Uncomfortable Conversations: Money Stories

Marina Lopez with Jose Marcos Lopez (my Papa)

Like Mama Zoila always used to say, “If you don’t have ten feet to put shoes on, then you don’t need ten pairs of shoes, you need only one pair.” 


In 2021 I started Uncomfortable Conversations, a series of conversations that invites people into discomfort as a place of discourse and connection. I begin by asking people to identify a word or topic that makes them uncomfortable and then we use that as a starting place for a conversation. Both verbal and non-verbal dialogue serve as the medium to trace back pathways to locate the roots and home of discomfort that reside within us as individuals, and form our social and cultural sinew. In the inaugural conversation with artist Caroline Woolard, which was shared in the Fall 2021 edition of the SoFA Journal, we spoke about ‘money.’ Without being prompted, every subsequent participant has chosen to center their conversation around money. Their choice has beautifully shaped the first iteration of Uncomfortable Conversations around our ‘money stories.’ 

In tracing money stories with my participants, I become curious about the roots of my own relationship to money. I realized that my experiences were deeply informed by those of my parents and their parents before them. So, I invited my Papa to be a part of Uncomfortable Conversation, Money Stories as an integral part of this project. 

My Papa, Jose Marcos Lopez Fosenca (he was told to drop his name, Fonseca when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1986 because it would make paperwork easier) is the son of una mujer poderosa y fuerte, mi abuela (my grandmother) Mama Zoila. He grew up in La Polka, Mexico, a small fishing and agricultural village in the southernmost state in Mexico with his twelve siblings. They called him El Gato, the cat for his wild adventures and larger than life stories. And I grew up with these stories of his life: The six year old who supported his family. A lone seven-year-old boy traversing seemingly endless dirt roads lined by translucent figures caught between worlds to get his education. His days began in the dark on fishing boats floating in waters of the painted dawn. His small body sprawled across still train tracks; hot blood saturated thick silk hair of youth, trickled down his spine as he oriented himself to home. Dust kicking up on feet still soft with innocence. His mother, “la Bruja” with her salves and remedies. These characters always made their way in and out of the stories that interlaced themselves into my childhood. His words spilled out in a manner that captivated the magic of life. These well-worn stories have existed as abstract legends that have deeply informed my own beliefs about the world, where I come from and who I can be. But I realized that unlike most folklore, I could speak with the author of these stories to uncover nuance, truth, and the beating heart within them. That is what you’ll find in the conversation below as we start with the prompt of, ‘money.’ 

Marina Lopez greeting her Papa, Jose Marcos Lopez at her 8th birthday party in New Paltz, NY (1999) with his Taxi Cab behind them. [He must have just finished with 12 hours of work and come straight to the party]. 

Jose Marcos Lopez: We [humans] don’t create anything.We create paper and we give it some value.

Marina Lopez: Yeah. [giggles] It’s true.

Marcos: It’s like the gold. Gold you can find somewhere and we put a value. We don’t create anything. We don’t have any power. We think we are powerful, but we are not because we don’t create anything.

Marina: Who creates it, then? Who created the world? 

Marcos: I mean we didn’t invent fish. Fish are in the ocean. People get it and eat it. We didn’t invent animals. Animals grow up. They eat and they grow anyway. We don’t do that. That was the philosophy when I was a child: we don’t create anything. In my community in La Polka, let’s say somebody passed away and everybody got together. The bakery would make bread for free. And people would bring coffee to share. And whoever had animals, would give something for free. The builders would go and dig the hole and make the tomb for free. People helped each other. If you wanted to build a little house the whole community would come and help. The people who were building the house provided food for those people, no money. And they made sure that everyone was okay. When I was growing up in my little La Polka all adults took care of the kids when they played. That was in my time. Now it’s different. But the money wasn’t important for us.  

Marina: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful way to live. 

Marcos: We understand when we pass away, you bring nothing. You don’t bring your big house, your gold stuff, your whatever. You don’t bring anything. Even now I ask myself, what is my goal in my life? My life is about being happy. 

Marina: I love that Papa. You’ve always told me that. 

Marcos: Just be happy. It’s not a big deal for me to pass away. It’s a part of the life. We give value to the paper. And our society brainwashes people where you are made to feel you are more important than someone else. If you have education then the system tells you that you are better than whoever doesn’t have an education. And this is not true. Because everyone is the same. A lot of people have the opportunity to get an education and a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to get an education. But everybody has abilities and gifts.

Money for me is not the most important thing in life. Always I have something to share. You know, I don’t remember one day (in my life) that I didn’t eat because I didn’t have any food. I don’t remember that you guys (my children) didn’t eat because you didn’t have any food at home.

I was blessed to have a job and make some money. Not for me, but for my family. Because if I have something, I share. For me it’s not a big deal to share. To help somebody to solve any problem they have. That comes from my community and Mama Zoila too (Marina’s Abuela). 

Mama Zoila was the kind of person with a good heart and helped people. Mama Zoila picked up kids from the street and brought them home to eat. Mama Zoila collected clothes and visited places to give people what they needed. For example, on Sunday she made a lot of food and she’d send a portion of the food to the neighbors for free. If someone stole a chicken and one of my sisters saw that and my sisters would get upset. And Mama Zoila always said to her, “If that person would have asked you for chicken, would you have given it?” And my sister would say, “No!” “That’s why she stole it because she needs it and she knew that if she asked you, you were not going to give it to her. So she’s getting something that she really needed.” And my sister would say, “You’re crazy!” And Mama Zoila would say, “Yeah, I know I’m crazy.” 

I was the first professional, not only in my family, but the first engineer in my town. Before me were two teachers. One of them was my friend. One passed away. But to study for engineering, I was the first one in the whole town of La Polka. 

Marina: Wow! That’s amazing.

Marcos: And without help. Because nobody helped me. In La Polka we didn’t have fifth and sixth grade, so I went to Tonalá to do my middle school. When I finished at 15, I went to Paredón for military school and finally to Vera Cruz to get my college degree. Then you know the story, I came over here (the U.S.) and I went to SUNY New Paltz to get my education [Bachelor’s in education]. 

Image from google maps that shows the relationship between La Polka (bottom right), Tonalá (middle point) and Pardedón (left). Mapping the paths my Papa traveled by foot, bus, and train to get his education. 

After I finished my degree in Vera Cruz, I went to work in the state of Oaxaca and I was an engineer. One day I asked [my friend] to go eat and he started crying. And I said, “Did I say something that hurt you?” And he said, “No. I’m crying because I’m working but I haven’t gotten paid for more than three months.” I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to pay for it.” We went, I got some extra money and I gave it to him for his family. He tried to say “No”. And I said, “Yeah this is for your family.” And later on he tried to pay me back and I said, “Roberto, I don’t really need it.” When you see somebody that has more need than you, help that person. And even years later he reminds me of that all the time. I remember because he reminds me. 

[Both laugh] 

Life is too short mama. Life is a miracle. Life is too simple. We complicate it. 

Marina: Yeah, I know. I always think about you saying that when things feel really hard. 

Marcos: Life is simple. Like Mama Zoila always used to say, “If you don’t have ten feet to put shoes on, then you don’t need ten pairs of shoes, you need only one pair.” 

But money is not the most important for me. You have money as a survival resource. But it’s not the most important [thing] for human beings. You can have a lot of money, but if you don’t have health, money doesn’t count. If you are not happy, what is the money for? A lot of people have money and they use a lot of drugs. They use it [money] in a bad way. They pay to kill somebody. It’s not good. 

Marina: Yeah that’s true. And when you moved to the U.S. with Mamí, how did your life change? 

Marcos: Well, I was a professional over there [in Mexico] and when I moved here [to the U.S.] I started from the bottom and that’s different. It changed everything. It changes your social and economic circles. 

Marina: If you could have done anything in your life, what would you have done?  Either in Mexico or in the U.S. What was your biggest dream to do with your life? What do you think you would have wanted to do? 

Marcos: I don’t know. Because for a long time I didn’t believe that everything happened for a reason. In Mexico I had a good job but the corruption of systems wasn’t good either. There was no safe place to live. You don’t know anything from today to tomorrow. You could have a job today but tomorrow they could tell you, “Sorry we don’t need you anymore.” 

Marina: Yeah so there was no security. No safety. 

Marcos: Yeah no safety or security. Over here [the U.S.] it’s a little different. The system is a little different. 

Marina: Yeah. There’s a little more security in some ways. And for you education has been something that has given you some security and also allowed you to move in different circles. Were there things in school that you got to study that you really enjoyed?

Marcos: Yeah I liked to study everything and especially Latino History. We read a lot and studied deeply about Latin American countries. We read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And we read a lot of books about Europe and Russia. It opened my eyes about how different cultures are.  

Marina: That’s really cool. And now you study a lot about different forms of spirituality, religion, and from different teachers. Do you think that is part of where your interest came from because you, at an early age, got to learn about other cultures?

Marcos: No, I mean, I read a lot about different religions in my country. The seminary [General Theological Seminary, NY] opened my mind more. Some of my professors were Vatican advisors and they had a lot of education around religion, economics, and politics. 

Marina: Did they talk about how religion was related to the economic and political things that were happening?

Marcos: Oh yeah! Religion is economical. Religion doesn’t really teach spirituality, it teaches rules. Most religions take money from the poor and you can see at this point in Latin America the Catholic religion is not growing a lot. They brainwash people. All systems do this but especially religions. That’s why at this point in history a lot of people don’t believe in the main Catholic religion because they see a lot of priests abuse kids. A lot of people in society are waking up. They don’t obey the religion as much anymore. They don’t obey the politicians. They don’t obey the government. That’s why the wealthy people were thinking about how they control the societies and they use religion. Everything happens for some reason. You don’t necessarily know what’s going on from one moment to another one. Just like you never know when you’re going to pass away. 

Marina: Yeah that’s true. In many ways, religion upholds hierarchical power structures where the people at the top with all the money and power make all of the rules, and everyone else is forced to follow them. 

Marcos: Yeah. The system tells you that if you have more money you are superior or if you have more education you are superior. We classify people. That’s why we have wealthy class, poor class, and working class people. And it’s unfair, but this is the system. 

Marina: But in your work in Mexico, you were starting fishing cooperatives, right? Helping people to learn about the benefits of working together instead of independently. What was that work like?

Marcos: It was like three or four careers in one: it’s marine biology, economics, and how does the project affect and benefit the community. We studied the land through topography and how the land behaves with the water. We made shrimp farms. We’d make big holes in the land so that the water filters more easily. We studied shrimp and the whole life cycle. From little one to big one. 

Marina: You would go into the communities along the coast. What else would you teach people about? Would you teach them about the economics of it too?

Marcos: Yeah. I helped them to set up the fishing cooperative. I helped them to see the benefit of working in groups. Together. Not as individuals. I taught them how as one person the whole production exploits them. How the profits only benefit one person. But as a group there was so much more benefit. A lot of people woke up and started believing in the power of working as a group. And they’d change the director every year or two years. 

Marina: Oh, wow! And did they see a benefit? 

Marcos: Well, let’s see, in one group when I came, they didn’t have transportation as a group. When they worked together, they bought a car. When they worked together, they established the price of their product that was competitive. Before it was that someone would come and tell them, “I’ll pay this much for a kilo of shrimp.” So they didn’t set the price themselves. But now, they had three or four people who wanted their product, so it was more like an auction where one person would say, “I’ll give you 5 pesos Mexicano per kilo,” the other says, “No I’ll pay seven, no I’ll pay ten.” And whoever can pay the most, the whole co-op approves that. That was the benefit. 

Marina: That’s really cool. Did you enjoy helping communities in that way?

Marcos: Yeah! Always I helped the community. Not only in that way, I helped in many ways. 

Marina: Yeah. I mean, so much of your work since I’ve known you— because I didn’t know then— has been about helping your community. I remember how you really helped to create the Latino community in the churches in upstate New York. And even in the teaching that you do,  it’s much more of a community. You teach more than just the content of the course. I remember hearing you talk about religion, spirituality, your philosophy on life, and engaging them in critical conversions about the world and their experiences in it. 

Marcos: Yeah. When you were a little one I was working with Migrant Ministry. We helped people who got sick and anything the community needed. If they needed to go to the police or fill out forms, find shelter – anything. I worked with the clinic. You’d see how many people don’t have anything. They complain that they have pain, but they don’t know how to get the benefits or navigate the healthcare system. It was amazing how people never went to the doctor because they thought that because they worked on the farm they didn’t have any right to go. 

Like Irina and Gerónimo. One day I went to the farm and she said, “I have a pain in my belly” and I said, “Go to the doctor.” The doctor thought I was her husband, I said, “No I’m not her husband.” He said, “She’s not going to leave today.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “She’s going to have her baby now. She’s pregnant and going into labor. How long has it been since she’s seen the doctor?” I said, “I don’t know.” I asked her and she said she saw a doctor once. 

Marina: Wow! 

Marcos: And then the baby was born in the hospital. A lot of stories like that. 

Marina: Did you ever think about helping farm workers create a cooperative?

Marcos: No. In Mexico, yes. Not here. 

Marina: It’s interesting because in the last four years, I’ve been doing a lot of work with cooperative economics and the benefits to the people and often even the land.  So it’s cool for me to learn more about the work you did in Mexico because I’ve never heard the details. Doing the work I do now with cooperative economies feels like it’s a part of my family history and your legacy; what you have passed on to me.  

Marcos: Well over here it’s different working in groups. Helping groups is easier. In Mexico helping people is more difficult and dangerous. Because of the caciques. Caciques means the person who controls the one little community, a rural community, an urban community. If someone comes and goes against the interest of the caciques, who is the controller, they’ll try to kill or silence you. 

Marina: So it’s more dangerous to organize there.

Marcos: Yeah. That’s why I helped people, but what I did was behind the scenes. I created a group leader in the community and I taught them how groups have rights and obligations. I taught them and they taught the rest of the community. So when the caciques became aware of the organizing happening, there wasn’t a main leader in the group. The caciques couldn’t do anything. Because if I try to be macho and take credit for myself, they would have killed me. You didn’t have a chance. Now it’s different. The president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] that we have now in Mexico, is a person who wants to help the whole country. 

Marina: Have you seen changes in organizing people because of him being in office? Do you think there’s more possibilities for cooperatives in Mexico now because of him being in power?

Marcos: Yeah, because the whole system is changing now. The time I was there, the corruption came down from the president to the lowest positions in society. The police could kill you and nothing would happen. The narco traffickers could kill you and nothing happens. The politicians stole a lot of money and nothing happened. Now it’s different. The politicians steal money and something happens. The president has been there for three years now and it’s changed a lot. They created a new system. The leaders are not corrupt. Any leader who is corrupt is taken away. It’s not like, “Oh I can be corrupt and nothing will happen.” 

The president has changed so many things. For example, he forces people to pay taxes. Under the other presidents for 50 or 60 years, the corporations didn’t pay any taxes. The banks didn’t pay taxes. The president holds a conference every morning for three hours, La Mañanera. In those three hours he informs the whole country about what’s going on. For a long time, the narco-traficos controlled most of the country. But now Manuel López Obrador says, “Abrazos no Balazos” (Hugs, not Bullets). And he came fighting the whole system. In the 70’s the newspapers and the TV said that he was going to make them communista. Two elections were stolen from him in 2006 and 2012 [because in Mexico elections are every six years]. And this last one, he won the election. It’s said that a politician paid $25 million to try and have him killed. 

Since the 1990’s, Mexico has bought half of the oil refineries in Texas. Under the other presidents, the country didn’t see one penny of profits but in the last three years, this president has collected maybe $400 or 500 million dollars. A lot of presidents in the past have asked for a lot of money from the Banco Monetario Internacional. That bank belongs to the wealthiest families. Most presidents come to ask for money and in exchange they have to give the bank the country’s resources. In the past, Mexico’s presidents asked for a lot of money, they gave the resources to the corporations, and then they stole money that’s supposed to help the country, and the public paid the price of being in debt. 

In the past if you stole money as a politician and nothing would happen, it was fine. But now if you steal money, this president has changed the rules. If you have money that’s not yours, it’s a crime. But the process of change is not easy. 

Marina: Well, it’s been that way for a long time, so it will take time.

Marcos: All of this corruption started in the 70’s and 80’s. I remember the head of the Department of Security of Mexico was a friend of the president and when he started his term he only had an elementary school education but was working high up in the government. Some newspapers investigated him and they discovered so many mansions in Mexico. One place he had 600 cars he imported from another country. Millions and millions of dollars. Wealthy, not rich, wealthy. Now it’s different. This president has made a pension for all the older people. I think if you’re 65 and older, you get a pension. Like people here have social security. Before they got it, but it was like $20 a month and that was the pension [laughs]. It used to be that they had to go through a hard bureaucratic system, but now it’s direct. Now people have a debit card and they can go to the bank. Yeah the president has a lot of projects he’s started in Mexico like El Tren Maya, airports, and creating hospitals. It’s a lot. I like him. 

Marina: Oh yeah. You know a lot about him and the work he’s doing. Have you ever thought about being a politician or running for office? 

Marcos: No. 

Marina: You never wanted to?

Marcos: No. They offered me like three times over here in Newburgh. 

Marina: Really?! For what position? 

Marcos: For a representative for the Latino community or an advisor on the Latino Community. They came several times to my house and said, “We would like for you to run for that position and blah blah blah.” And I said, “No, no, no, no.” And they asked why and I said, because, I help a lot with what I do now. And I’m working full time. I don’t think I have time to go to meetings and go to this place and that. And politics are so easy to get in trouble. If somebody doesn’t like you, they kill somebody and they say, ‘Lopez sent to kill them.’” Not easy.  

Marina: So you felt like you could have a bigger impact in your community with the work you were already doing?

Marcos: Yeah, and that’s why I said, no, no, no, no. I need peace. I don’t need problems.

Marina: I remember when Matthew [my older brother] and I would be with you in Newburgh, young gang members would come up and give you big hugs and say, “Mr. Lopez!” You’d tell us about how this kid, or that kid was getting into trouble in school and got suspended or expelled. That’s how you ended up working with and getting to know them because you were doing home tutoring at the time. I loved hearing about how working with you impacted their life. Like they’d be several grades behind in math and you’d explain it in a way that they finally understood it. Or they couldn’t read well and you’d find ways to work with them and they’d start to feel more confident. I always thought it was like a super power how you could work with anyone and help inspire them. And not just the kids, but because you also worked in their homes, you had a positive influence on their parents too. I love how you’ve used your education and life experiences to affect change for so many people. 

Marcos: Oh yeah. When you have an education, you can reach more people in different ways. You have a little more power to help people in easier ways. Let’s say you want to evangelize people but you go house by house because you don’t have a church, but if you become a priest or a pastor, then you can have a building and you can reach more people. In my case it was the same because I said, people don’t know the rules about co-ops, and they don’t know the technique to cultivate shrimp. I would like to learn and know so that I can help them. When you do something that you like and love, money comes by itself. You don’t even know where the money comes, but it comes from different sources. That’s my experience. It’s like when you lose something in your house and you look so hard you’re not going to find it. When you relax it comes along, “Oh it’s here!” For me it’s the same. 

I didn’t study because I wanted a lot of money. I could have sold drugs and gotten a lot of money easily. I’m smart enough to make that kind of business successful [laughing]. But that was my perception when I was a kid, when I was a little one; to become a professional to help and reach more people in different ways. That’s why I studied there and that’s why I studied here. If I wanted money I could have learned construction and built houses and made money and that’s it. But I wanted to help people in different ways through education. I reached a lot of people in the school. I had 105 kids every year just in the school. Then I had like 100 people every year at the college. To help them. At this time, it’s time for me to relax and have it be easier in my life. 

Marina: Yeah. You’ve worked so hard!

Marcos: I still work a little bit, but not like I used to. I still help my people in Mexico. My Aunt passed away so I sent some money. Or my Nephew, someone stole his gas tank so I sent some money. Now Ricardo, my brother’s ex-wife, has cancer and they call me so I’m helping them too. Your Tio Hiero’s kid, Marcitos is going to get married. Hiero called and said, “‘Manito, you know, help me out. My son is going to get married.” I said, “But it’s not my fault.” [both laugh] He said, “No, we’re going to make a party, can you send something?” I said, “Okay, I will try.” When they call me and say, “Tio, it’s my birthday I want you to send me some money.” I say, “For fun I don’t send any money, but for emergencies, I will try. But if you want a party, call everybody who’s going to come to the party and collect something. For fun I don’t have any penny. But when you have some emergency, why not, I try.” This is me. 

At the end of the life, everything we do, we live happily or unhappily. Because at the end of the life, everybody passes away. This is the truth. Sooner or later, everybody passes away. And we came to this world to be happy, not to be unhappy. Most people are unhappy, not because they want to be unhappy, but it’s the system. The system forced them to do something that they don’t want to do. Or they want to do something, but they cannot afford to do that. And they don’t have the energy or support to fight and get whatever they want to get. They lost the faith to do that. In a Christian life, most Christians don’t have faith. That’s why they asked God, “God give me that, God give me that, God, God, God.” In a spiritual way, we do not ask, we give thanks. “Thank you for whatever I have. Thank you for whatever I don’t have. I don’t have it because I don’t need it. I have it because it’s a gift.” At the end of the life, we have to be busy in some way. And whatever you have, you don’t take it with you when you pass away. If you have a beautiful big house, if you pass away today, you’re not going to take it with you. 

Marina: Nope. It stays here. Yeah. Thank you, Papa. You’re so wise. 

Marcos: Yeah I mean mija, life is too short. Life is so beautiful. Life is a miracle. Life is so simple. We are complicated, not life. Today we are here. Tomorrow, we don’t know. Later in my life I have an understanding about human beings. 

Marina: I love you. We’ll talk soon. 

Jose Marcos Lopez Fonseca was born in La Polka, Mexico, a small fishing and agricultural village off the coast of Southern Mexico. He is the son of una mujer poderosa y fuerte, Zoila Fonseca. He began working at six years old to support his family of 12 siblings. His community embodied the values of cooperative economics and he often bartered his labor for food and goods his family needed. Marcos is one of the few of his siblings to have finished elementary school let alone high school. He is also the first person in his community to earn a Bachelor’s Degree which he received from Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico in Science. As an engineer and marine biologist, he worked along the coastal communities with fishermen in Mexico to adapt cooperative practices and implement best practices. On Christmas Day, 1986 he landed on U.S. soil for the first time in New York City and the next day welcomed his son into the world. Five years later, after the birth of his daughter, he began his studies at State University of New York at New Paltz where he would earn his Bachelor’s of Education. He also continued to explore his interest in theology at the General Theological Seminary in NYC.He has dedicated his life to helping people meet their needs, build community, and use education as a vehicle for connection and inspiration. He has instilled in his children to give generously, to care for others, and to find happiness in their lives. 

Marina Maria Lopez is the daughter of this incredible man. His experiences, philosophy on life, and stories have deeply informed the ways in which she understands the world and her commitment to justice and equity. She is a performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Care work is culture work. As an artist, her work is an interdisciplinary weaving of many voices that links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a co-organizer and creative collaborator with Art.Coop and co-coordinates a national Arts, Culture, Care and Solidarity Economy working group. Marina seeks to create work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society and brings these undervalued, but essential elements into relationship within a public-sphere that creates access to embodiment as an experience, but also as discourse. Her work challenges the status quo of who we as a society uplift as expert voices, and inspires curiosity, collaboration, and solidarity.

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