This article is from the June 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Jello Woman

by Bruce McGovern 

In the little village in rural Puebla where my wife was born, a lot of people supplement family income with a variety of small enterprises. This is common all over Mexico. A woman may run a small store with no more than $100 of inventory. One of our aunts, an older sister of Tia Rosa, who lives in the state of Vera Cruz, has no inventory except cold bottled pop of several flavors. 

Assuming a small store takes in a very modest 5% of each neighbor’s income, with a 20% mark‑up, and has 200 neighbors who spend that pittance, the store profit will be twice the income of the neighbors. I learned this watching my niece in Cordoba, though she had a very large inventory. 

The wife of a distant cousin makes and sells plastic cups of Jello and Jello pudding in that little rural Puebla village. Every day, she walks the dusty road to town, carrying a large basket of ‘gelatina.’ The cup is covered with a piece of thin plastic for a cover, held with a rubber band. She hands you a small, disposable plastic spoon with each cup. The plain gelatine sells for 2 pesos, about 22 cents. The pudding is 2.5 pesos, maybe 28 cents, and each pudding cup has a nut in the center of the pudding.  

She does not look Aztec like most of the local folks, but I’m not sure what difference in facial appearance leads me to that conclusion. She is attractive and sturdy, but not at all obese. She wears slacks or a skirt, and manages to always look clean, even though she has a long walk on a dusty road. 

She is strong – sometimes there is no place to sit down her basket, so she holds it with one hand during the sale. With the other hand, she digs out the cup I want, hands me the spoon, takes the money and makes change. Since I estimate she starts out with a minimum of 40 or 50 cups of gelatin, that basket must weigh 25 or more pounds. And, she comes a long way! 

She is not very friendly. But, there are several possible reasons for this. First, a married woman meeting a man alone in the road could lead to gossip, so the traditional Mexican woman sometimes remains aloof, keeping the meeting strictly to business, even if she is a friendly person. 

Second, she may, of course, simply be an unfriendly person. 

And, third, remember that she is trying to hold 25 pounds of gelatin with one hand. 

She hangs around the zócalo and market area of town for several hours, then goes down the hill. When Tia Rosa was in the hospital, I saw her sitting outside the hospital, and sometimes someone would wander over to buy a cup. 

I have tried to estimate her income. I have no idea how much it costs to produce a cup of gelatine, buy the cups, the little pieces of plastic and the rubber band, and the spoons. It is hard to believe she makes as much as 1 peso (11 cents) per cup. If she makes that much per cup, she could net about $35US per week, which would be a good income in that small village. Even at half a peso, $17.50US per week would be a good supplement, assuming her husband has another job, though he may not make much more than that. Still, her days are long. 

On Sunday, sometimes he sells the jello, though he also takes a second bag on his back. Once I bought eleven cups, and he promptly re‑filled the basket from the bag.

It is interesting to see how hard those low income people will work for that modest income. Of course, it is also amazing how much happiness they find while living on that income. But, in Mexico, if you own a house, it doesn't cost much to live when you have none of the usual luxuries, or even most things we consider necessities.