Last updated on August 10, 2023
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.
The Need for Microfinance in Oaxaca, Mexico
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 Oaxaca 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.
Through friends and readers, I found Fundación En Vía before I even arrived in Oaxaca. And as I came to understand the organization’s mission and goals, I decided to give my time to the social enterprise’s impactful work supporting women in the Oaxaca Valley with education and microfinance.
Even more than just loving its work, I loved the model it uses to implement its microfinance and tour programs. Oaxaca’s year-round tourism enables the foundation to use cultural tours as a funding source for interest-free microloans for women in six communities east of Oaxaca City. Tours run several times a week into the communities, and these tours generate the funds for the loan pool, which serves more than 300 women.
Without En Vía, other loan programs charge as much as 200 percent interest—an impossible sum in poverty-stricken areas. And yet, even just $80 to $200 of upfront cash provides the women with much-needed capital to expand their businesses, purchase items at a discount in bulk, or even to take a risk on a new business venture.
In addition to the micro-loans, women attend businesses classes on a variety of topics, and they have the support of their co-lenders and the small En Vía team at every stage.
I loved the structure and the idea behind using tourism as a force for sustainable social change. So it came down to finding a way to support the foundation’s mission. Luck was on my side. When I arrived, two volunteer photographers were 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 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 (many 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 the organization offers a responsible way for tourists to learn about Mexico’s fascinating indigenous cultures and customs.
My Favorite Businesses Receiving Micro-Loans in Oaxaca
Leticia García García had a wide, welcoming grin when my tour group knocked at her door in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec. She ushered us into a long room and toward her stove, which pumped heat through the brick and clay. The orange flames flickered as she shared her story, and wafts of warm corn scented the air.
My first act as a photographer for En Vía entailed taking a tour—the same tour tourists would take to visit the women in the six communities where En Vía works. Although the women in Tomaltepec run a range of shops and businesses, Leticia takes part in the hallmark business in Tomaltepec: empanadas.
Empanadas are a tasty tortilla wrapped around juicy sauce and meat. She does brisk business every Sunday, selling about 150 empanadas, with locals and those from surrounding villages traveling to Tomaltepec for the town’s signature dish.
With her En Vía micro-loan, Leticia purchased corn and wood in bulk, which lowered her production costs, thus upping her profit. She was all smiles as several members of our group munched on her empanadas while she answered our questions.
Sometimes the women contained a shining, infectious joy. Carmela Hernandez Martinez is one of those woman.
When I arrived around noon, she had already been up for eleven hours preparing the 300+ loaves of fresh bread that she sells every day. And can I say—her shop smells amazing. Although she had finished baking for the day, the sweet, yeasty scent of bread permeated her home.
Last year, a team of engineering students from Mexico City built Carmela a large wood-fire oven that cooks as many as 280 small loaves of bread at once. Beside the huge stove was an enormous pile of wood and sacks of wheat, which she had bulk purchased with her previous loan.
Although my official purpose with each woman is to photograph them with their loan purchases, many also show off improvements they have made to their businesses thanks to earning more with their increased profit margins.
In this case, Carmela and her husband showed me new aspects their kitchen—which was pristine clean, with no evidence of the morning mess that must have happened when they prepared hundreds of loaves of bread.
When talking about the future, she and her husband hope to use their increased profit margin to begin selling bread in nearby towns, which will require fuel for their car and increased bread production. They had a plan though, so I have no doubt that I’ll be visiting their bread mobile next time I’m in San Miguel del Valle.
I first met Eulalia Florina Ruiz Morales as she directed a team of En Vía volunteers who were constructing a garden on her property in the outskirts of Teotitlán del Valle, a town in the Oaxaca Valley most famous for the exquisite weaving skills of its inhabitants.
The name Teotitlán comes from the Nahuatl word for “land of the gods,” and I believe that description when I wander the patch of earth she is developing—it has a stunning view of the nearby mountains. Eulalia is a long-time En Via borrower with a remarkable story.
As the youngest daughter in her family, she cared for her aging parents for much of her life. Now that they have passed, she uses her succession of En Vía loans to develop a home, garden, and weaving workshop. She has maintained many of the older natural wool colors that are rare in modern tapetes, wool rugs.
Plus, she has unique designs in traditional Zapotec patterns that are also rare nowadays.
She’s also quite a character and plans to max out the potential for her life. She has used every program En Vía offers, from business classes to textile workshops to English language classes.
Before I left Oaxaca, I visited Eulalia one last time. She showed me her composting worms—a volunteer-led project En Vía implemented to jumpstart a garden on her dry plot of land—and then we snacked on bananas and chatted about her plans to finish her home and continue growing her skills and business.
María de Lourdes García Ojeda, known as Lulu to her friends, has a big dream for her sewing shop in San Sebastián Abasolo. Abasolo is a tiny community outside of Oaxaca City, and the women in this small town use microfinance loans to level up their businesses in an area with few local opportunities.
While many in the town commute to nearby Oaxaca City, Lulu has used her loans to provide niche sewing services to the women in Abasolo. Before her microfinance loans, she would sew and mend clothes for the women in town, only charging for her time. With her loans, however, she has invested in fabric, buttons, and even a mannequin so that she can create dresses, skirts, and shirts from scratch.
By providing both the services and the goods, she has greatly increased her profits. While she once sewed in a small area in the back of her home, she moved into a sunny room that overlooks the street.
She was all smiles as she showed me the colorful buttons, stacks of fabric, and piles of zippers that she had purchased with her previous En Vía loan. She now has a larger stock of items for sale, and women place orders with her months in advance in anticipation of local holidays and fiestas.
As well-known as Teotitlán is for wool rugs, San Miguel del Valle stands out for incredible embroidery. Visitors to San Miguel will most remember the gorgeous traditional dresses on every woman, even the tiny little girls. Reina Erica López Hernández is one of the younger seamstresses in town, and she has her finger on the pulse of rising trends.
San Miguel is a traditional Zapotec community living at 6,000 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Madres. It’s located a 30 minute bus tide from the main highway running through the Oaxaca Valley, so the community has maintained a strong sense of language and culture.
It’s one of the lesser touristed villages served by En Vía’s microfinance program. For this reason, many of the women’s businesses serve their community, rather than tourists. This focus allows them to survive and thrive so far from the tourist trail. But without tourism, it also means that they have less available cash available—the En Vía tours are one of the few ways that tourists reach this town.
Over the past two decades, Reina explained to me that the women in San Miguel have begun to embrace intricate apron patterns, their full skirts filled with elaborate designs. While the aprons were always a part of their traditional dress, the aprons now contain flaming peacocks and meticulously embroidered flowers. She has watched the aprons grow more complicated and beautiful and grew her skills to match.
Using a five-session En Vía workshop on textile design, she developed new designs and ideas that she has become known for in her community. In the photo above, she explained how she took inspiration for that apron from nature’s color palette found in corn. She even uses sequins to add a bit of flair to some designs.
With her previous microloan, she bought a second sewing machine so that her husband could help grow their budding business. She is confident and driven when she speaks of her goals, and it was an inspiration to learn of her precise plans as she charts a course for her future.
In my early days volunteering for En Vía, I hadn’t yet figured out the timeline for my appointments. In Santa María Guelacé, a community about 40 minutes outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, I had a two-hour gap between appointments. With time to kill, I found a bench in the church courtyard and settled in with my Kindle to pass the time.
As a man passed, he sauntered over and questioned me: What on earth was I doing in this small community? One thing led to another, and he invited me to attend a festival hosted by the town’s mayordomo. He dropped me off with six women who were preparing a massive amount of tejate, a tasty chocolate and corn drink beloved in the Zapotec and Mixtec communities.
As luck would have it, one of the women preparing tejate was an En Via borrower, and she explained to the others about the program and why I was visiting their small town.
After they fed me quesadilla and tejate, the host asked me to wander the festival and photograph the other women preparing for the festivities. It was a welcoming and happy way to pass the hours.
When I was due at my next appointment, my host (who had lived in the States for six years and was happy to speak English for a bit), zipped me across town and with a tip of his cowboy hat, he wished me a happy day. This level of generosity and hospitality greeted me every town I visited while photographing the women.
One of the things that drew me to En Vía’s microfinance program is the organization’s “whole-person” approach. Juana Pérez Martínez is a perfect example of the range of services the foundation provides to woman in the program.
Juana lives in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec and sells fresh tortillas and tlayudas. She uses her microfinance loans to bulk purchase corn and wood so that she maximizes her profit potential. Her husband was injured 30 years ago, so profit is important—she has long supported more than four people with her skills on the comal.
En Vía uses tour fees to fund the loan pool for these woman, but through other projects—voluntours and special holiday tours—the foundation raises funds for other projects these women need.
For Juana and her family, a new toilet was of utmost need. The volunteer engineering students from Mexico City had a tricky feat designing a composting toilet that met the space requirements and the special needs of her husband, who has limited mobility. This past summer, the team figured out a solution and built a composting toilet that will greatly increase the quality of life for their family.
The first time I showed up in Juana Espinoza Martínez’s shop, I was confused, late, and a bit flustered. The shared taxi left me a mile from town and I had hoofed along a sunny road in the blazing heat.
Eventually, I found my way to Juana, and she won me over. I counted on her ready smile and generous help.
Juana runs a bread supply shop with her husband. Like many of the En Vía women, Juana’s loans have allowed her to expand her merchandise and increase her profit margin. With the microloans, she is able to bulk buy bread staples: butter and flour.
Although there is competition in town, Juana explained that she and her husband focus on customer service as their differentiator. And I believe it. They had an adorable daughter nearby and still took care and time to share their story with me. Even more, Juana and her husband took initiative to help me navigate their town. By the time our chat wound down, Juana’s brother-in-law showed up with a big grin and a willingness to spend the next two hours navigating me around town to each of my appointments.
As one of En Via’s first borrowers, Enedina Bazán Chávez has spent several years using microfinance to grow her business. She and her mother weave together in Teotitlán, and they have expanded their business through many rounds of loans and repayments.
Like many of the women I met, the focus is not just on lifting themselves from rural poverty, but to also use the loans to lift the entire family. Enedina’s loans allowed her to build a stock of items. With a large supply, she expanded her storefront and began stocking items from other family members, too.
Beyond selling her own beautiful wool rugs, tourists can purchase her mother’s handmade chocolate and her cousin’s textiles, as well as a selection of her daughter’s jewelry. Enedina and her family are not only warm and welcoming, but they are huge supporters of the program.
It’s from their compound that I often organized my photography appointments (there is a delicious coffee shop in the compound, which didn’t hurt). And when I couldn’t find my next appointment, someone in the family sorted it out and sent me on my way.
Weaving is a family affair for Angela Lazo Martínez. Angela lives in a compound in Teotitlán with 10 family members, and all make artisan crafts. They have a prime spot on the town’s main road, and they are prolific creators! Tapetes in every color and pattern fill their shop, along with cotton bedspreads, tablecloths, blouses, and more.
When she was nine years old, Angela learned English; she sees this as a real advantage in her business. She has also passed that focus to her son, who she prodded into chatting with me, too. Angela’s English allows her to communicate better with visiting tourists, and fosters a connection that she believes encourages them to buy her items.
One of the things she details for tourists is the process of hand-dyeing the cotton and wool used in their artisan crafts. Angela and her family buy the cotton and wool raw, and then undertake the process of boiling the colors—many from natural sources.
Like many of En Vía’s borrowers, Angela uses the loans to bulk purchase items at a discounted price, and to maintain productivity in off-season, so that the shop has a stock of goods ready for tourist season.
Of the six communities that En Vía serves in the Oaxaca Valley, Josefa Hernandez Hernandez lives in San Miguel del Valle, the least touristed one. Josefa runs a shop stocked with clothes and toys imported from her sister-in-law, who lives in North Carolina.
And while her shop does a steady business in town—there are no others like it—she also kept alive the family business of weaving tapetes. More recently, because of health concerns, her doctor advised that she should no longer weave on the heavy looms. With the support of an En Vía loan, Josefa uses her sewing machine to build stock in her shop of the town’s signature aprons, as well as handkerchiefs and other embroidered items.
In towns as off-the-path as San Miguel, changing professions would usually incur impossible debt. Instead, Josefa continues to work and produce despite the needed shift her focus.
Delfina Contreras Mendoza oozes charm and joy. Her house is in a gorgeous spot in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains overlooking Teotitlán. Delfina weaves intricate tapetes, rugs, on several large hand-operated looms that live in a covered courtyard in her home.
Her husband’s carpentry workshop next door buzzed with noise during our visit, and I was lucky to catch two of her children at home. The older one worked the huge loom while his mom showed me her recent En Vía purchases.
The youngest hung close to me so that he could show off his small woolen coasters, which are the first starting step as the children of weavers learn the family trade.
Like many weavers, Delfina bought weaving supplies in bulk, and a huge variety of wool colors so she can expand her offerings. With several older children studying at university, she is hoping the En Vía loans will help grow her business and offset those high expenses.
There aren’t many tourists who make it up to the part of Teotitlán where Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López lives. So when I found myself turning my paper map in circles, desperately searching for a house number on that dusty track of road, I wasn’t sure I would ever find her house.
Luckily, a husband and wife were nearby stoking a fire as they boiled a dark brown liquid that would dye the piles of raw wool. Needing help, I approached and asked for directions.
When I visited these towns, I always needed to recite the woman’s entire name when asking for help since there are many similarly named women in every community.
So I gave my spiel, asking where I could find Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López. The woman confirmed that I was close and directed me to the house next door. I trooped along and dutifully knocked on the door. Seconds later, that same woman answered the door with a huge grin. She had spotted me on the road, completely lost, and was keen to pull my leg. We had an appointment, so Lourdes knew that I was there on behalf of En Vía to photograph her recent loan purchases.
All I could do was laugh at my goof and we both giggled together as she pulled piled her dyed wool, which would eventually become gorgeous tapetes and one day grace the walls and floors of visiting tourists.
The warm, earthy scent of toasted corn tint my memories of Emiliana Antonio Miguel. When I first met Emiliana, she was supervising a team of volunteers who had journeyed from Minneapolis to build stoves for those women most in need.
Emiliana produces hundreds of tortillas every day, and En Vía gifted her with a custom stove designed to meet her needs. The stove had three curved cooking plates, called a comal, and a spot to boil water. It all stood at waist height and allowed her to cook multiple tortillas at once, shortening the time she had to spend cooking each morning.
Emiliana uses her En Vía loans to bulk purchase large sacks of corn (pictured behind her). Each time she saw me pass her home, which is located at the very center of town, she would pass me a fresh, warm tortilla. This made for ideal fuel as I huffed and puffed through the steep roads. If you’ve never had a large tortilla pulled off of a warm comal, then make it a bucket-list item—the flavor is unlike any tortilla you could ever buy in a store.
Although weaving is the most popular artisan craft in Teotitlán, a handful of families specialize in candle-making. While her sister taught a cooking class upstairs, Sofia Ruiz Lorenzo showed me her workshop. Beautiful candles in various states of finish filled every corner.
Candles have a strong significance in this region of Mexico—church ceremonies and indigenous rituals use large, elaborately decorated wax candles with flowing wax ribbons and colorful wax flowers. Sofia also explained that men are expected to present an intricate candle to the family of his future fiancé before he proposes. With so many events hinging on this skill, it’s no wonder that she is well-connected and respected in the community.
Sofia started making candles when she was just nine years old; her paternal grandmother passed away and the family needed to finish the work she had started as a huge church event loomed. A natural talent, Sofia took to the task and has continued designing and constructing candles in the decades since.
Sofia has two young daughters, and while she plans to teach them her craft, she also emphasized schooling and her dream that they will have a choice in their future work. Her loans have allowed her to cut significant costs from the candle production by buying 50 kilos of wax in bulk. This was once a huge expense when purchased kilo-by-kilo. It’s with these new opportunities that Sofia hopes to build a better future for her daughters.
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 is it?
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 repaid 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 is En Via located?
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 should you visit?
The organization runs tours twice a week year-round, and offers extra tours during high season.
How to 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).