Words by Marianna De Liseo. Photos by MDL, Zoe Kasperzyk, and Lene Braeutigam.
Never a dull moment goes by in the En Vía office. That’s what really occurs to me when I stop to think about some of the activities we call our daily routine. “Client meeting” means an uproarious visit from Norma and her mother-in-law Silvia, two borrowers from Santo Domingo Tomaltepec who drop in on the way back from the Central de Abastos to say hello and fill us in on town news. “Stock count” means trying on, folding up, exchanging ear-to-ear grins over the delivery of custom-designed, Oaxaca-inspired t-shirts and bags that will be sold to fundraise for En Vía’s projects. “Commute” definitely doesn’t mean sitting on the subway lamenting the daily grind- on that Friday afternoon, it meant squeezing into a packed colectivo taxi, running after a rushing bus, and making the windy way up to the community of San Miguel del Valle.
Two En Vía volunteers, Molly and Lene, joined me to make up the trio heading out that day to see for themselves what happens every Wednesday and Friday afternoon at Cecilia’s house. The narrow streets of San Miguel were decorated with natural bunting – flowers, pine needles, leaves of the local níspero (loquat) and avocado trees, hung roof-to-roof over our heads as we sensed that San Miguel felt a little quieter than usual.
The stillness in the bright mountain energy of the village was understandable, given that the community had been celebrating the yearly festival of their patron saint, San Miguel Arcángel, for two weeks by that point. Even Shaggy, Cecilia’s hyperactive and hilarious dog, looked pooped. But the pace was to be picked up again by music and movement in an hour and a half of Zumba class.
The initiative and dedication of a small team of creative volunteers, combined with a commitment to providing opportunities that are responsive and relevant to the interests of the women in our programs, meant that En Vía could launch a Health and Nutrition program this July. When interviewed earlier in the year about their greatest health concerns, women across the 6 communities that En Vía works with said that Diabetes was the illness that most worried them. This worry is not unfounded- in Oaxaca the number of deaths caused by Diabetes went up by a staggering 235% from 2002-2012; from January to June 2015, the state health service reported 36,461 Diabetes cases. The region of Valles Centrales, where En Vía and our community partners call home, ranks first out of the 8 regions of the state where most cases of Diabetes are registered. Of every 100 Diabetes-related deaths in Oaxaca, 62 of them are women with Type II Diabetes– the onset of the disease developed from sustained unhealthy habits like a high-sugar diet and lack of exercise.
The core message of the workshops in the Health and Nutrition program is that this disease is avoidable- small lifestyle changes can make big, life-saving impacts. As well as hands-on healthy cooking classes, informative and dynamic sessions have served to introduce women to the risks of Diabetes and debunk myths surrounding the illness. Visual aids and real-life examples illustrate how both health and economic costs can be saved by maintaining a balanced diet and doing a little exercise every day.
Most of us are accustomed to a routine – a rhythm of tasks and responsibilities that we carry out on the daily. It’s easy to get stuck and not so easy to introduce changes or challenges. In San Miguel, Zumba classes have been a welcome disruption to the daily routine of up to as many as 30 women a week. Classes open to En Vía participants, their friends and family members, are run twice a week by local instructor Aracely from Tlacolula. “Zumba isn’t just dancing and having a good time- keeping up this type of exercise can lower cholesterol, hypertension, and relieve depression.”
A half-hour in, we certainly weren’t “just dancing” (anyone who knows me will know that’s an impossible occurrence in my life anyway) – we were doing strenuous, fast-paced exercise, and had our previous impression of a lethargic afternoon proven completely wrong as our laughter reverberated with the music. No exaggerating, the endorphins were bouncing off the walls of Cecilia’s front room. Aracely paused every 20 minutes or so and asked if we wanted a break- unsure of whether my sides were splitting from laughing so hard or from my evident lack of fitness, there was no time to stop and think about it as eager “¡SI!”s came in reply. Henriqueta, 60, only moved from her front-row spot to come over and answer a few of my questions after stretching at the end of the class. “I’ve been coming to these classes since July” she told me. “I used to have a lump, like a knot, in my leg”, pointing to the back of her shin, “it used to cause me trouble when I walked to the monte”. She goes on to explain that she has her own small plot of land up the hill “nearby” (in San Miguel perceptions of distance, this is a 40-minute walk away) where she goes to tend to her cilantro, marigolds and vegetables and carries firewood on her back on the way down. “Now the lump’s gone!” Her eyes sparkle.
Lucia, in her twenties, said that the biggest difference she’s noticed over the last three months is that “before, I used to get stressed. Now since classes I feel much better”. For her neighbour Leonilda it’s her first time taking part in Zumba classes. She started investing in her business, weaving tapetes (typical Zapotec wool tapestries), with an En Vía loan just a month ago. “I know I’m overweight” she told me, “and I can feel it.” She leans against Cecilia’s doorway in the shade of the avocado tree. “La clase estuvo muy bonita”.
“Un paso pa’adelante” – “a step forward” – I never thought a random lyric of a Latin pop song would resonate with me as it did that afternoon. I also never thought I’d find myself in a Zapotec town in the hills of Oaxaca in a dancersize class surrounded by tremendous, tenacious women. As it happens, new challenges, slight changes, small steps can take us forward to leading healthier and happier lives.