Words by Newell Searle. Photos by Lene Braeutigam.
The day had just begun and in the shady courtyard two dozen women were preparing for the second Women Entrepreneurs Trade Fair at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. The feria was organized by Fundación En Vía, a Oaxacan non-profit housed at the Instituto. Through the organization’s micro-lending program, several hundred women in Oaxaca’s outlying pueblos have started or expanded their enterprises. On this day, some of the women in En Vía’s program were sharing their crafts and the stories behind them.
In Mexico, ferias are generally social events that promote cultural traditions, new and old, in an enjoyable and vibrant atmosphere. For tourists and visitors, they are a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the lives of artisans, food vendors, and the local community.
The women displaying their wares at the feria are some of En Vía’s most active borrowers. The feria not only provides them with an opportunity to make sales, it’s also an important way to recognize their continued participation in En Vía’s monthly business development workshops.
Despite the early hour, the women were energetic and cheerful. When I arrived, several women were hanging tapetes (woven rugs) and embroidered blouses and aprons between the trees; some set out alebrijes (painted wooden animals), small purses, baskets and other accessories on small tables. Nearby, others prepared to sell tamales, tortillas, and jugs of aguas frescas, natural fruit-flavored beverages.
Many of the women were dressed in traditional indigenous clothing. For example, Zapotec women from Teotitlán del Valle wear a skirt of red wool with a white, embroidered blouse; those from San Miguel del Valle favor elaborately embroidered mandiles or aprons worn over brightly-colored dresses with puffed sleeves.
During the day I had the opportunity to speak with several of En Vía´s borrowers. Rosa and her daughter Gabriela are weavers from Teotitlán. Rosa says a single rug may take weeks, if not months, to complete. Each one is unique and incorporates traditional Zapotec designs that Rosa and Gabriela often weave from memory. They are dedicated to their craft, but the profit margin is historically low and the tourist market is often unpredictable. Using interest-free micro-loans from En Vía, combined with skills she learned in En Vía business classes, Rosa has invested in the materials she needs to make her business more sustainable.
I also spoke with Silvia, an embroiderer from San Miguel del Valle who makes mandiles, aprons that cover the front of the dress from the neck down. Each is made of checked cloth, and Silvia’s are in shades of deep red and teal and covered with heavily embroidered floral designs. These traditional garments are worn in many pueblos, but their designs and decorations vary from place to place. Silvia’s business doesn’t depend on tourists; her regular customers are her fellow residents in San Miguel.
Veronica is a weaver, and we talk as I admire a fine rug in the distinctive geometric ‘Mitla’ style. It has rich natural colors in shades of cinnamon, chocolate, caramel and cream. She says the traditional ‘Mitla’ design represents the circle of life. Her husband, standing nearby, says they advertise and sell their work online and ship to customers by UPS. What at first may appear to be an isolated cottage industry has a global reach through modern technology.
The aroma of food drew me to the tables of tamales, tacos and memelitas. It’s too early to eat lunch but I buy a cup of thick, hot chocolate and talk with Alejandrina, a tiny, personable woman from San Miguel del Valle. She used her En Vía loan to start a business making mole negro and mole coloradito, two of the chile-based sauces for which Oaxaca is famous. Like Silvia, Alejandrina’s customers are residents of San Miguel.
At the end of the day, there was an exhibition showcasing bolsas, or handbags, designed and made by some of the En Vía women who had attended a workshop conducted by two professional designers. The bags, which married traditional designs with modern forms, represented an attractive fusion of old and new, and the designers’ evident pride in their new products was a pleasure to see.
I came away from the feria impressed with the creativity, energy and dedication of the En Vía women. It was a great opportunity to hear their stories and gain insights into the lives of the people who make Oaxaca the unique destination that it is. Fundación En Vía intends to hold other ferias throughout the year and is very grateful to all those who help us make these events possible.