have four months to repay the loan, which has an interest rate of 4.28 percent. If one member of the group defaults, the others inherit the debt.

When the loan is repaid, the business owners can apply individually for an additional loan if the group supports the request.

They are required to meet every two weeks to make payments and consult with each other.

The entrepreneurs must have a written business plan and offer mentoring to others who want to join the program.

"Some people won't qualify because they don't currently have a job or a business plan - just an idea," Mendoza said. "This is not a donation or gift. We need to assess their ability to repay."

The mechanic

He knew how to fix a motor, but not how to turn that into a profession.

The mentoring component of the micro-loan program helped Jose Luis Reza, 42, get started last year.

"I started with nothing," said the father of three. "Now I have a cement floor."

A roof is under construction to provide protection from the sun while he's working on motors.

Reza, a self-taught mechanic, said his business has grown through word-of-mouth and he has hired three mechanics.

Right now he works on an open lot near his home and cars are scattered throughout the property.

With the help of the micro-loan program, he hopes to enclose the work area and have a "real garage with insulated walls and a locking door," said Reza, who works from 6 a.m. "until I'm done" every day.

Aside from working on personal vehicles, Reza is recruiting companies to send their vehicles to his shop for service.

The taco vendor

The spunky 43-year-old businesswoman juggles multiple jobs as she works toward her goal of having a brick-and-mortar restaurant someday.

For now, Magda Enriqueta Gaona is focused on building a loyal following for the beef head and tongue tacos prepared by her business partner Graciela Gastellum, 35.

The women sell their tacos under tarps along a main street. A portrait of the Catholic saint Martin of Tours - the patron saint of business owners - hangs on the carps of the kitchen that is equipped with ice chests and a portable stove.

Enriqueta joined the micro-loan program four years ago with a group of 10 women.

She's received and repaid six loans and - in addition to the roadside taco stand - maintains a home-based store and sells hot dog carts to vendors.

"I've never defaulted," she said of her loans. "But, I'm always shifting direction to see what will get me to my goal faster."

A single mother of four, Enriqueta longs to move into a permanent structure, add several items to the menu and be open for dinner - maybe even have an entertainment venue.

"I can't wait," she said, "to be in a building that is big and all mine."

The baker

The aroma of freshly baked break wafts from the one-room bakery, eliciting hunger pangs in those walking by.

Inside, the owner of Panaderia Lupita is busy at work, kneading and shaping dough into what will become Sonora's famous crusty, oval-shaped pan birote.

"My family lives off of this business," said Jesus Brigido, 41, a father of two.

He enrolled in the loan program four years ago and has grown his business by purchasing a car to make deliveries.

"It's a great program that has helped me out a lot," said Brigido, who has received two loans.

The bakery specializes in dinner breads, garlic breads and some sweet breads. Local schools buy his bread for students' sandwiches and - with the ability to make deliveries - he sends his goods to neighborhood stores.

He recently hired an employee to help with dough preparation.

The duo work seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

If all goes as planned, Brigido hopes to purchase a second oven and add birthday, wedding and quinceañera cakes to his lineup.

"I learned how to bake 10 years ago, working in a bakery," he said. "I can learn how to do the fancy stuff, too."

The shopkeeper

Eight years ago, Alfredo Martinez was selling sundries out of his tin-roof home when he heard about the program from other aspiring business owners who were trying to complete a group.

"I listened to what they had to say, did the math and figured, 'I could do this,' " the 46-year-old said.

Within three years, the father of four was able to rebuild his house using cement block and he rented a second storefront in another neighborhood.

It is at the second location that Martinez hopes to add a refrigerator for meats and cheeses. He is now a member of Sam's Club and buys cleaning products, paper towels, light bulbs, sodas, and chips to stock his shelves.

Pastry distributors have added Martinez' shop - called De Pepe - to their routes and deliver cupcakes and other novelty sweets.

"This program gives the business man a chance," said Martinez, who now stocks more than 1,000 items in his two shops.

Neighborhood bodegas are common in Mexico and competing business owners often check in on the competition.

"My thing is to pay attention to people. That stands out," said Martinez, who also works weekends selling hot dogs from a cart. "If you know your customers and remember their names, they'll come back."

Since joining the Encomún program, Martinez has borrowed and repaid four loans. This year, he plans to buy a refrigerated case and add butcher services.

"I am very comfortable now," he said. "We're growing slow and steady."

Tucson support

The efforts to grow small businesses in Sonora is supported by a Tucson nonprofit, ProMex Group.

Started in 2004, the program and its support and money have steadily grown, said Bill Holliday, a local financial planner and a founding member of the group.

"Our goal is simply to improve lives south of the border," he said. "The loans are a tool."

Holliday lived in Nogales, Sonora for a year in 2004 to get the program started.

Now the staff is all in Sonora and the only U.S. involvement is the volunteer fundraising.

Holliday marveled at the entrepreneurial drive of the people he's met through the program.

"There is such a diversity of businesses," he said.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation is a big supporter of the program, Holliday said.

Organizers hope it will evolve into a savings program so business owners can build their own nest eggs for future expansions and expenses without a loan.

The program has 16 employees in Sonora and an annual budget of $300,000.

Tracy Carroll, a physical therapist with the University of Arizona Medical Center South Campus, has been involved with the effort since its inception, as well as earlier efforts to develop such initiatives dating back to the 1980s.

"It's pretty compelling to see the changes in people's lives," she said. "It's not charity. It's us trying to work together."

Carroll, who is also a faculty member of the UA's Family and Community Medicine department, sees the program as a health benefit.

Homes that were once constructed out of automobile parts, pallets or aluminum are replaced with safer and warmer structures as families earn more, she said.

Open fires inside of homes for cooking give way to stoves as money is earned and the extra money allows for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

"I saw the potential of the economic health as it related to the overall health," Carroll said. "I'm convinced after thinking about this, for as long as I've been thinking about this, that it's a very powerful tool for reducing poverty."


Visit to learn more about the program

What is micro credit?

Economist Muhammad Yunus started the practice of micro-loans in Bangladesh in 1976. Yunus loaned a group of women $27 to buy bamboo and make tables. Each of the women was responsible for making sure all members repaid their loans.

The Grameen - which means rural in Bangladeshi - Bank was founded in 1983. The practice of micro credit to combat poverty has since spread around the globe.

Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Go to to read more about his work.

Business owners

Participants in the Nogales, Sonora, micro-credit program are in the following businesses (Source: ProMex Group):


food preparation


buy and resell products


art, jewelry, leather











Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at or 573-4232.

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