Isabel Cruz Hernández

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Isabel Cruz Hernández's work was prepared when Isabel Cruz Hernández was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 .


Isabel Cruz is expanding rural savings cooperatives in Mexico to include access to bank credit for campesinos.

The New Idea

After years of working with rural peasant movements in Mexico, Isabel Cruz concluded that it was necessary to create a credit system that would foster small-scale local development. In order to accommodate its modernization policies and the agricultural provisions of NAFTA, the government of Mexico has reoriented the nation's production away from corn and other basic grains to export crops such as fruits and vegetables. In the process, all access to credit, technical assistance and marketing for agriculture has come to favor those with the resources to mass-produce export crops. There is no system to provide credit or other services to ejidatarios, those who work rural land under the ejidos system of communal property rights established in the 1910 revolution, and other members of the peasant sector.
The ejidatarios communeros (communal land owners), small owners and settlers constitute the mainstay of a rural subsistence economy that is in danger of disappearing. Isabel believes that they can modernize it on their own terms if they have adequate economic tools. She has selected those who have already organized themselves into savings cooperatives called peasant credit unions, which bring together small producers with common needs. Isabel's project provides mechanisms for these isolated credit unions to move beyond the their pooled mutual savings and acquire financing from third parties in a model that can be replicated beyond the states of Sonora, Zacatecas and Hidalgo, where it originated.

The Problem

Mexico's present neo-liberal modernization scheme, with its focus on free trade, has placed its peasants on the verge of extinction. Hundreds of thousands have been forced off the land into cities in Mexico or have crossed the border into the United States. The government has discarded support of the ejido land use system and of markets for the grains and cattle that campesinos have traditionally produced on a small scale. Large agribusinesses that produce export crops have access to credit and technical assistance, but peasants, who do not have great productive potential, do not have access to the resources that would assist local citizens' groups to develop alternative rural economies in changing times: for example, credit training in marketing and purchasing, legal counsel about property rights and reevaluation of local agricultural and cattle raising techniques.

In addition, there have been internal challenges within the leadership structure of the existing Peasant Unions which Isabel and her team have had to face. The Unions' administrators have had very little expertise in either administration or financial analysis. And their caciques, or local leaders, typically enjoy broad powers in the rural towns of Mexico with the potential to control and abuse the entire local population.

The Strategy

Isabel's strategy works along three lines: (1) building leadership within the peasant credit unions at the local level; (2) developing relationships with lending institutions; and (3) consolidating the unions into a network of peasant leaders who communicate at the national level and can organize political defense of their interests. She founded the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions to serve as her organizational base.

Through her Association, Isabel has worked with local peasant credit unions to transform the charismatic political style characteristic of the cacique role into a more reliable and purposeful administrative role. She has also developed leadership training in principles of economics and finance for the union administrators.

For the leadership training stage of her work, Isabel relied on the financial resources available within the regional credit unions. In order to institute credit and technical services, she is negotiating for outside financing from national and international lending institutions, including the World Bank. She is also lobbying the Mexican government for new legislation that would recognize and support the local financing institutions she is building. Rather than abandoning farmers to global market forces, Isabel lobbies for the state to referee the market such that transnational agribusiness and small farmers can compete on a level playing field.

The Association has brought together most of the regional members into a national network of peasant credit unions. She anticipates a fifteen to twenty year process of replicating her model throughout the country and building a social movement of campesinos who are empowered economically to address their problems at both local and national levels.

The Person

Isabel is a self-made, entrepreneurial woman. Her parents lacked formal education and the family had scant material means. She was forced to study in books handed down by her older siblings and, as she says, "grew up knowing not to waste any resources." From the time she was very young, she excelled in her studies and was honored with the Hidalgo Route, a prize granted to the most outstanding students in the country. Having inherited from her father a strong sense of commitment towards her country, especially its impoverished peasants, she pursued her schooling because that was the avenue that would enable her to work for Mexico. A born leader, Isabel started attending a technical high school feeling certain that she would focus on mathematics and specialize in chemical metallurgy during her college years. At that time, she was convinced that Mexico required people with sound technical expertise to overcome its situation as an underdeveloped economy.

As time went by, however, she grew unsatisfied with the aseptic approach promoted by technical professions, where she felt one could easily lose contact with people and grow insensitive towards social issues and their solution. She turned to anthropology as a way to understand these issues and then work for the most segregated social groups. Her college years at the School of Anthropology were most enriching for, besides being able to question the status quo, she came in contact with all sorts of rural experts and met peasants who had participated actively in the Mexican Revolution–Zapatistas and Jaramillistas who told her of their roles in making a part of the country's history. Through them, she was able to understand what land and work truly represent for the peasants. Working with these people in the state of Morelos, she first realized the meaning and significance of peasant organization. Although she had the opportunity to pursue a postgraduate degree, she decided to commit herself to the peasant sector.

Isabel participated in a number of peasant movements. After having worked for several governmental institutions that provide services to support peasant production and commercialization, she came to understand the force with which the state can intervene in the peasant processes. These jobs also allowed her to get in contact with isolated organizations with different agrarian conceptions and approaches. Isabel began to question the state's power of decision over issues affecting peasants and grew critical of the government's role, of its corruption, of its power to disrupt organized movements and of the ephemeral nature of its programs, which do not last more than a presidential term and which are conceived by deskbound officials. Convinced that the peasant movement should not generate from within the state, she decided to stop working for the government and began working directly with the peasants.