Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
Legs settled into a wooden pew, I lean my head back to gaze over an abundant garden of blooms. Hues of tangerine and indigo dance above me, along with a relic of German history that meditates in silence – a storied history hidden inside intricately painted pipes.
It’s 10am and I am inside the 16th century ex-convent in San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya. This community of roughly 5,000 people is an active participant in the interest-free microloan program with Fundación En Vía. Given this, the women who secure these loans also participate in the responsible tourism program that serves to keep a steady stream of funds flowing through all channels.
The purpose of our visit to San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya today is to meet with borrowers to learn about their experience with the microloan process, along with the details around life in the community. The businesses vary with each women, however the main industries in the community are based in agriculture, dairy products and mezcal production.
San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya is semi-autonomous from the federal government as they operate under a structure of self-governance called usos y costumbres. In this system, the community is able to bypass the national voting system and appoint their own representatives who are independent of any political parties. Usos y costumbres is widespread across Oaxaca, with almost three-quarters of state municipalities operating under this arrangement.
While these are interesting elements related to the area, the ultimate highlight of the community that beckons scores of visitors is my current location of the ex-convent. The notoriety of this structure is based on a few elements: the son of the last Zapotec king married a local woman in this church around 1550, the seminary was one of the most accredited in the 16th century due to the rules of penance being so strictly followed, and the church also hosts a stunning German organ that was constructed in 1725 (and restored in 1991). Further to this is the fact that the local indigenous community members have painstakingly hand painted and maintained the original art that graces the walls and ceiling of the church, using pigments comprised of natural substances like cochineal and indigo.
The church once served as a retirement home for Dominican friars who were noted to look like statues due to years of punishment and meditation. Local accounts note one friar in particular, Juan de Córdoba, who lived in the complex and only wore shoes when giving mass, is revered for having been the first to compile a Zapotec dictionary.
Within walking distance of the church is a 12-hour solar clock that starts at 6am and ends at 6pm, with the solstice side facing the temple so that the time of day during winter and summer can be noted from this angle. The other side supports the equinox and tells the time during the spring and fall.
Eyes closed, I allow the delicate scent of white lilies to cover me like a spring jacket. Wrapped in a flowery covering, I open my eyes and rise to collect our tour participants who are photographing the painted details on the German pipe organ.
Soon, we will greet our borrowers in their homes. After touching palms as a greeting, we will absorb their stories as they guide us through their entrepreneurial endeavors in this historical town that was founded 1100. History whispers from every corner as we move through the streets towards the homes with the heightened awareness of friars in concentrated meditation.