Tandas and Cundinas:
Mexican-American and Latino-American Rotating Credit Associations in Southern California

Rosalba Gama, Delma Medrano and Luis Medrano

Origins and Background
The monetary practice we chose to focus on for our project is the tanda. The tanda is a form of rotating credit association and a monetary practice that we, as Chicanos, have grown up knowing but never really understood the details, except that our parents or other relatives participated in them. That is why we have chosen to research the tanda, which is rooted deeply in the Mexican and Latin American culture and has evolved into a common practice within Mexican-American and Latino-American enclaves in southern California.

The term “rotating credit associations” refers to "an association formed upon a core of participants who agree to make regular contributions to a fund which is given in whole or in part to each contributor in rotation" (Cope and Kurtz 213). The basic definition given here explains the foundation for the manner in which a tanda functions, but specifically for the tanda. What is left out of this definition is the fact that in a tanda the association is built mostly on trust. "Without a willingness to engage in generalized reciprocal relations based on mutual trust, the associations could not function" (Velez-Ibañez 7). Confianza, or trust, is the key aspect of the tanda and is what allows this type of credit association to exists within the community. How did this type of association begin? Where did the tanda come from? How is it that a group of people, sometimes strangers, contribute their hard earned money to a pot in which they and the other participants expect to receive the tanda amount on their given date?
Rotating credit associations exist in various parts of the world. Let's recall that rotating credit association is the general term used to the type of association that can be formed by any given peoples. The specific ways in which these rotating credit associations function and who participates in them vary from culture to culture. Because rotating credit associations are a form of reciprocity or gift giving among peoples, similar practices can be traced back hundreds of years among numerous cultures around the world. The tanda, a form of rotating credit association, originated in Mexico and is known among the Mexican American and Latino American community of southern California and various other parts of southwestern United States.

Practices involving rotating credit associations including the tanda are known to have originated from people who lived in agrarian societies. These people then shifted from a traditional agrarian society to a commercial one and in this transition formed credit associations, influenced by the dominant commercial society (Velez-Ibañez 7). This suggests that the tanda is formed solely for economic purposes. The tanda usually involves people who are interested in developing a money saving system and more importantly in building relationships with the organizers of the tanda and all other participants. In Mexico, the origins of the tanda and similar practices involve the need for the people of the working class, and in some cases the middle class, to rotate scarce resources among themselves, in this case money. In the United States, specifically southern California, the tanda was introduced through migration from the working class of Mexico to the United States. This practice has survived in the United States because the immigrants that migrated from Mexico to the United States continued to be of the working class and being immigrants, relied on the tanda as a form of money saving.

The origins of the tanda in Mexico are said to have begun in and around Puebla, Mexico. The manner in which the practice of credit associations arrived in Mexico is postulated to have come from the Chinese. Velez-Ibañez states that, "when Chinese contract workers established residence in Mexico after 1899, they brought with them a Chinese version of rotating credit association known as the hui" (16). Chinese labor was known to have been distributed in many areas of Mexico and their practice could have made some contribution to the emergence of the tanda years later.

Tanda is the name that has become dominant among the people who participate in it in Mexico and those in the United States. The word tanda literally means turn or alternative order. However, there are various other names that have been given to this practice of rotating credit association. Another name that is widely used, probably second to tanda, is cundina. In Spanish “cundir” means to spread. Other names that have been used according to area include: quiniela in Chihuahua, mutualista in Yucatan, vaca in Texas, and bolita in Veracruz. Interestingly enough, prisoners from the Leucunberry prison, a prison in Mexico, have created their own form of rotating credit association. They have coined it cannabis mexicana vacas, which was a cooperative savings group organized to buy larger amounts of marijuana for a discount. Unlike the Tanda, this was not made up of individual equal shares, and because of this, the amount of marijuana given was equal to the amount of money contributed (Velez-Ibañez 22).

Other interesting names that have been used are tanda de cuates, cuates meaning pals, and coperacha, or cooperative. In the tanda de cuates, about five people are involved whose specific goal is to purchase alcoholic beverages, from which results an unintended consequence prestige for the person who can consume the most alcohol without becoming intoxicated (Velez-Ibañez 23). The coperacha is a more general than the tanda de cuates because the money contributions are used for things like family dinners or for financial assistance to a friend in need. What remains certain is that all of these names are only variants of the most dominant term, the tanda, which is what has persisted in the United States.

The Process: How it Works Today
In our search to get the most up-to-date and accurate information about tandas we interviewed four people who have participated in these tandas for a minimum of four years. Participants A, B, and C are female immigrants from Mexico and Participant D is an immigrant from El Salvador. All four women live in Santa Ana, California. Our interview questions revolved around their interest in participating, their experience, the organization and procedure, possible risks, and their role within the tanda. The women’s interests and perception of possible risks are similar, but there were a variety of organizational concepts that correlated with the woman’s status within the tanda.

Participant A
Participant A, a Mexican immigrant now living in southern California defines the terms “tanda” and “cundina,” which she uses interchangeably, as a community composed of people you know and trust. She began participating at the age of 15 and has been a constant participant in tandas for the last 16 years. Participant A considers the tanda to be a very effective way to save money and control needless expenditures. She also claims that she is so used to participating and following the tanda routine that she does not want to stop. Although this may resemble an addiction, Participant A perceives the continuous participation in tandas positively because it serves as an incentive to save money for paying off debts, traveling, and/or preparing for big parties or ceremonies such as quinceañeras and weddings.

The amount of credit that rotates within the tanda can vary in amount. The total contributions of the tanda she participated in 16 years ago participants summed up to $200. This means that every week x number of people would all pitch in a pre-determined amount of money to compile $200 each week. Every week a different person would get the $200. Currently she was participating in a tanda that would amount to $2,000 every week. There were ten participants in this tanda, and every week they would pitch in $200. One of the ten different participants would receive the $2,000 each week, for ten weeks. Speaking specifically about her community’s tanda, she stated that seniority determined the weekly order of who received the tanda amount, as opposed to random selection. The names of the people that had been selected were then written on a weekly time sheet, and were crossed off as each person received their tanda amount. It was also common in their tanda for people to participate twice. However, this meant that their contribution would be doubled. For example that participant in the tanda would receive $4,000, by the end of the entire process, but would also have had to contribute $400 every week.

Because of her long experience Participant A was currently an organizer of the tanda. This means that she participates within the tanda, but is in charge of deciding the sequence of payments according to seniority, keeping the weekly time sheet and keeping track of who gets paid when, making sure everybody makes their payments on time every week, collecting and distributing the money. She mentioned that her position as the organizer could sometimes be problematic when a friend she knows to be irresponsible wants to join. While the decision to not let this friend participate in the tanda may sour the friendship, it gains the organizer respect and trust from the other participants.

Because of her strict regulation of the participants, there had not been anyone who had defaulted, but if that were the case, as organizer, she would have to take over the payments. In some instances when people had paid their contributions late, she collected a late fee of $20 for the inconvenience but also to set an example. In fact she mentioned it was not uncommon for participants who did not have for the weekly payments, to borrow from other participants in order to make payments and prevent the tanda from falling apart. It was up to their discretion to repay each other in timely fashion after getting paid from work or receiving their share of the tanda.

Participant B
Participant B, an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, also living in Santa Ana, California has had 15 years of experience as a constant participant in tandas. She has participated in at least one tanda per calendar year since her migration to the United States. When asked why she participates in tandas, Participant B echoed the response of Participant A, stating that the tanda is a great way to save money, but also mentioned that it is helpful in making big purchases when funds aren’t available. She alluded to her ability to purchase a vehicle through the use of tandas. She also explained that during the time that she wanted to purchase her vehicle all of the other tanda participants were also interested in making big purchases. In order to accommodate all of their needs, they organized three tandas that year in which each person contributed $200.00 per week for a total of 27 weeks (each tanda was 9 weeks long).

When asked about not choosing to save her money in a bank, but rather within a rotating credit association, Participant B expressed her perception of the bank as an institution that was waiting for any opportunity to charge a fee for “safe keeping,” something that was not a concern within the tanda. She explained that she preferred tandas because the group had a better, more tangible control of the money and a personal understanding of each other’s needs. The group of people she participates in is constituted by her sisters, which, together, make up the total of nine contributors to the tanda.

This particular family tanda is very exclusive and is only organized for the use of the sisters. The sisters alternate to be organizers every time a new tanda is proposed. To keep track of the contributions, an agenda-like book is passed from organizer to organizer every time a new tanda is initiated. Touching on the subject of fraud, Participant B shared that since the participants in her group are all sisters, they have a moral responsibility to follow through with the tanda. They cannot flake out because they are bound by the same goal, to help each other out.

Participant C
Our third interviewee, also from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, is currently living in southern California and is an employee at a local factory in Santa Ana, CA. She has participated in 5 tandas in the last four years, since she was introduced to tandas in the workplace. Her reasons for participating in the tanda include financial necessity but also the enduring hope that she will increase the amount of money in her savings account. Up until today though, she has been unable to accomplish that goal since she often finds herself using the tanda money to pay the mortgage and other bills. She mentioned that sometimes she has been able to increase her savings, but then sometimes finds herself having to withdraw money from her account to make payments on the tanda.

Participant C does prefer the tanda over banking institutions because it allows her to count on the set tanda amount of money and not worry about taxes or fees. However she believes that tandas aren’t that effective because of the constant pressure to make the weekly payments. She stated, “you’re always worrying about forgetting to pay each week. Besides if we had that money in our account, we might be able to gain more, like in interest or something, but we don’t leave it there, in hopes that we will be able to save up a little money or hacerlo rendir (make it last).”

The tanda in her workplace was particularly large. The tanda was made up of 20-30 participants, including both gender. The tanda participants were determined by the Lead, the person who delegates the daily tasks to the workers and reports to the supervisor. The Lead opens participation to whoever wants to participate, and from there selects those who have more time working in the factory and have permanent working status. Participant C also mentioned the use of personal knowledge of who will not cheat or take off with the money. Once chosen, each participant contributes $50 each week, for a pre-determined set of weeks. Participant C’s pointed out that it was beneficial to have more participants because the tanda amount collected by each participant would be larger.

The order in which the tanda amount is collected every week is randomly selected through drawing numbers out of a hat. As was the case with Participant A, in this tanda community people are allowed to participate more than once by drawing out more than one number. For example, if one person draws 3 numbers, she will be responsible for contributing $150 every week. The Lead, as organizer is responsible for collecting and distributing the money. She waits for everyone to hand in the money before distributing it. Despite the size of this tanda community, there is no history of fraud. Participant C attributes this to the fact that, “its is all people we know, people that are trustworthy,” but also the fact that there is no way of escaping the community in case of fraud, other than deliberately losing employment. She mentioned that sometimes people don’t turn their money in on time because, “ they are night shift workers and they hand in their money the next day, or sometimes people turn in personal checks instead of cash.”

Participant C stated that solidarity was difficult to attain in this tanda community because people weren’t punctual in turning in their money and some got resentful. It was in the case that somebody knew they were going to miss work, when they called co-workers to ask for them to turn her money in, that relationships were reinforced. In Participant C’s case expressed that she would not let herself miss a week by paying in advance if she knew she was gong to be absent.

Participant D
Our fourth interviewee, Participant D, is from El Salvador and is also residing in Santa Ana, California. Her case is somewhat different from the three mentioned above. The primary reason for why she started participating in the tanda ten years ago is because she was in desperate need of cash and she knew a friend who was in charge of a tanda. Today Participant D uses the tanda not only to get her bills and rent paid but also to invest in her small business at the swap meet. After getting to know everyone in the tanda community, she decided that she wanted to be the organizer and gathered a group of people who she knew she could trust, like her brothers, sisters and long-time co-workers. Now she participates in tandas year round.

As the organizer, she gets to make her own rules. She usually gets two places within the tanda roll sheet, the first and the last week. She does this in case profits from her business are not substantial, in order to take home some money at the end of the tanda. This particular participant will only do tandas that last eleven weeks because she says it doesn’t make sense to make it for less. For example, “when only ten memberships (participants) contribute into a $1,000.00 tanda, the total amount of the fund that is rotated among the members in any given week is the sum of the contribution from all memberships including the recipient for that week. However, only $900.00 actually changes hands; the $1,000.00 includes the $100.00 from the recipient. When the eleven memberships exist, the total fund is met by the ten non-recipients (Kurtz and Showman, 68).”

When asked about the risks of this type of rotating credit association, she said that for the most part people who participate do it because they want to save money and leave their tanda savings for an emergency. There have been occasions when she has misjudged a person’s character and has been left with paying other members part of the contribution as well as her own for the sake of keeping the tanda intact. She says that these are risks her community is willing to take but that it is also cautious of who is invited to participate.

When Participant D first joined the tandas, she was confidentially acting as her friend within the organization. As was agreed, Participant D received her friend’s share as long as she made payments every week, in the place of her friend. Participant D’s friend took a significant risk, the essence of the tanda, because Participant D had received the first number. Had Participant D been shady, she could have taken off with the money without making any payments, but the initial payment. Participant D followed through with every payment as a result has since been seen as someone trustworthy and responsible enough to partake in the tanda community. In this way the tanda grows in participants and makes the participation of all the members even more so appealing.

Tandas and Cundinas in anthropological perspective
The political and social position of Mexican Americans in the United States is essential in the study of Tandas and Cundinas in southern California primarily because of immigrant status and lack of social capital. Evident in the interviews, Tandas and cundinas tend to emerge from social support systems, more specifically ethnic support systems. This could be understood as an effort by members of minority groups to become integrated into the economy without having to deal with bank or government officials or as resistance to bank institutions.

In learning about tandas and cundinas, two theories must be considered, embeddedness theory and enclave-economy theory. Embeddedness theory states that, “‘structures of social relations’ always influence economic behavior, to the extent that overlooking their influence is a grave error even when treating differentiated institutions in advanced societies.” (Butler and Kozmetsky, 174) This theory obliges the researcher to understand why it is that tandas are organized most often in the workplace, and as mentioned above, by various ethnic groups. In analyzing the social relations that influence economic behavior, the researcher must understand the political and social context of the workplace and why they lead to the formation of tandas and cundinas.

Mexican Americans have a long history of marginalization in the workplace. Since the late 1800’s, American businesses, opportunistically, have been bringing thousands of uprooted farmers, peasants, and other laborers to the United States. The prosperity of these businesses has depended on low wage, flexible labor. In order to preserve this type of labor, employers recognize the advantage of keeping workers in need, in fear of losing their jobs. To ensure necessity and fear within workers, employers limit benefits, guarantees, progress, and do not allow the laborer to decide the type of work she will engage in. The treatment of Mexican Americans in the workplace is reflective of their treatment within educational and court systems in the United States. The educational and court systems contribute to the cheap labor pool vital to American businesses through the mistreatment, tracking into vocational studies and criminalization of Mexican American youth.

This treatment and marginalization of Mexican Americans within the workplace and the nation is a primary factor in the creation of tandas. In order for Mexican Americans to survive and succeed within a society that seeks to oppress and exploit them, they must develop social support systems. In her book, The Unmaking of Soviet Life, Caroline Humphrey gives an ideal example of a social support system providing economic aid. Humphrey states that “over 30 percent of the population of Russia has an income below the ‘threshold of survival,’ that is, they must use existing stocks, sales of property, or loans from kin and friends to stay alive,” (Humphrey, 41). Because of social connections and relations, Russians have been able to participate and survive in the national economy. This underlines the importance of social relations in the participation of Mexican Americans within the US economy.

This position of dispossession and marginalization of particular ethnic groups encourages the formation of ethnic enclave support groups, like the tanda. In Immigrant and Minority Entrepreneurship, Min Zhou speaks of ethnic enclave support groups, as those bound by a, “common nationhood, familiar cultural environment, and densely knit networks,” and defines the enclave itself as, “an integrated cultural entity maintained by bounded solidarity and enforceable trust- a form of social capital necessary for ethnic entrepreneurship,” (Butler and Kozmetsky, 41). These groups form out of necessity, to encourage assistance amongst members who share the lack of opportunity within the larger economic system. Through these groups, members share experiences, knowledge and support regarding the system that denies them based on what seems to be ethnicity.

The role of Mexican Americans in the US economy is that of a people who are dispossessed, especially those who have recently entered the country and have not yet obtained documents. Although they contribute significantly to the US economy, they are not recognized and therefore cannot participate in a variety of public institutions and cannot reap benefits generally available to citizens. Humphrey discusses the importance of status and documentation, in regards to people who are accepted and embraced by larger society and those who are dispossessed. She defines the dispossessed people in Russia as, “people who have no connections or support from the system,” and it is because of this lack of connections that, “they do not want to participate in the bureaucracy or institutions within the dominant system,” (Humphrey, 31). And part of the reason because they do not want to participate is because they lack the documentation to do so. Documents in Russia, like in the United States, confirm identity and validate contributions to the nation.

Without documents an immigrant cannot seek employment legitimately, open a bank account, or collect income tax. “The dispossessed, we can now see, come in many categories, signaled by deprivation of one or another document; but what is important is that a loss of one official status threatens the unraveling of the whole edifice, that is the descent into the wilderness of having no entitlements at all,” (Humphrey, 26). This is parallel to the situation of Mexican Americans in southern California. Without one document (i.e. green card) the immigrant cannot obtain any other. For example, she cannot obtain a social security card without proof of residence, which will then prevent the possibility of applying for employment or a bank account. Reasons why Mexican Americans do not have equal access to economic and employment opportunities as a result of lack of documentation, include, “lack of credit ratings, collateral, or are the victims of ethno-racial discrimination,” (Butler and Kozmetsky, 171). Whereas Mexican Americans do not have equal access to economic or employment opportunities, they feel compelled to abandon the larger banking institutions and develop their own support groups within their ethnic enclave.


Works Cited
Butler, John Sibley and George Kozmetsky, ed. Immigrant and Minority Entrepreneurship: The Contunious Rebirth of American Communities. Praeger. Westport: 2004.

Cope, Thomas. Default and the Tanda: A Model Regarding Recruitment For Rotating Credit Associations. Ethnology, 19:2 (1980:Apr.)

Humphrey, Caroline. The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies After Socialism. Conrell University. Ithaca: 2002.

Kurtz, Donald V. The Tanda: A Rotating Credit Association in Mexico. Ethnology, 17:1 (1978:Jan.)

Velez-Ibanez, Carlos G. Bonds of Mutual Trust: The Culture System of Rotating Credit Associations Among Urban Mexicans and Chicanos. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick: 1983.