A Cundina Is the Mexican Version of Mutual Aid — Here’s How to Start One Yourself

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A Cundina Is the Mexican Version of Mutual Aid — Here’s How to Start One Yourself


For the last decade, Gina Lara has spent almost every Friday evening collecting envelopes filled with about $100 in them, later using the money to deliver hope, opportunity, and community. Lara is the organizer of a Los Angeles-based cundina — also known as a tanda — a form of mutual aid common in Mexican culture. 

Each week, the cundina’s members pay a predetermined amount of money that one of them then receives as a lump sum of cash. The process repeats itself, as every person in the group becomes the recipient of the pooled funds at least once. Centered on the collective, cundinas allow the members to save more money than they might otherwise and access no-interest loans.

“Any time you have more than one Mexican, you’ll probably find a tanda,” says Carlos Vélez-ibáñez, a regents’ professor at Arizona State University who has researched Mexican culture for almost 50 years. 

While a lifeline in Mexican communities, the concept is not limited to this group or just Latin America, where they are also known as cuchubales and juntas, among other names, depending on the region. You can find versions of a tanda worldwide, including in the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa.

“Centered on the collective, cundinas allow the members to save more money than they might otherwise and access no-interest loans.”

NATALIE ARROYO CAMACHO

Regardless of where the cundina springs up, there’s one crucial component to a successful lending circle: trust. “Tandas and cundinas are both based on confianza, the central cultural term to define intimacy and mutual trust,” says Vélez-Ibáñez, author of An Impossible Living in a Transborder World. “You don’t have written charters, per se. It’s all rooted in mutual trust.” 

It’s the reason the scam rate is so low. “If you [take the money and run], you’re rupturing those relationships,” he adds. “Therefore, you’re out alone and not trusted after that. And because you’re not trusted, you’re no longer part of those networks of support.”

Additionally, with 12.2% of Latines unbanked and 20% lacking any credit history, cundinas can even serve as “informal financial institutions,” according to Investopedia. They are “rotating savings and credit associations.” 

The term “rotating” refers to the fact that each person in the association will have a turn at receiving a payment. “Savings and credit” come in because some people will get their lump sum toward the end (savings), and others will get it during the beginning (credit). Regardless of when someone receives their payment, though, they’re still responsible for sending money to the tanda organizer every single week — or biweekly, monthly, or seasonally, depending on how the cundina is set up. 

“Any time you have more than one Mexican, you’ll probably find a tanda.”

Carlos Vélez-ibáñez

Even with a weekly payment on the lower end, participating in a cundina has a few major benefits. Primarily, it’s the financial help, which is why Dulce Serapio has run cundinas for approximately 15 years. Serapio, who first came from Puebla, Mexico, to the U.S. almost 50 years ago, says in Spanish: “For me, it’s all about the money. Each of us will essentially loan you our money, but we get a benefit, too, because we’re also getting a loan.”

As cundina organizers, Lara and Serapio determine how many people will join, how long the group will make payments, and how much one number will cost. The number corresponds to the week in which someone receives money; the organizer assigns the order before the cundina starts. For instance, the person assigned the No. 4 would receive their payment during the fourth week of the cundina.

Every participant has the choice to buy one or more numbers. As Serapio says, the more numbers someone purchases, the higher their weekly payment will be. Organizers assign a monetary value to each number and divide it by the number of weeks the cundina will run. This is the weekly payment. Whoever buys more than one number would multiply that total by the amount of numbers they purchased. (Luckily, participants don’t have to do the math, though, since the organizers will let you know the specifics.) 

For example, if each number costs $1,000 and there are 10 people — all of whom purchased one number — during a 10-week span, every person will pay $100 weekly. This also means everyone will receive $1,000 on their assigned week. In this case, the person who ends up with the No. 4 will receive $1,000 on the fourth week of the cundina, having only paid $400 up to that point. 

“On top of the financial gains, tandas offer the chance to make social connections for participants and organizers alike.”

Natalie Arroyo Camacho

There are a few considerations tanda organizers take when deciding the distribution order. Newer participants or those using this method as a savings tactic will likely end up as No. 10 as a way to — quite literally — pay their dues. 

The order of the tanda also allows for a bit of built-in safety. The organizer usually gets the first number to deter anyone from disappearing after receiving the pooled funds. By their turn, they may have invested hundreds of dollars, making it more likely they will see the process through to the end. According to Vélez-Ibáñez, fraud is rare in cundinas: “There’s a 0.005 percent chance of this happening in any cundina or tanda.” Lara and Serapio’s testimonies ring true to that, as they both say, “That’s never happened to me, but I have heard of it happening.”

On top of the financial gains, tandas offer the chance to make social connections for participants and organizers alike. As Vélez-Ibáñez and Lara point out, cundinas have allowed them to make and build on friendships. “You get to meet more people,” Lara says. “I’ve made a couple of friendships by way of the cundinas.”

How to Start a Cundina in Your Community

1. Consider the parameters of your cundina.

Serapio and Lara both advise you define your guidelines before you even reach out to potential participants. Specifically, they say, you should ask yourself:

– When does your cundina start and end?
– When are you collecting payments? When are you distributing payments?
– How many numbers (aka weeks) will be in your cundina?
– How much will those numbers cost?

Also, remember to determine how you will receive and provide cundina payments. “I prefer cash, and I think most people do, too, but I’ll take Zelle in some special cases,” Lara says. 

2. Choose the right people.

It’s admittedly hard to tell whether or not you trust someone you just met, which is why Lara and Serapio suggest inviting people you interact with regularly. Try someone you work with or a person in your inner circle of friends and family that you see frequently. 

Serapio says the sweet spot for participants is 10 to 20 people. “In order for you to have a payment that’s really worth it, you want to have at least 10 people — but you don’t want to go over 20 because that will take forever.”

3. Don’t block your blessings (or other people’s kindness).

In the early stages of her cundina-running tenure, Lara would “absolutely not accept any gifts from the participants.” But as the years have passed and she has devoted more time to organizing her cundinas (labor for which she doesn’t get paid), she changed her stance. She realized how important it was for the cundina’s confianza for her to accept the small offerings from the small community she created.

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