Oaxaca life

Witnessing, Learning, Collaborating: The En Vía Project Tour

Words by guest blogger Pamela Joern

Master chef Reyna Mendoza guides author Pam Joern through the push and pull motions of a traditional grinding stone

From snow-frosted Minnesota, twelve members of Judson Church arrived in sun-soaked Oaxaca in February, happy to hear the music of life lived outdoors, to taste tortillas, chocolate and chilies, to drink in the purple beauty of jacarandas and the reds and corals of bougainvillea. Barking dogs and daybreak roosters may have disturbed our sleep but did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. We paraded through the streets of Oaxaca in our newly purchased authentic Mexican tourist shirts to En Via’s door, not knowing what to expect but open and eager to learn. 

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        We had heard of En Via from Sarah Baker, a church member and friend who volunteers as a translator for this remarkable organization. On a Wednesday morning, Sarah introduced us to Mica and Marianna, the staff persons who would serve as our tour guides and translators. Without hesitation, we placed ourselves in the hands of these capable young women. Their respect and affection for the borrowers of En Via radiated through every encounter and because of their established relationships, we never felt intrusive.  Rather, we we were welcomed into the homes and lives of the indigenous women who we visited.

        On our first day, we embarked on a typical one-day En Via micro-finance tour. We visited three different pueblos and met six borrowers: a pharmacy owner, a farmer who breeds and sells animals for meat, a restaurant owner where we enjoyed a delicious outdoor lunch, a catalog saleswoman, a tortilla-maker, and a leather goods craftswoman. We heard their stories and were introduced to the principles behind the highly successful micro-lending program En Via offers. We were impressed with the dignity and business savvy of all of these women.

Tour of the market in Teotitlán del Valle

        On the first and last nights of our tour we stayed at La Betulia, a lovely B & B in Oaxaca City owned by En Via’s founders Carlos Topete and his wife Pia Tokiyama. The other three nights we lodged in the pueblos, our meals provided by En Via borrowers. In small rooms, seated at cloth-covered tables, we enjoyed the flavors of Oaxaca—black beans, chilies, handmade corn tortillas, and queso fresco. We visited churches, cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers by one of the many pueblo committees that form a network of communal services. Surrounded by intricately woven rugs, we observed steps of the weaving process: carding, spinning, and dying raw wool before weaving it on pedal looms. We saw cactus paddles hanging with farmed cochineal beetles that would be crushed to make red and yellow hues, and we watched in awe as yarn dipped in a vat of indigo dye emerged bright green, then transformed into blue in the open air. We attended a cooking class and knelt before time-worn metates to grind chilies and tomatillos. We walked dusty streets, woke early to band music played for Lenten processions, and marveled at the vermillion flycatcher. All this we did, and yet the highlights of the trip were the work projects.

        On two different days, members of our group worked to build a garden space and several small wicking containers for Eulalia Florina Ruiz Morales. Eulalia is a single woman who never married, the one out of several sisters who stayed home to help her parents. She is a weaver, and little by little, with the assistance of her community and through En Via loans, she is erecting a new house.  She wanted to grow vegetables and herbs. This doesn’t sound so daunting, but the small plot next to her new house consisted of hard rock and poor soil. The sun beat down, we got plenty tired, but we also heard Eulalia’s story, shared lunch in the shade of her unfinished home, laughed a lot, and exulted when the last row was finally sown. 

Eulalia Florina Ruiz Morales shares her thoughts with tour leader Marianna De Liseo

        On Saturday, we built stoves for two En Via borrowers. We learned that smoke inhalation is a major cause of disease and death among women and children, and that these new stoves would be properly vented. Not only would they be safer, but they would also burn more efficiently, requiring less wood—better for people, the economy, and the environment. We met Sergio, a local veterinarian who has built hundreds of stoves and would be our foreman for the day.

        Half of the group (of which I was a part) built a three comal stove for Emiliana Antonio Miguel, a tortilla maker who rises each day at 3:30 a.m. to take corn she has soaked from the night before to the mill. Back in her kitchen by 4:30, she works into the afternoon making tortillas. She then attends to the needs of her home, her husband, and four children. Her son Luis was a great help to us as we learned how to hand-mix concrete for mortar between the bricks, then mix concrete with clay for the lining of the stove. Emiliana, wearing the typical dress of women from San Miguel—a full underslip, a pink beaded dress with a knife-pleated skirt and lace collar, overlaid with an embroidered apron—helped us soak bricks in tubs of water and mix the heavy clay, one shovelful at a time.


Emiliana Antonio Miguel lights her new stove for the first time

Late in the day, we finally had the structure in place to support three comales and a pot,  but the entire stove needed to be lined and sealed with clay. We were struggling to make the clay stick to the bricks, when Emiliana, who had been patiently watching our fumbling, stepped up with a bucket of watery clay, scooped up handfuls and flung them at the back wall of the stove. Watching, I scooped a handful and flung it. Miraculously, it stuck. We all laughed, especially Emiliana.  Following her lead, we managed to line and seal the stove, vent it, light it and cheer as the smoke escaped through the exhaust pipe. 

As saturated as we were by the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of pueblo life, we were more satiated by the courage, friendliness, resilience and ingenuity of the people we met. Our group coalesced and bonded.  We all fell in love with Mica and Marianna and would willingly follow them anywhere.  More importantly, our hearts and minds were permanently stretched to enfold the people of the pueblos. We can’t unlearn what we now know, nor do we want to. We can only hope that our new awareness infuses us, so that all we do works toward creating a kinder and more just world.

*En Vía’s next Project Tour will run over the 4th of July weekend: July 2nd – 6th, 2017.  If you are interested in participating contact us at info@envia.org.  The tour is open to participants from all walks of life, ages 12 and up.



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