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Episode 74: El nopal es el nuevo cuero (Cactus is the New Leather)

By Duolingo on Thu 28 Jan 2021

After a fortuitous encounter in Taiwan, two Mexican friends decide to transform their national symbol into an ethical alternative for the fashion industry.

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Transcript

Martina: The year was 2017, Marte Cázarez and Adrián López Velarde were living in Mexico. One night, the two friends were chatting about life as they drank tequila in Marte’s apartment.

Marte: Adrián y yo estábamos en mi apartamento en Guadalajara. Queríamos renunciar a nuestros trabajos y crear un negocio capaz de colaborar con el medio ambiente. Por eso comenzamos a hablar sobre qué tipo de proyectos nos interesaban.

Martina: Marte and Adrián had met five years earlier, while living abroad, in Taiwan. They had reconnected after moving back to Mexico. Now Marte was working in fashion, promoting Mexican brands overseas. Adrián, who worked in the automotive industry, was shipping cars, but he was looking for a change.

Adrián: A los dos nos importa mucho el medio ambiente y queríamos encontrar un material ecológico para sustituir el cuero o la piel animal que se usa para hacer carteras, cinturones, asientos y otras cosas. Comenzamos a decir las primeras palabras o materiales que se nos venían a la mente. Marte dijo: “aloe”, y yo respondí: “cactus”.

Martina: Suddenly, the two friends looked at each other. They had both just observed the same thing, at the same time: the nopal cactus, growing on Marte’s balcony. In Mexico, nopal isn't just a plant. It’s a national symbol featured in the Mexican flag. Marte had owned this particular cactus for a very long time.

Marte: Nosotros queríamos saber si el nopal, que proviene del cactus, podía usarse como piel, para revolucionar la industria de la moda y hacerla sostenible. Los dos dijimos: “¡Vamos a hacer piel de nopal!”.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

Today, Marte and Adrián, who sound pretty similar, will take turns telling their story. They’ll be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: Adrián first met Marte in 2011, at a bar in Taiwan. They immediately bonded through their shared nationality and heritage.

Adrián: Fui a Taiwán por primera vez en 2008 en un programa de intercambio. Aprendí tanto que, cuando terminé la escuela en México en 2011, regresé para estudiar en la universidad. Cuando llegué a Taiwán, lo primero que hice fue ir a un bar. Una amiga me dijo que ahí había otro mexicano y que yo tenía que conocerlo.

Martina: The other Mexican, of course, was Marte. It turned out that he had also been part of the same exchange program that first brought Adrián to Taiwan in 2008. As the two talked, Marte realized there were even more things the two of them had in common.

Marte: Yo le dije que tenía diecinueve años, y le pregunté a Adrián cuántos tenía él.

Adrián: “Yo también”, le respondí. Y le dije: “¿Cuándo es tu cumpleaños?”.

Marte: “En febrero, ¿el tuyo?”, le dije.

Adrián: “El mío también. ¿Y qué día?”, y ahí nos reímos.

Martina: Marte and Adrián had been born the same day, month, and year. Their friendship was born out of this coincidence. After eight months of hanging out together in Taiwan, Marte went back to Mexico, where he settled in Guadalajara. Adrián stayed in Taiwan to finish college.

Adrián: Terminé la universidad en Taiwán en 2015 y me quedé trabajando un tiempo. Después regresé a México, a Guadalajara. Un día, llamé a Marte porque teníamos mucho tiempo sin vernos.

Martina: Adrián asked Marte for his address in Guadalajara, then told Marte where he lived. Marte once again was shocked.

Marte: ¡Vivíamos a menos de dos cuadras! Y fue como un evento cósmico. O sea, ambos nacimos el mismo día, mes y año. Nos conocimos en Taiwán y éramos los únicos mexicanos en un grupo internacional de amigos. Y ahora... ¿esto?

Martina: As the two friends reconnected, they realized they were both very passionate about the environment. They knew that their generation was dealing with an uncertain future due to global warming, or el calentamiento global. They knew that livestock raised for leather production contributed to overuse of land and water, as well as increased gas emissions. But Adrián was convinced that this was a problem that could be solved.

Adrián: En general, mucha gente ve el problema del calentamiento global y del medio ambiente como un obstáculo. Pero para nosotros no era así y queríamos contribuir de una manera creativa. Ambos habíamos escuchado hablar sobre distintos materiales para hacer cuero o piel. Entonces decidimos explorar esa idea.

Martina: The two friends started hanging out regularly again, just as they had done in Taiwan. It was during one of these hang-outs that they came up with their idea for nopal leather. The company would combine Marte’s knowledge of the fashion industry with Adrián’s business know-how. Marte was determined to lean on the cultural importance of nopal in Mexico.

Marte: El nopal es uno de los símbolos más importantes de México. Para nosotros, es una planta que da vida porque es muy resistente y parece que nunca muere. Además, un nopal tiene muchos usos: lo comemos en tacos, lo usamos para fermentar como alcohol y hasta para mejorar las propiedades del cemento.

Martina: They were excited that this cactus might be a sustainable, ecological alternative to animal leather. Adrián already had a clear idea of how they could begin to turn their new dream into a reality.

Adrián: Comenzamos a investigar cómo transformar el nopal en un material resistente para poder hacer chaquetas, carteras, cinturones y otros accesorios de moda. Durante el día, trabajábamos y, durante la noche, buscábamos cómo transformar la materia prima en un material para la moda. Luego hablamos con nopaleras, que son las granjas donde cultivan nopales, y fue así como llegamos al rancho de don Francisco.

Martina: Don Francisco was a nopal farmer or nopalero. He had a farm outside of Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico. Marte, in particular, was excited to meet him.

Marte: Don Francisco era un agricultor de más de setenta años, con sombrero, bigote y muy amigable. Lo llamamos y nos invitó a su granja.

Martina: At first, it was hard for Don Francisco to understand what these two twenty-somethings were trying to do. It had never occurred to him that nopal could become a belt or a jacket. Adrián tried to talk him into the project.

Adrián: Le explicamos varias veces nuestro proyecto. Le dijimos que, en nuestras investigaciones, descubrimos que en otros países algunos restos de frutas sirven para fabricar materiales sostenibles. Así fue como llamamos su atención.

Martina: Don Francisco agreed to help Adrián and Marte grow the best nopal possible. Marte explained the qualities they were looking for. At the time, they were intent on getting good vegan leather samples to take with them to one of the big international fashion fairs, maybe in Italy.

Marte: Nosotros necesitábamos un tipo de nopal específico para crear un material fuerte y resistente. No podíamos usar la misma parte del nopal que se come porque es muy suave. Para esto, hay que procesar los nopales de una forma diferente. Un día fuimos a la granja y don Francisco nos dio un trozo de cactus.

Martina: This nopal was strong and durable — exactly what they were looking for. But would it work as they had imagined? The next step was to modify the nopal, so that it could become leather. For that, they had to travel to Mexico City, find a laboratory, and hire a scientist to run the tests. Getting to this stage was a big moment for Adrián.

Adrián: Pasamos a la etapa más compleja: la de la formulación. Durante esta etapa hay que hacer pruebas y estudios para unir molecularmente la materia orgánica del nopal con aditivos. Este es un trabajo que solo los científicos saben hacer, así que los buscamos e iniciamos colaboraciones.

Martina: Marte and Adrián had saved enough money to keep working on their project for at least a year. By then, they hoped to have good samples to bring to Lineapelle, one of the big leather fairs in Italy.

Marte: La Lineapelle es una feria internacional de pieles, accesorios y otros componentes de la moda. Nuestro sueño era ir allá y presentar una alternativa respetuosa con los animales.

Martina: Adrián and Marte then made one of the biggest decisions in their lives: they quit their jobs. If they didn’t have workable nopal leather by the end of the year, they’d both be broke...and jobless. Marte was not getting a lot of sleep.

Marte: Estábamos invirtiendo dinero, tiempo y nuestras energías en el proyecto, así que pasó lo inevitable. Renunciamos al trabajo para poder ir a Ciudad de México con más frecuencia y supervisar el proceso en el laboratorio.

Martina: Once in a while, Marte and Adrián would receive a phone call from the laboratory, and a scientist would tell them that the experiments were looking hopeful. Then one day, they got a very promising phone call. Adrián was ecstatic.

Adrián: Un día fuimos al laboratorio y uno de los científicos nos llevó a ver el resultado de un experimento.

Martina: At least on the outside, the nopal cactus leather looked good. It was a letter-sized sheet of material, black and with a texture very similar to animal leather. Marte was feeling hopeful.

Marte: ¿Ya teníamos la alternativa ecológica a la piel de animal?

Martina: They both smiled at each other and nodded. Adrián felt his spirits soar.

Adrián: Yo pensé que teníamos el material final, pero todavía faltaba la prueba de resistencia.

Martina: Adrián waited anxiously for the results of the stress test.

Adrián: Los científicos hicieron la prueba y el resultado lo cambió todo… La piel del nopal no era lo suficientemente resistente. Y ahora, ¿qué íbamos a hacer?

Martina: The scratches on the nopal leather meant that their material was not strong enough. Marte and Adrián would have to keep designing new prototypes and investing their own money, which was growing scarce. Marte remembers that they could not even afford a hotel room during this time.

Marte: Ya había pasado casi un año desde que Adrián y yo habíamos dejado nuestros trabajos. Vivíamos en Guadalajara con el dinero contado. Cada vez que íbamos al laboratorio en Ciudad de México, lo hacíamos en bus y nos quedábamos en casa de unos primos para no gastar más dinero.

Martina: This was the lowest point for them. Adrián thinks that without their friendship, the project would not have survived.

Adrián: Cuando nuestro nopal no pasó la prueba de resistencia, no nos sentimos mal o tristes porque sabíamos que estábamos dando pasos en la dirección correcta.

Martina: A few weeks after the disappointing stress test, Marte and Adrián received another call from the lab. They hopped on an overnight bus to Mexico City, another six hours without sleep. But this time, the trip was worth it.

Adrián: Esta vez, nuestro nopal pasó la prueba. ¡El material era resistente!

Martina: They were both overjoyed. Marte immediately started brainstorming a name for their new material.

Marte: Le pusimos “Desserto” porque los nopales crecen en el desierto. Y con ese nombre, decidimos ir a la feria Lineapelle. Pero había un problema: ya no teníamos lana.

Martina: Marte and Adrián had finally run out of lana — a word that literally translates to ‘wool,’ but is slang for ‘money.’ To get to Italy, they had to ask their parents for help. Adrián was deeply embarrassed to make this request.

Adrián: Yo me sentí mal porque no quería pedirle dinero a la familia, pero no teníamos otra opción. Con ese dinero pagamos los boletos y un stand en la feria. Era el stand más pequeño de todos, pero eso no nos importó. Íbamos a participar en la feria más importante de diseño y le íbamos a mostrar al mundo la primera piel hecha de un cactus, Desserto.

Martina: In 2019 Marte and Adrián finally traveled to Milan to fulfill their dream. They brought with them several bags, purses, and different samples of nopal leather. But when they got to the convention center, they saw that their booth, compared to the rest, was very small. Marte was worried that all the other booths were much nicer and would attract far more attention.

Marte: ¡Y nosotros no teníamos nada! Un amigo que estaba en Milán nos llevó a IKEA. Compramos una mesa y sillas para el stand. También pusimos fotos del rancho de don Francisco, pero nos faltaba algo muy importante: ¡un nopal!

Martina: They frantically walked around Milan, looking at different plant shops. In one of them, Adrián found a type of Italian cactus. It was not a nopal but it would do. He bought two of them. He also bought duct tape, or cinta adhesiva, to affix the nopal leather to the walls.

Adrián: Todo fue muy improvisado. Pusimos las muestras de piel de nopal en el stand con cinta adhesiva pero no era muy estable ni resistente, así que las carteras se caían. La gente pasaba y se quedaba mirando.

Martina: Marte and Adrián knew they were the underdogs at this fair, where big and small leather companies from all around the world show their new products twice a year.

Adrián: Era una feria internacional, muy importante, llena de gente. Las empresas venían de otros países y hablaban otros idiomas. Para nuestra suerte, ambos hablábamos inglés, español y chino mandarín.

Martina: They were lucky to have a few friends from Mexico who lived in Italy and could serve as impromptu interpreters. Thanks to these friends, Marte and Adrián were ready to speak to potential customers in German, Italian, French, Chinese, and English. But Marte still worried: would their sustainable leather even be noticed?

Marte: Éramos el stand más pequeño de toda la feria, pero el que más llamaba la atención porque en los otros solo había productos de piel animal. En un momento hubo casi veinte personas y una fila de gente esperando afuera. ¡La piel vegana fue todo un éxito!

Martina: The crowds weren’t just attracted to the vegan leather, or piel vegana, they were also drawn to the symbolism behind the cactus. During the three days of the fair, people would see the Mexican flag and the cactuses and shout "¡Viva México!" as they passed by. "¡Viva!", Adrián would shout back with pride, or orgullo.

Adrián: El nopal está en la bandera de México con el águila y la serpiente. Representa el México prehispánico, hispánico y actual. ¡Es nuestro orgullo nacional!

Martina: Their last day in Milan, Marte and Adrián secured several deals with a prestigious car and fashion company, the exact same industries they had worked in at the beginning of their journey. Only now, the work was on their terms. Marte couldn’t believe it — the deals were generous enough to give nopal leather a real, sustainable future.

Marte: El nopal es el corazón de México. Y en Italia nos sirvió para atraer a los clientes. Al principio, para Adrián y para mí, el nopal fue una simple coincidencia, una de las tantas que nos trajeron hasta acá. Ahora, el nopal es nuestro proyecto de vida y una promesa ecológica para el futuro.

Martina: Now Marte and Adrián had enough money to pay their families back…and even hire employees. Desserto was on its way to becoming not just an environmentally friendly material...but also a widespread symbol of the country they loved.

Adrián: El siguiente año, Desserto ganó muchos reconocimientos relacionados con la sostenibilidad y el medio ambiente. Comienza a ser una verdadera alternativa ecológica a la piel. La gente siempre nos pregunta cómo descubrimos que el nopal se podía usar para fabricar carteras y cinturones. Y Marte y yo siempre respondemos lo mismo… “No descubrimos nada porque el nopal siempre ha estado ahí”. ¡El nopal es México!

Martina: Marte Cázarez and Adrián López Velarde are the creators of Desserto, a highly sustainable plant-based, vegan-leather made from cactus. Their company, Adriáno Di Marti, which is a combination of their two names, has created car seats, bags, shoes, and apparel using their signature nopal leather.

This story was produced by "Ado" or Antonio Díaz Oliva, a Chilean writer and translator.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! You can write us an email at podcast@duolingo.com or call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from!

Martina: Here’s Jenny, who called us from Canada!

Jenny: I love the podcast today, El Arte del Café. It was beautiful. I cried. My kids are like, Mommy, why are you crying? I just feel like the story was one of rising and overcoming and so beautiful. I went to my computer and we are hot spotting at the cottage and I downloaded the transcript and I started writing in my new Spanish-speaking notebook so that I'm learning new words, words that I didn't know. Most of it I couldn't understand. But it's a place to start. And I'm using the Duolingo app and I love it so, so, so much.

Martina: And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple podcasts or wherever you prefer to listen.

With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun, and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at podcast.duolingo.com duolingo.com.

The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Antonio Diaz Oliva
Narrators & Protagonists: Marte Cázarez & Adrián López Velarde
Script Editor: David Alandete
Mixed by: Martín Perez Roa
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Assistant Producer: Caro Rolando