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Amid Low Employment, More Mexican Women Become Nenis To Earn An Income

Faced with the global economic slowdown, Mexican women have taken the reins of their income.

MEXICO CITY — In Mexico, a ‘neni’ is a woman who sells a little of everything. But what does the term ‘neni’ mean?

“I love it,” said Jamín López Kuri, a 30-year-old plastic artist, tarot reader, and mother of two children. “The term makes me think of female empowerment, of the desire to continue improving our conditions in the face of adversity. Some nenis are single mothers, while others are girls working to pay for their school. For me, ‘neni’ is a compliment: a term of feminine power.”

Due to the country’s economy, the scarcity of formal jobs, or just to make an extra income, many women in Mexico City seek this business alternative.

The word ‘neni’ emerged on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, as a way for saleswomen to refer to their clients when chatting with them. It would not be uncommon to see messages such as ‘Of course, neni, I will get it for you;’ ‘Neni, see you there at the given time!’; or ‘Neni, I am slammed at the moment, could we reschedule for a later time?’

But despite their recent popularity in social media, nenis have existed for a long time. Since the mid-1970s, many women would gather with their friends and acquaintances and offer them kitchen utensils, inexpensive beauty products, and more. Social media and online payment systems have benefited these women by providing them with an agile tool to contact new customers.

Cafés, subway stations, plazas and shopping malls — any place is a good place to close a deal.

Nenis offer their merchandise on social media, and the client contacts the seller through Messenger or WhatsApp. They negotiate for a fair price, the client deposits the money, and then they agree on a place and time for the delivery.

Jazmín Mendiola says that she can spend more time with her children since becoming a neni. (Courtesy Jazmín Mendiola)

The female workforce

According to the Labor Participation of Women in Mexico report from the World Bank in 2020, Mexico’s female participation in the workforce is low compared to countries with a similar economy, which implies high economic costs.

The same study indicates that only 45 percent of Mexican women of working age are part of the labor force, a percentage lower than the average among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries and other Latin American countries.

The study also points out that if Mexico were to implement policies to increase women’s labor force participation — in line with the results observed in prosperous countries — it would lead to an economic growth of 0.4 percent per year.

The power is in the women’s hands

Some women are hoping to break the trend.

“Since I was a child, I loved the art world and, at the age of 25, I decided to take it seriously,” López Kuri said. “I became a member of Coyoacán’s Plastic Arts Society. Thus, I could exhibit my work and earn some extra money. Painting has always been an emotional catharsis, and if it brings an extra income, even better. I also work as a tarot reader, craft talismans, and so on,” she said.

Happy with what she does, she asks women who want to follow their dreams to “lose their fears and their embarrassment. Fear paralyzes oneself, and the other people’s opinion of us do not put food on our plates, only our perseverance.”

Another neni, Mari Carmen Jiménez, 36, sells beauty products. Her entrance to the world of informal selling began almost accidentally.

“Some years ago, I wanted to give out some Christmas gifts, and a friend told me about a way to gain a bit of extra income. That is how I joined, to gain some extra money,” she said.

Jazmín Mendiola, 37, studied law and practiced it for a time. But her income was low, and she had little time with her children.

“I decided to put aside my profession and dedicate myself to selling products — to be a neni. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur so that my income would equate to my efforts. It was a great decision. I sell high-quality beauty products, and my earnings are quite good,” she said.

Mendiola says the benefits of being a neni include scheduling her work hours, immediate production on social media, the chance to meet people across the country, and time to spend with her family.

“I can work from wherever I am since I only need to use my cell phone,” she said.

The challenges they face

Just as with any other type of work, there are drawbacks to being a neni.

The main problem that López Kuri faces as a visual artist who sells her work online is “the scarcity of opportunities and spaces, as well as a lack of government support for the arts and that, at times, art has a low revenue for us artists.”

“The main problem I have faced is that the clients find the product expensive,” Jiménez said. “Another complicated situation is when customers cancel a purchase when I already have the product at hand to deliver it.”

Jamín López Kuri sells her art and is responsible for her own time and income. (Courtesy Jamín López Kuri)

Mendiola says that “there is unfair competition. Some girls waste their products or sell clones. Some others even ‘steal’ both clients and places, not allowing other women to sell in their’ territory.’ Moreover, there is still some bias regarding online shopping, as some clients still distrust it.”

Nenis and their pride

Despite the setbacks they face, these three women take pride in being nenis.

“[Neni] is a hallmark of those women who decide to become entrepreneurs and obtain an income differently,” Mendiola said. “We are part of a group of women who take advantage of social media to obtain profits and bring good products to our clients and our families. It is a job that requires a lot of courage to forget other people’s opinions and focus on our goals. To be a neni is to become both a leader and a self-taught entrepreneur.”

For her part, although Jiménez does not get bothered by the word, she admits that no one has called her neni. “The term itself does not bother me. It is not derogatory, but a funny and lovable word.”

She has a message for those who wish to dedicate themselves to selling products as an alternative source of money. “It is a good source for an extra income, and those who commit to it can earn a bigger profit. These women must have a can-do attitude: if they wish for their business to improve, they must work for it,” she said.

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez; edited by Melanie Slone and Kristen Butler)