... While Mexican Women Teach Bootstrap Idea to US Sisters

IN a modest living room in this small town east of El Paso, nine local women listen intently to a presentation on grass-roots economic development and personal financial betterment.

''Each of you is starting with your enterprise at a small, individual level, but the idea is to learn concepts of price, quality, presentation, and management,'' says Eduardo Gonzalez Crosby, a director of a community-development association across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. ''By sticking to it, you will have created a small business.''

The women, who display their products on a sideboard - handmade children's clothing, ceramics, a formica cutting board in the shape of a pig - are part of a community bank-lending program recently started in Socorro, Texas.

The concept is widely employed in developing countries, but what makes the Socorro case stand out is how an idea came north to help women on the ''developed'' side of the US-Mexico border.

''The people from Juarez [Mexico] told us how they started and what they achieved, and I decided if they could do it, why couldn't we?'' says Ema, a Socorro resident who used her loan to buy the fabric, thread, buttons, and ribbon for little girls' dresses.

The ''microenterprise'' program offers very small loans - about $100 in Socorro's case - that borrowers use to buy the raw materials for handmade products. The profits pay the low interest charged to keep the community bank in the lending business and allow the women to boost family incomes.

Since the idea first came to Mexico in the late 1980s, the Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, or FEMAP, which Mr. Gonzalez helps direct, has set up 17 community banks with more than 400 members in Ciudad Juarez. Other banks operate in Tijuana and Mexicali, also on the border.

On the US side, the small town of Anthony, N.M., has a community bank, and plans are progressing to start one in central El Paso. Under a program called ''Seeds Across the Border,'' the El Paso-based FEMAP Foundation, generally dedicated to assisting social-development programs in Mexico, is helping bring Mexico's know-how to US women.

FEMAP Foundation directors see great potential for expansion in the low-income communities on the American side of the border. But one trend has them worried: the growing difficulty people are having in legitimately crossing the border, a side effect of the American crackdown on illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

''The majority of the Mexican participants needs to cross the border to buy materials, and some of the women on this side sell their products over there,'' says Helenmarie Zachritz, the foundation's executive director. ''The conditions are making crossing more difficult, and that's really too bad,'' she says. ''That exchange is a big part of both social and economic development.''

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