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La Metropolitana: Making a Difference with Design
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La Metropolitana: Making a Difference with Design

The Mexican design studio La Metropolitana established a pilot project, that tackles social issues resulting from internal migration which occurs when people from disinvested rural areas migrate to urban centers searching for a better quality of life. In this episode, we will learn more about the project and additional context from Fernando Riosmena, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who will share his expertise on rural poverty and internal migration.

Podcast Transcript La Metropolitana: Making a Difference with Design 

Hi everyone, and welcome back to a new episode of The Y Circus Podcast. You’ve just heard the sound of high-end wood furniture being made by the Mexican Design Studio La Metropolitana. However, this feature is not so much about their products but rather about how they use design as a tool to tackle social issues.

La Metropolitana has set strong social responsibility goals and tries to find ways to address the challenges of internal migration, which occurs when people from disinvested, mostly rural areas migrate to urban centers like Mexico City searching for a better quality of life. Men, like the 80 employees of La Metropolitana who now work as carpenters in the in-house workshop.

In this episode, I will speak to Alejandro Gutierrez, one of the three founders of La Metropolitana who will introduce a very promising pilot workshop that he and his two business partners Rodrigo Escobedo y Mauricio Guerrero established just recently and which invests directly in rural communities. He will also speak very openly about what it took for them to become aware of their employees’ difficult realities. 

To add a little more context on internal migration, I will also speak to Fernando Riosmena, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder specializing in spatial mobility. So yeah, I hope you enjoy this episode.

The Y Circus: Alejandro, within the last couple of years, you focused very much on social responsibility goals within La Metropolitana. Was there maybe a kind of key moment that made you realize you need to prioritize this aspect more within your company?

Alejandro Gutierrez: There was a key moment. Around six years ago, we hired Ruben Valdez, who was working on an architectural project we did here in Mexico City. We invited him to learn carpentry with us. But then, two years later, he approached us and said: “I’m leaving!” When we asked him why he said: “I have been sleeping on the floor for the last two years, and I feel like a dog.” Those were his words. Once he said that everything was right in front of us, and we thought: How can it be possible that we didn’t realize these circumstances were happening so close to us. And that was the moment when everything began. 

And why didn’t you realize? 

We didn’t realize because I think we are so distracted by so many things that, most of the time, are not important. And this situation in Mexico has become part of normal life, so we lose the sensibility to understand. What happened with Ruben and the people was that we thought that the salary we paid was enough, but it’s not enough. And it’s not just about money. It’s also about empathy. And it’s also about taking the time to know what’s happening on a personal level. That’s very important, and we lost our attention to that. Since then we have been taking so many different actions, for instance, now we rent apartments so that they can live close to the factory and of course it’s all furnished by us. 

TYC: After Alejandro and his two business partners learned more about their employees’ needs, they also came up with the idea of establishing a pilot workshop in the rural town called Xocotla, the home of their employee Rubén Valdez. Xocotla has around 10.000 inhabitants and is located in a high mountain region in Veracruz, 300 kilometers from Mexico City. 

Alejandro: Now, we have the entire Valdez family working with us, around 20 people from Xocotla. This year, we launched a pilot project, a satellite workshop, where many of our furniture pieces are assembled, finished and woven. We invest the money, and just because they are taking care of the space and work for the satellite factory, they are automatically owners of 50% of the machines and everything else. The main intention of this pilot is to return the people to their locality of origin and become a factor of change through the transmission of knowledge to new people. There would be more job opportunities, and the creation of new trades and the benefits of reintegrating them into their communities are many.

First, they save around 25% of the cost of transportation. And that in a way that will also contribute to climate and pollution matters. And they will have a higher quality of life just because they would only need to walk 10 minutes from their home to the workshop. They can sleep more hours, and also they will strengthen the family nucleus. The son is close to the father and has a role model, and his presence creates a greater sense of community in the town. If you go to the workshop right now, they are probably producing around 250 chairs per month. And it’s funny because this space used to be the bar of the town.

TYC: With the satellite workshop, which functions as a cooperative, La Metropolitana creates work opportunities and alternatives for the people in Xocotla who usually live from farming or are recruited within the construction industry in Mexico City, where they often work in the informal sector. That puts them in a very vulnerable position. Fernando Riosmena, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, expands on this a little further. 

Fernando Riosmena: When they reach the city, oftentimes, folks from rural areas might not have access to the best factory jobs right away. It depends a little bit on who in their community has migrated before. Certainly, there is access to schooling, so there are some positive cases in which migrant communities in Mexico City, even indigenous communities, which tend to be discriminated against, join forces. There are good examples of Zapotec migrants from Oaxaca creating mutual societies and strong bonds. They have been less exploited, not perfectly needless to say, but less than others. But yes, in other cases, folks from rural areas have fewer protections. They don’t have access to things like health care there, no pension contributions, and of course, workplace protections are less. Construction is not always an informal industry, but it tends to have many informal workers over the last few decades, so if migrants do work in places like that as opposed to factories or other kinds of work that is more formal, than they may be more subject to do the whims of employers and the market, of course. 

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TYC: Oftentimes, migrants are also exposed to health hazards when they move to the cities

Fernando Riosmena: When migrants move to cities, they tend to move to places with more environmental hazards. So this is not exactly related to climate change, but sometimes it depends on the hazard. They may be more exposed to flooding from storms, but also more hazardous conditions. So environmental justice is broader than climate change in the sense that people might be living closer to places with more pollution like environmental air pollution as well as sound pollution. Also, access to water is limited as people working in places like maquiladoras live in communities close to factories or industrial parks. Often, the water is contaminated through industrial runoff.

TYC: With the pandemic that struck Mexico particularly hard, the situation for rural migrants has become even more precarious. An article by the Press agency Reuters states that according to Coneval, which is the autonomous public agency that measures poverty in Mexico, increased hardship could affect at least 70 million Mexicans 56% of the population not earning enough to cover basic needs. That would be an increase from about fifty percent in 2018. Mexico’s overall poverty rate, which is a different measure that includes income and factors like education and access to food, dropped in the decade before 2018 to about 42 percent of the population. So during that time, the access to health care and the quality of housing improved, but the problem is that the crisis threatens Mexico’s advances and social development and will affect the most vulnerable groups, Coneval said. But where actually lie the Originals of rural poverty? To better understand that, we have to look back 500 years in history. 

Fernando Riosmena: Rural poverty has profound historical roots in colonial times. Many indigenous communities were pushed out of their main population centers. Later on during the Independence, for example, during the liberal period that many nations experienced, a lot of the collective property rights that indigenous communities had for a long time under colonial rule and even and under the conservative rule in some cases, where ended or people were pushed out even to worst lands than they had in the past. This has been a process that has gone on for centuries in which a lot of rural communities live in places that are kind of inhospitable in a way and not quite fertile because others have pushed them out for the sake of progress and other forms of displacement. For example, these lands were used to consolidate larger states that became very important producers of different commodities during the late 19th century in Mexico and again in other parts of Latin America. These communities were pushed out, or people lost the ability to control their own land and production and became sharecroppers or other kinds of workers for these larger plantations, which came with problems. Internal migration has been a part of this ever since because some workers were recruited from different parts of Mexico to work in plantations and haciendas in other parts of the country to support this so-called export/import model. 

But in some cases, it was also related to political violence and, for example, related to indigenous uprisings in the Yucatan Peninsula and the southeast. People were forced to do labor, and Northwestern indigenous persons were also forced to move because of the uprisings being clashed by the government around the late 19th century. And throughout the 20th century, even though the situation got better, at least in theory by the protections that some rural communities were allowed to have because of the Mexican Revolution and the revolutionary regimes that came after protected collective land rights in some way, this support has never been enough because it never dealt with the historical exclusion.…

Continue listening from minute 00:13:38

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