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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Grutas Tolantango: A Model Co-op Answer to Globalization?

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November 26, 2007
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By Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone

We rarely inquire about a commodity's origins in wage labor. This is especially true of restaurant meals and resort vacations. Our enjoyment might be undercut were we confronted, for example, with the stifling heat and indignity borne at Disneyland by the person in the Mickey Mouse suit. The suit's fixed smile compels its wearer to endure tail-pulling by pre-teens lest the spell of "being with Mickey" is broken and a refund is demanded. So when those who profit from selling commodities conceal the exploitation in their relations of production, we consumers usually ratify their act by a willed ignorance. We don't want to know how our "vacation" is produced! Problem is: there doesn't seem to be any alternative to this collective self-deception around commodities.

Friends had recommended Grutas Tolantongo, in Hidalgo state just north of the State of Mexico, solely as a resort. However, on two recent visits, we also came to be inspired by its democratic relations of production. Up to a point.

The large resort is made up of three hotel complexes that descend the side of a steep box canyon. Its main attraction is a steamy grotto at the bottom of the canyon's enclosed end. Out of this grotto a small, clear thermal river flows down the length of the canyon floor. The open grotto chamber is half the size of a tennis court and with ceiling up to 10 feet. Water-sculpted rocks make seats near the mouth where one can receive the river's caresses. Inside, waterfalls offer natural massages that are both vigorous and soothing. Outside, dozens of other waterfalls flow from the canyon's heights, steaming in the morning sun. "The tunnel," a small cavern 15 meters deep just above the grotto, also offers warm showers. The slope is dressed in poinsettia and cactus. A kilometer up, more warm falls start their descent to the river. While to the eye the drama of all these features is striking, the body immersed in them absorbs nature at her most gentle and reassuring.

An absence of hierarchy in the staff - rare at resorts - struck us. Desk managers and waitresses all dressed with the same informality. (And almost all of the men wore moustaches.) Why? The resort turns out to be a "cooperativa ejidal" run democratically by its 112 members or "socios"!

Sociedad Cooperativa Ejidal "Grutas Tolantongo" SCL (, about three hours drive from Mexico City, was formed some 30 years ago by members of the ejido that owns the side of the canyon described above. Ejidos are a form of land tenure set up in the 1930s in response to a cry for "Land and Freedom." The 1910 revolution demanded restoration of communal lands that had been taken from campesinos after Independence and made into haciendas. Article 27 of the 1917 constitution had declared that every campesino has a right to land. But in 1992, to join NAFTA, then-President Salinas de Gortari stealthily passed a modification that legally undermined ejidos by allowing sale to corporations. While entire ejidos have since been sold and have passed into the hands of agribusiness or tourist developers, most ejidal land still remains intact in community hand. Tolantongo's "cooperativa ejidal" illustrates one way ejidos can retain control of their land.

Rooms are simple and inexpensive: 400 pesos for one with a double bed, bath, and terrace (with smashing view); 600 for 2 double beds. The elite are absent. This is a resort for workers, by workers. Of its three levels, only two are in easy walking distance. A riverside café de olla on a brisk morning is worth the 178 steps.

Socios are divided by family: each family gets one vote. A family's vote is exercised by its head. Here our admiration became qualified. Among the 112 socios, our dinner waitress told us there are only two women heads of household. We suggested to a 40-year-old male socio that wives who work in the co-op should also have a voice. "But they do," he explained, "through their husbands - who are in any case more important." The wives we interviewed did not consider themselves members of the co-op. This paradox of sustaining a co-op with the labor of women, while denying them votes, was glaring to us. Since the paradox reflects overall gender relations it is invisible. Why didn't the co-op principle of engaging all talents in a workforce extend to enfranchising females? Roughly 30 male contract workers also get mere wages, never a share of profits or a vote; not being ejidatarios, they are also collectively exploited by socios. We could not complain. In our country, the USA, with the exception of some 500 worker co-ops and democratic ESOPs, no enterprises make any pretense of running themselves democratically.

Up near the rim we happened on the man-made chapoteaderos or splashing pools. Fed by warm springs and shaded among trees, a descending series of about twenty-five of these semi-circular "infinity" pools overlook the vast canyon, at once huge and intimate. The pools of various sizes constitute the upper hotel's main amenity. We loved soaking in their warm spring water, elbows resting on wet edges, gazing over the canyon. Socios had themselves conceived of the chapoteadores, our friend Pablo (Francisco) Rebolledo Pérez insisted; professionals merely executed their vision.

Perhaps because we had widely praised the co-op, we received an extra-warm welcome on returning. We were greeted by Vasily Ramirez and his associate Simon, who ran the store. Having brought our bags to our rooms, Vasily surprised us by asking to borrow our car. Inspired by the spirit of the place, we gave him the keys. In an hour he returned them. It felt like a sort of test.

It got better. Pablo invited us to a baptism of four children of socios. The all-day event started with a mass, then a comida serenaded by mariachis, then dancing. About 200 people socialized happily under a yellow Corona tent as some 50 family members served. Without charge, we ate the delicious barbacoa and drank beer, enjoying the eight mariachis. We met Pablo's wife Francisca Cortez Cruz and were introduced to one of the dazed but beautifully dressed infants. We expressed our gratitude for being included as foreign guests in this special family celebration. We noticed in a corner a circular table of about twenty, all men. Each wore a stiff straw cowboy hat, a long-sleeved striped dress shirt, and a moustache. They were the first to be serenaded. Did this express a subtle hierarchy in the co-op after all?

The next morning, we interviewed Pablo over still more barbacoa, serenaded this time by a wonderful local close-harmony group. "The grandfathers" had had the vision, Pablo said, and had started building the resort in the late 1970s. Most socios were members of three or four large families, he said. There are no professional managers. Minor income differences based on responsibilities had been allowed by the General Assembly, but such jobs rotated. Democracy is the key, he said.

It was important to Pablo - and other socios with whom we spoke - that neither outside capital nor expertise nor government help had launched or sustained the project. The first 5 simple units started generating income in 1992. These in turn raised funds for 10 more, and so on. "We don't even save in a bank; we reinvest everything. Everyone must work every day," Pablo explained. Slackers lose rights one at a time until the ejidatario is no longer a socio. Slow self-capitalization has allowed socios to acquire business skills and thereby to preserve their collective autonomy.

Socios were proud of two results. First, living standards have begun to rise - a rise the co-op had taken special care to make uniform for all income levels. The co-op covers all federal health services and gives stipends to retirees. "We make sure everyone enjoys the increases in living standards because we need everyone's work," Pablo explained. Second, virtually all young people who had gone to the US for work have returned to join in the cooperative. This is particularly notable in rural Mexico in the post NAFTA economy. "Free trade," the end of government support, and corporate farming have undermined the traditional rural economy in Mexico forcing many young people to migrate when they reach working age.

Since 1992 and NAFTA, privatizing and cooperativizing are two diverging options for ejidatarios. We had seen ejidatarios on Mexico's West coast sell long leases to developers and foreign corporations only to become servants on their own land. Because Tolantongo ejidatarios developed their land themselves, they welcomed visitors as its owners and prospered accordingly. Similarly, ejidos near Yucatan's Uxmal pyramid had created the Chac Lol co-op of local tortillerias, part of a co-op network throughout the Yucatan peninsula (see issue #38 in the GEO archive). Since co-op members alone retain all profits, not outside investors, these co-ops and Tolantongo reject all exploitation in their relations of production. However, when Chac Lol attempted to spin-off a co-op restaurant-hotel funded by outside grants, it went bankrupt. Unlike Tolantongo, socios had not developed the needed business skills over a period of self-capitalization (

In regard to women's lack of voice in the governance of the co-op, Pablo anticipated change in the future. The co-op is providing funding for their daughters to be educated. Likely these women will be future leaders in the co-op and the discrepancy between their contribution to the co-op and their lack of power will be too visible to go unresolved.

Having had chambermaid and waiting jobs in our youth, we understand George Orwell's account of the resentment smoldering behind the scenes among workers who produce the pleasures offered by restaurants and resorts. In the kitchen of an elegant restaurant described in Down and Out in London and Paris, those feelings were epitomized by garnishing soups for obnoxious customers with spit. Tolantongo is the reverse. Neither its workers nor its owners are ashamed of exploitative relations of production between them, because the workers are the owners and there is no exploitation. Indeed, visitors' knowledge that Tolantongo's soul is a free bond that replaces the usual coercion of employees by bosses, is among the pleasures of the place. More explicit sharing of this pride with visitors would benefit Tolantongo as well as the co-op movement. Repeated studies show consumers trust cooperatives more than they do investor-owned firms.

So there is an alternative! Cases like Tolantongo are not everywhere, and they take lots of collective work, but their sheer existence is evidence that the willed ignorance of how commodities are produced is not necessary. They establish that exploitation-free relations of production are possible after all. For in that canyon those relations are, or could be made to be, almost as beautiful as the place.

The authors have been members of GEO's editorial board since 1994. Along with Cliff DuRand, they were instrumental in founding the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico ( in 2004.


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