My name is Gabriela Gómez Ferrer. I was born in Mexico City a bit more than 5 decades ago, and this is my story:
Embracing the Unknown: The Decision to Move to South Africa
I have always believed that opportunities only come once in a lifetime. And when they happen, at that very moment and place, you have to grab them and say ‘YES.’ That is exactly how my life in Africa began, giving me the great opportunity to represent my beloved Mexico on this faraway continent.
It was very late in a rainy summer night in Mexico City, in June 1995. The phone rang and woke us up. It was my husband’s boss calling from Chicago, and he wanted an immediate response – ‘Gaby, do you want to emigrate to South Africa?’ We had recently moved to a newly built home in the south suburbs of an already very busy and overcrowded Mexico City. My kids, Hector Jr., was five years old and Ana Sofia, a baby of only two. They were very happy at the preschool, and I had just finished my university degree in Neurolinguistics and Psychopedagogy.
A New Beginning in South Africa
Héctor was the general manager of an American food manufacturing company that was looking into broadening its expansion at an international level by investing in a new factory, offering him a partnership with an initial 4-year contract. But South Africa? Hundreds of thoughts were crossing my mind at that moment. The latest international news was about Nelson Mandela and the country opening to the world. Apartheid and safaris, lions, and elephants – my mind was filled with curiosity about this new adventure.
‘Gaby,’ Héctor’s voice brought me back to earth, ‘what do you think? They want an answer now.’ ‘OK,’ I replied, ‘let’s do it!’ And that is how, in January 1996, after many farewells, mixed feelings, and tears of sadness and excitement, we left Mexico and embarked on this grand life experience that has changed my life forever.
Adapting to a New Home and Business Ventures
Arriving in a completely new country was not easy, but for me, it was a challenge. I missed Mexico and my family terribly, but I had a clear vision of what my mission was as a wife and mother – to create a new home for my family. I quickly learned that when you live far from home, your friends become part of your family. To get to know, learn, and understand the new traditions and African ways of life was a total mystery.
I had to adapt to driving on the other side of the road, light the chimney in the house, and navigate the unique climate. Being so far away from Mexico made me feel more Mexican than ever, and I started to cherish my country’s traditions and share them with the people I met in South Africa.
Azteca Mexican Products: From Dream to Reality
In October 1997, the embassy of Mexico in South Africa organized a Mexican Fiesta in Johannesburg, and this event changed the course of my life. My husband was asked for assistance in setting up a tortilla machine at the event, and I supported the promotion of fresh tortillas and other products. This marked the birth of Azteca Mexican Products.
From a mom and housewife, I became a businesswoman and a partner in the company. We started small, manufacturing only a few kilos per day, but over the years, we expanded our product range and grew our business. Azteca became a significant player in the South African market, and we even started exporting products to neighboring countries.
Challenges and Growth
Over the years, our business faced challenges, including the closure of the American company we initially emigrated with. However, we decided to stay in South Africa, and Héctor joined Azteca full-time. We navigated economic ups and downs, but our dedication and hard work paid off.
Today, Azteca has more than 30 workers, most of them women whom I have taken the personal task to help and empower. We daily manufacture an average of 15 thousand tortillas and over half a ton of nachos and other corn products.
A Family’s Resilience During the Pandemic
In 2020, a new challenge arose – the COVID-19 pandemic. While I was visiting my parents in Mexico, the world changed, and borders closed. My family was separated, with my husband and son in South Africa, my daughter and me in Mexico, unable to return. This crisis tested our resilience as a family and as a business.
The pandemic forced us to adapt once again. We shifted our sales strategies, embraced online sales, and navigated the challenges of lockdowns and travel restrictions. As a family business, we made every effort to keep our staff employed and paid during these difficult times.
A New Chapter Begins
As I write these final lines, I reflect on the unexpected turns life can take. After 31 years of marriage, my husband and I decided to separate. Despite this change, we remain partners and colleagues at Azteca, working together for the company’s success.
My journey has been filled with challenges, adventures, and opportunities. After 25 years in South Africa, I am still in love with this beautiful country. I eagerly await the day when borders open again, and I can return to my home in Africa.
Through it all, I am grateful for my beautiful family and the opportunity to share Mexico on a daily basis through the products we manufacture. I look forward to saying “yes” to the next opportunity that life may bring to my path.
A Quarantine in Sonora: Cherishing Family Time
During the pandemic, I found solace in spending time with my parents and daughter in Sonora, Mexico. It allowed me to reconnect with my roots, declutter the past, and cherish the memories created in my childhood home.
While the pandemic separated my family physically, it brought us closer in spirit. We adapted to the challenges, learned from them, and remained hopeful for the future.
As I return to South Africa, I carry with me the lessons learned and the strength gained from this unexpected “opportunity of life.” Life is full of twists and turns, but it’s how we embrace them that defines our journey.
Little by little
Other customers have been able to open their doors and start working. It’s been very interesting to see how many have changed their strategy, reinvented their ways or transformed and diversified themselves and their services to keep on going. As in the whole world, cashflow is a huge problem and not only in South Africa.
It will take many months to restore and recover economically from this crisis and I hope that we don’t forget all that we have lived and gone through. To be better than yesterday. Mi home is in Africa and I eagerly await for the day that it will open borders and we will be able to return. In the mean time, we will stay home, wash our hands and keep on helping, cherishing, taking care, supporting, learning and hugging my beloved parents. And above all, giving thanks to God for this great and unexpected “opportunity of life”.
*My daughter and I returned to South Africa on 30 September 2020. I was away 7 moths and 1 week. *By the time this book was translated into English and published, many things happened that made my life once again turn 360 degrees. Almost one year after I returned to SA from my seven months exile in Mexico, Hector and I decided to end our 31 years marriage. We are both still working at Azteca as partners and business colleagues with the company’s best interest at heart.