Although she may not eat it, Reina Menjivar is as sweet as the breads she bakes.
At the age of eighteen, she’s one of the sharpest minds in the family. She works hard at the local high school making meals in their small cafeteria. She wakes up early in the morning and returns tired and sweaty from the day. Normally she breaths easy for the rest of the afternoon, but not on Fridays.
At two in the afternoon, the streets are hot. Outside her house, a row of palms looms over her front gate. The black painted hinges creak as they open. When you duck through the front door you’re swallowed by the cool shade as you pass through the family living room. When you emerge into small kitchen off the back there stands the entire family – three sisters, two brothers, mother and father.
By the time she arrives home, Reina is already preparing to bake. The large clay oven in the back yard is roasting hot with wood fire and the dough is half made. She dawns an apron and gets to work.
Soon hordes of customers are arriving at the gate, each of them leaving with a heavy load fresh bread so warm it has to be double bagged. Most have ordered days in advance and are only there to pick it up. The family power walks to and fro, pouring the dough into recycled tuna cans and shoveling them into the oven’s open mouth.
This is usually when we arrive.
We met Reina at a community meeting in November of 2015. Nobody showed up. Only two clients attended and one of them lived there. The second said “Wait, give me a chance to run and bring someone else. You should work with her.” In walked Reina Menjivar. She shook my hand and sat in the empty circle of chairs. When I asked her what she did, she said “I bake bread” and the rest was history.
For the next year, Reina took out small loan after small loan. She intended to invest in her business – since she was the head baker – which meant putting a new roof over the kitchen and extending the back porch. The aluminum ceiling leaked in the rainy season, wetting all the bread, and the thin wooden rafters were jet black with soot.
Every loan Reina received went straight into a savings account. Within a few weeks she had paid us using her Friday sales. As the months went by, Reina accumulated enough money to expand the kitchen. One day I stopped to visit her. As we spoke I confessed to having a stomach virus and she immediately sat me down and made her mother’s tea (pepper, cinnamon, and guayabo leaves). As I rested on her couch and sipped the warm drink in the cool living room, she told me of her plans.
They were ordering 200 cinder blocks for $90. They were buying 14 bags of cement for $115. Eight of those were for the back porch. At $10 a pop, the metal sheets for the roof would cost $340. She produced the numbers instantly like a calculator. I swallowed a gulp of tea and with it my pride, as I realized she was probably better at math than I was.
In January of 2017, almost a year later, we returned to see the new building.
The black painted hinges creaked as they opened. We ducked through the door next to a nativity scene and a small Christmas tree. We saw the family standing in the back, but when we emerged into the kitchen it felt like walking into a cave; a cave with stoves and refrigerators.
The ceiling was high and new. There was two more feet of room and a sense of ease compared to the low, claustrophobic kitchen we were accustomed to. Reina laughed as we looked around. We sat on the brand new porch and chatted. She had a gentle voice and demeanor. She talked with her hands, gesturing with her lips to emphasize an idea. The entire project had cost them $1020. La Ceiba loans composed 65 percent of the funds, or $670 of capital.
“Every time I got a new loan,” she said, “I looked at it and got nervous.” She had never dealt with debt before and considered it dangerous. The results, however, had convinced her that the baking process would be loads easier now that space was ample and the oven was extended. She indicated the short fireplace they had built onto the existing oven. We couldn’t help but take pictures.
Finally, we asked her if we could tell her story. She agreed and requested that we send a thank you to everyone in La Ceiba who had made it possible. Without it, she assured us, she couldn’t have gotten over the initial barrier of gathering the funds necessary. We assured her that the effort she put in was much more impressive and we thanked her for the opportunity to work with her.
As a bonus to her story, we asked her what her preferred bread was. She made so many; tortas, quesillos, pastel de piñas – which was her favorite? But this time Reina shook her head. She was nineteen now, but her laugh was still as young and cheery as it was when we met. She told us she didn’t like any of the bread she made and never ate any of it.
Although she may not eat it, Reina Menjivar is as sweet as the breads she bakes. I am honored to work with people like Reina here in El Progreso Honduras.