When I told my friends I was going to be working in San Antonio, most people said “in Texas?!”  and gave me a weird look.  I interpreted this as ‘I thought you were going somewhere cool, like Bolivia or Peru’, and ‘I thought microfinance was only in poor countries’.

Me at the Main Plaza

Me at the Main Plaza

So far, though, Texas is turning out to be very pleasant. It’s full of good and quirky food, lots of art, and sunshine. Every time I look outside, my instincts say ‘get outside and enjoy it while it lasts!’  I’m not used to the idea that it will be almost constantly sunny.  I’m also not used to seeing such obvious economic disparities.  I think the famous River Walk epitomizes this.  On ground level, tourists and locals stroll by the river, next to fancy bars and shops.  Up one story, at street level, there’s a variety of people waiting for the bus; businessmen, working-class folks, and the homeless.  Oh, and ants.  They seem to be everywhere.

San Antonio River Walk, by the art museum

San Antonio River Walk, by the art museum

But I’m loving San Antonio.  Especially the people! Most folks seem to speak a mixture of Spanish and English.  Not Spanglish, per se.  They just use whatever language best communicates what they’re saying – even if that means alternating every few words.  People are also extremely friendly.  My co-workers have welcomed me with open arms.  They’ve made time to explain their work to me, despite having a lot on their plate.  And boy are they busy!  Several people were working on Saturday this past week, and a number came in on Veteran’s day (which they have off).

As for the other objection I heard to going to Texas, that microfinance is only in developing countries, it’s just not true.  Nor has it been true for a long time. ACCION Texas-Louisiana was established in 1994 and is the largest of several hundred microfinance organizations serving the US.  It’s because there’s need for it. ACCION Texas-Louisiana receives about 350 loan applications each month; much more than they can support.  There are definitely small businesses in the US that need access to funds, especially in these economic times.

One employee, originally from Mexico, said she was shocked to see poverty when she moved here.  She had always thought that the only people who didn’t have things in the US were migrants.  She was surprised to see there are poor people here, and a lot of need. She believes that a lot of it comes down to financial literacy. The main reason she thinks people have poor credit is because they don’t understand how to build their credit.   Or even what credit is. Or how loans work.  There are people who don’t trust banks because they don’t understand them.

ACCION Texas-Louisiana building

ACCION Texas-Louisiana building

That’s not to say that people here are desperately poor compared to the rest of the world.  As Casey has said, microfinance in the US looks very different from microfinance abroad.  But I think Libby Parsons, Kiva Coordinator at ACCION Texas-Louisiana, put it best when she told me “Microfinance in the US isn’t about poverty, it’s about creating opportunity – about economic development.”  And it’s clear that ACCION Texas-Louisiana supports economic development here.  From 1994 to 2009 their clients sustained over 4,000 jobs and created almost 2,200 new ones!  Given the current worries about the US economy and its global impact, that’s a big deal.

So I’m excited to be here in exotic Texas.  Excited to discover a new part of my country, to learn what microfinance is like here, and maybe see where it’s headed.   Here’s to una nueva adventura!

Bridget Lewis is a Kiva Fellow at ACCION Texas-Louisiana in San Antonio, Texas.  To help drive economic development in Texas and Louisiana, join the ACCION Texas-Louisiana lending team!


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