Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
Yanking a thin plastic poncho over my head, I slide the door open to the Fundacion En Via van and hurdle to the ground. Upon landing, my feet are engulfed in a stream of rainwater as it sloshes over my sandals during a seasonal race along the gutter.
Our Friday tour group is well prepared with umbrellas, rain jackets and cheery dispositions. With the early afternoon spent in Teotitlán del Valle, we have now moved onto our second pueblo (town) of Santo Domingo Tomaltepec in order to visit with three En Via interest-free microloan borrowers to learn about their lives and businesses. The rain is coming down fast and steady, and the hood of my poncho clings to my face like plastic wrap on queso fresca.
Santo Domingo Tomaltepec is a small community with a population of roughly 2,800 people. The town is situated a short 10 km from the city of Oaxaca, just behind the pueblo of Tule (home of the giant tree). While there is a primary school, those who wish to carry on to secondary and high school must attend classes in Tule. The overriding language in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec is Spanish, however more than 20% of the population speaks Zapotec.
As with many pueblos in the region, this municipality is semi-autonomous from the federal government and operates under a system of self-governance called usos y costumbres (uses and customs). The town government, which is a result of the local voting system, is independent from any formal political parties and consists of the municipal president, syndicate, and three council members who are in charge of housing, public safety and education.
The soil in the region is a type of grey-black earth that is very thick and consists of many agricultural uses, however it can be hard to manage due to the hardness and consistency. Primary economic activities in town include agriculture and trades that revolve around making and selling bread and leatherwork.
During our visit to the first home of a local En Via borrower, we meet with a tortilla maker named Juana, along with her fellow group member Teresa who shares the details around her catalog order business for undergarments and Tupperware. A lack of stores in town helps to ensure consistent clients, however Teresa does have competition from other people locally who focus on similar types of endeavors.
Our final stop brings us to the home of the third group member. The leather workshop of Claudia and her husband Pedro is past a creek at the top of a hill. Together, they create handmade leather wallets and keychains. The pair order raw materials from Mexico City every two weeks, and sell the final products in Oaxaca and Leon –the latter of which is a region in Mexico that is generally known for shoemaking.
After the presentation, our group stands at the entrance of the workshop watching the rain pelt the ground with fat drops the size of quarters. For a few minutes, we are convinced that the showers will ease up if we just watch and wait. Another few minutes pass and Susan, our vibrant volunteer translator for the day, notes that the wooden plank that we used to cross the river to the workshop will likely be underwater soon. Huddled under our umbrellas, and with my poncho sticking to my head once again, we move past a landscape of emerald and gold, electrical wires crisscrossing over our heads.
Back in the van, we shake off our jackets and peer out of the windows, the rain now moving across the glass in filmy sheets. As the van pulls onto the highway, our group passes around a large tortilla, salted and crispy, with corn that Juana bought with her interest-free microloan. With this, we savor the delicious fruits of her labor as our van inches through enormous swells of rainwater, and slowly we move, in a seasonal race along the gutter.