For Fundación En Vía of Oaxaca, Mexico, that means not only reaching out to touch the lives of a nearby community through microfinancing loans and free English classes, but sharing the experience with people from all over the world who would rather be travelers than tourists.
Everyone comes out richer: the women with small business seed money they could never secure on their own, and the travelers who would never have the opportunity to make such intimate contact with the local culture. Which is, after all, the goal of local travel.
“Local travel involves being very conscious of getting local products and services from the source in any country or village,” says En Vía Executive Director Carlos Hernandez Topete. “It means trying to get more money to the local people of the area, and respecting the environment, not just the ecological one but the social environment: being respectful of customs and how things are done.”
Hernandez Topete, also co-director of the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca (ICO) language school where the tours are based, launched the nonprofit organization’s first tour in June of 2008. In the remaining months of that first year, 12 women received loans. In 2010, 100 women were able to fund their business dreams with En Vía seed money. First loans are 1300 Mexican pesos, or about $100 — representing several weeks’ work and an amount none of the women could secure on their own. That loan provides a concrete way to fund business dreams by buying yarn and dye to weave rugs, ingredients to make tortillas, corn to feed chickens or seedlings to grow into a fruit orchard.
What’s so special about Teotitlán del Valle? Located in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains, where it was one of the first villages founded by the Zapotecs around 1465, it’s famous for its woven textiles, orlaadi in the local language.
Rug designs are passed from parent to child and many all-natural colors come from various shades of wool or dyes made from plants and insects. The beautiful crimson red of many of the rugs comes from cochineal, made from crushing a parasitic insect that lives on cactus, which the Spanish conquistadors traded briskly at a price per kilo more than silver.
About 70% of the population in this town of about 5,000 makes their living weaving, with a loom taking up a sizeable portion of each home – and some of the more prosperous families owning several, eachabout the size of a small car. Weaving in this village dates back to about 500 B.C., although it was the Spaniards who introduced the modern-day pedal loom, replacing traditional Zapotec back-strap looms.
Many people travel to Oaxaca, and especially to Teotitán del Valle, to buy rugs that they’ll hang in homes all over the world. But not everyone has been a guest in the cinderblock home and workshop of an artist who can not only explain the meaning of the intricate designs, but who can tell you exactly how a $100 loan has changed her life.
Mother and daughter Juana and Enedina are master weavers whoused their loan money to buy wool, which they still spin on a wheel, and raw ingredients to make their own natural dyes. Enedina’s 20-year-old daughter Yanet, an accounting student at the University of Oaxaca, has also received a loan to make beaded earrings on the hour-long bus ride from home to the city.
Minerva, a single mother, traveled north to the state of Sonora where she learned how to make flour tortillas – a departure from the traditional corn tortillas of Teotitlán. Her mentor, also a single mother, agreed to teach her but only with the promise that Minerva would start a business to support her daughter and start saving for her education. To give her community a taste of the unfamiliar tortillas, Minerva gave out samples, then began to sell them in the local market. Her tortillas are now sold not only in Teotitlán but at the language school cafeteria in Oaxaca, and her vision is to start a tortilla-making cooperative that would employ other single mothers in the village.
“En Via goes to a deep level to connect visitors to the local culture in a meaningful and unusual way,” says Berens. “There are benefits for both the local people and the people on our tours, and we can magnify the impact of our dollars by tying tourism to a sustainable economic development model.”
“Our goal is to give local communities a concrete way to be proud of who they are and what they do,” adds Executive Director Hernandez Topete, “and to provide funds that can help them accomplish that.”
The southern Mexican village of Teotitlán del Valle is a cultural treasure with a rich heritage and more than atwo-thousand-year-old tradition of weaving beautiful textiles. You could pick any number of “artisan” tours,most of which go only to the largest shops on the main road to town. Or you could nto only meet the weavers and other entrepreneurs of the village, but help them achieve financial independence and the once impossible dream of educating their children.