It’s the scent of warm corn that most reminds me of my time in Oaxaca, Mexico. Corn is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Mexico’s culture and daily life. And in the rural areas of Mexico, this link is even stronger. First cultivated 10,000 years ago, indigenous cultures keep a link to their past as by cultivating heirloom varieties and maintaining a diet filled with corn in every form. Although I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Mexico in the past, it’s only while volunteering in the Oaxaca Valley that I discovered just what that corn tastes like when it’s ground each day fresh, then pressed into many different tasty foods. The tortillas were most common, but I also ate it shaved from the cob, and even thick and warm in a chocolate drink called champurrado. But this is not a story of corn, although it framed so much of my time with the women I met. Instead, it’s a story of microfinance, and the impact one organization has on empowering women to build strong businesses and thriving communities.
Let’s start at the beginning. Oaxaca City is a popular tourist destination, and it is also the Mexican State with the highest concentration of the indigenous cultures. Rural poverty here is higher than some other Mexican states, and tourism is mostly concentrated on the coast and in Oaxaca City itself. In recent years, many towns began implementing ecotourism programs as a way to pull tourism deeper into the Valley — this spreads tourism income into rural cities, towns, and villages. In practice, that means even remote villages often have clean, furnished cabanas and tour guides ready to lead hikes through the dry, rolling Sierra Norte mountains. Beyond ecotourism, cultural tourism is also growing. Trends are changing. Responsible tourism is a viable, growing industry. And travelers now look for ways to both enjoy their vacation, but to also experience a region’s indigenous cultures and languages.
En Vía’s tourism model allows the organization to leverage resources from tourism and direct them sustainably into communities, while connecting people to the ideas, strength and power of women working hard to improve their future.
I loved the structure and the idea behind using tourism as a force for sustainable social change. Then it came down to finding a way to support their mission. Luck was on my side. When I arrived, two volunteer photographers were just leaving. That left me the chance to fill in the gap. Once a woman borrows money, a photographer visits to photograph her with her recent purchases. These photographs serve three purposes: they provides lasting proof of how the women spent the loan money, they provide fodder for marketing and promotional materials, and the photographs allow the organization to stay present in these women’s lives.
I spent nearly six months in Oaxaca, and during that time I ventured into the communities once or twice a week. These communities are primarily Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization dating back more than 2,500 years; archeological sites remain scattered around the region. And although Zapotec is the first language for most of the woman I met, they all communicated with me in Spanish. My job was to photograph the women, but even more, I listened to their stories, slurped homemade ice cream with their children, and I laughed with them over my bungled Spanish. During the weeks and months, I came to deeply respect their ambition and perseverance. Several of these women acted as community ambassadors, welcoming me into their homes when I visited and plying me with piping hot tortillas fresh off of the comal.
The stories below are snapshots of these women’s lives. When you read about microfinance and fair trade purchases, your purchasing power affects the lives of women like those profiled below. I have deep respect for the work En Vía does to support the women in these communities. And even more, I love how they organization offers a unique way for tourists to respectfully learn about Mexico’s fascinating indigenous cultures and customs.
Across the many months that I spent living in Oaxaca, it’s my time with the women in En Vía’s microfinance program that most profoundly shape my memories of this beautiful part of southern Mexico. I have traveled through many other parts of Mexico, from the Yucatan to my tiny west coast beach town. This time, however, I left Mexico with a more nuanced view of the peoples and cultures. It is through the deep connections to other people that I have found travel most transformative. These women welcomed me into their homes. They shared food and stories and laughter. I can only hope that I was able to give back as much as they offered me.
Visiting En Vía in Oaxaca, Mexico
What: Fundación En Vía offers tours for visitors interested in glimpsing rural life in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tours last most of the day and each tour visits about four women in a couple of the communities supported by En Vía’s microfinance program. At each stop, tourists chat with one of the borrowers, learn about her artisanal trade, business, or traditional food preparation. The entire tour fee is used 2.5 times to fund microloans for women. Once it’s been loaned and repayed twice, on the third time 50% of the fee goes back into the loan pool and 50% pays for the handful of employees running the foundation.
Where: En Vía’s main office is located in the central area of Oaxaca City. If you book a tour, they provide transportation from Oaxaca City into the Tlacolula Valley, which is where the women live.
When: The organization runs tours twice a week year-round, and offers extra tours during high season.
Volunteer: En Vía accepts long-term volunteers in a range of specializations. Those fluent in Spanish can act as tour guides. Basic proficiency in Spanish is needed for the photography volunteers. The foundation runs English language classes for kids in two of the towns and is always in need of teachers. And those with other skills can email and discuss if there is an opportunity to work with the program a special capacity (I met volunteers with health specializations, construction, computers, etc).