As I come to the end of my time as the program manager for Fundación En Vía I am left with personal connections to our borrowers that I will never forget and invaluable experiences that will shape who I am and what I do from here on out.
Getting to know the women in our program has by far been the most rewarding part of my work here. Each woman has a unique story, though strong common themes run through their tales and connect them to other women in their communities. A desire to improve their livelihoods and the wellbeing of their family are the strongest motivators for the women, and improving profits through better business practices and interest-free loans are the means to make that happen. However, each borrower has a different history, family, skillset and inspiration that shape their businesses and lives. Learning these aspects has given a beautiful depth and new understanding to my experience here.
It is easy to see that the loans help women in their businesses in some seemingly small ways. Being able to buy products in bulk for a better price, building up an inventory, or diversifying a business are some examples of ways women garner larger profits which are often put to use providing better food for their family and reinvesting in their business. Here at En Vía we love to look at the bigger picture, to see how loans are helping in the long run and changing lives for future generations. When a woman’s business has grown sufficiently and she can take on an employee for example, it is a great indication of changing lives.
One woman’s story and face that stands out to me is that of Esperanza from the town of Diaz Ordaz. She has a beautifully tanned and wrinkled face, which is framed by wispy braided white hair tucked into a scarf. Long ago Esperanza had a lucrative chicken business, raising and selling hundreds of chickens at a time. However, a time came when one of her two sons fell ill and they sold absolutely everything to pay for his care. With few other options, Esperanza began making and selling tortillas as a way to eat on a day-to-day basis. Twenty some years later, with the loans from En Vía Esperanza was able to buy chickens which she fattened up to sell for meat, and also sold the eggs and raised chicks. With increased profits and more loans Esperanza purchased turkeys, sheep and pigs to raise and sell. She loves her existence, living with her husband on a small ranch with not a neighbor in sight, caring for animals and now cooking tortillas only for her family to eat.
Another example of En Via’s impact is Elodia from Tlacachahuaya. Elodia has a thriving business selling several different kinds of tortillas to regular clients and spends long hours making tortillas over an open fire. The soot from the flames coated the corrugated steel of the walls of her kitchen and the smoke posed a serious health risk. In July 2012, En Vía did a special project utilizing donations and volunteer effort to build Elodia a brand new kitchen, with a new oven that features a chimney, carrying the smoke outside and away from her lungs.
In addition to the health benefits, with the added profits from her business Elodia is able to send her daughter to high school, the first of her four children to continue their education past middle school.
These stories, and countless more like it (though unique to the individual woman and her family and community) have given me the belief that the formula that Fundación En Vía employs (sustainable tourism + microfinance) really works. Utilizing tourism to fund social programs can make a huge difference in countries that already have a developed tourist industry. According to the New York Times here in Mexico tourism accounts for 8% of the GDP. If even a small portion of those funds can be diverted into programs to benefit the people that need it, it could make lasting social change.
My time here has forever shaped the way I look at wealth and possessions. Whereas before I would look at a woman selling produce in the marketplace as being relatively poor, now I see her, with her wealth of products to sell in her booth, as successful. And whereas I used to believe that the women who wander the marketplace selling something (garlic or tamales for example) to lead a simple existence, I know understand how much work goes into what they do. The production, transportation and hours spent selling at the market shows her endurance and determination to get ahead. And it mostly always is for their children.
It is more than material possessions that motivates and shapes success for the women of En Vía. One of the borrowers, Maria Luisa, taught me the Zapotec word galnazak, which means abundance. However, it isn’t the kind of abundance that money can buy, it is the kind of abundance one has when they have a healthy family, love and a sense of wellbeing. It will be the name of Maria Luisa’s shop she will soon open to sell her woven rugs and purses, a dream a long-time in the making.
Although it does take economic prosperity to realize galnazak in some ways, the word describes a fulfillment beyond the financial. Galnazak is the epitome of what I wish for all the women in En Vía and what I will hold as the indicator of success from here on out.
By Hannah Aronowitz