MINERAL DE POZOS, Mexico — In a dusty two-room store near the town square, six women sat on benches at sewing machines, stitching together handmade dolls dressed in regional Mexican gowns.
A three-year-old company, named Munecas Mina — "dolls from the mine" — after the abandoned mineshafts that surround the community, has become the women's main source of income. It's also how they hope to keep their children in school instead of following their fathers to the U.S.
Josefina Mendieta's eyes swelled with tears as she explained that the needle and thread in her hands are the main reason that her 16-year-old son, Alejandro, hasn't followed his father to the United States.
"He says he wants to go north so he can buy me a truck," said Josefina, 47, wiping her tears. "I don't want him to go. I want him to stay here in school. I tell him no truck is worth losing him over."
Pozos was once a prominent silver-mining town of more than 50,000 residents. Now the community four hours northwest of Mexico City is regularly called a "ghost town" or "abandoned city." Fewer than 4,000 residents, including about a dozen American artists, live in crumbling buildings along the run-down, cobbled streets.
More than half the men of Pozos live in the United States, residents said. Everyone has a family member "in the north," and after middle school, the average 13- to 15-year-old in the state of Guanajuato travels illegally to the U.S.
The small doll company, funded by government loans, helps the women pay for their children's studies. It's an example of the efforts in some Mexican municipalities to assist women who've been left to fend for themselves and their children.
"If the mama and the papa have enough money to pay for school, the children will stay at home," said Adriana Cortes Jimenez, the director of the nonprofit Community Foundation of the Bajio, who helped the women get a $10,000 loan four years ago to start their business.
They bought materials and sewing machines. Most of them had little to no sewing experience, but they wanted to do something productive and help their families financially.
The first dolls were "horrid," said Rosa Orozco Arredondo, 47, who's been with the company from the start. "They were ugly, their legs were bent all over the place and their butts were huge."
Cortes organized a visit from a professional doll maker, who helped the women design a model for Munecas Mina.
Last October they made their final loan payment. They're now seeking a $5,000 loan to develop a business plan to improve the marketing and distribution of the dolls.
Fabric and thread in green, white and red — the colors of the Mexican flag — are spread throughout the tiny adobe factory. Dolls in various stages of dress line sewing tables. Dozens of finished dolls are stacked on metal display shelves.
The women make more than 20 different dolls in various regional festival dresses, including the Charra or "cowgirl" of Michoacan and China Poblana from Puebla, who's dressed in the colors of the Mexican flag. The "Adelita," wearing a straw hat and flowered dress, is named after the female soldiers who fought alongside the men in Mexico's revolutionary war.
The women don't make much yet, about $150 a month each, but they say that helps pay for school uniforms, books and extracurricular activities.
For many of them, the success of the business will help to determine whether their children finish their educations, Cortes said.
"If this business doesn't survive, their children will likely have to go to the States," she said, "because they don't have other alternatives."
Emma Mendieta, Josefina's sister, shudders at the idea of her oldest son, Jose Miguel Velasquez, spending three days in the desert — not to mention thousands of dollars they don't have, to pay for a guide — trying to get to the United States, where she wouldn't see him except perhaps every other year.
Velasquez, 19, who's studying information systems at a nearby college, said that several of his friends already had moved to the U.S. He hears their tales of living hundreds of miles from their families and working 10- and 12-hour shifts in grueling jobs. He wants no part of it. He said he was lucky that he hadn't had to make such a tough decision.
"I've been able to stay in school because of the money my mother makes," Velasquez said. "I don't have to go to the United States."
(Ordonez writes for The Charlotte Observer.)