Words and photographs by Shannon O’Donnell.
It’s the scent of warm corn that most reminds me of my time in Oaxaca, Mexico. Corn is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Mexico’s culture and daily life. And in the rural areas of Mexico, this link is even stronger. First cultivated 10,000 years ago, indigenous cultures keep a link to their past as by cultivating heirloom varieties and maintaining a diet filled with corn in every form. Although I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Mexico in the past, it’s only while volunteering in the Oaxaca Valley that I discovered just what that corn tastes like when it’s ground each day fresh, then pressed into many different tasty foods. The tortillas were most common, but I also ate it shaved from the cob, and even thick and warm in a chocolate drink called champurrado. But this is not a story of corn, although it framed so much of my time with the women I met. Instead, it’s a story of microfinance, and the impact one organization has on empowering women to build strong businesses and thriving communities …
I spent nearly six months in Oaxaca, and during that time I ventured into the communities once or twice a week. These communities are primarily Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization dating back more than 2,500 years; archeological sites remain scattered around the region. And although Zapotec is the first language for most of the woman I met, they all communicated with me in Spanish. My job was to photograph the women, but even more, I listened to their stories, slurped homemade ice cream with their children, and I laughed with them over my bungled Spanish. During the weeks and months, I came to deeply respect their ambition and perseverance. Several of these women acted as community ambassadors, welcoming me into their homes when I visited and plying me with piping hot tortillas fresh off of the comal.
The stories below are snapshots of these women’s lives. When you read about microfinance and fair trade purchases, your purchasing power affects the lives of women like those profiled below. I have deep respect for the work Fundación En Vía does to support the women in these communities. And even more, I love how they organization offers a unique way for tourists to respectfully learn about Mexico’s fascinating indigenous cultures and customs.
One of the things that drew me to En Vía’s microfinance program is the whole-person approach the organization takes toward developing the programs. Juana Pérez Martínez is a perfect example of the range of services the foundation provides to women in the program. Juana lives in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec and sells fresh tortillas and tlayudas. She uses her microfinance loans to bulk purchase corn and wood so that she maximizes her profit potential. Her husband was injured 30 years ago, so profit is important — she has long supported more than four people with her skills on the comal. En Vía uses tour fees to fund the loan pool for these woman, but through other projects — voluntours and special holiday tours — the foundation raises funds for other needed projects in these women’s lives. For Juana and her family, a new toilet was of utmost need. The volunteer engineering students from Mexico City had a tricky feat designing a composting toilet that met the space requirements and the special needs of her husband, who has limited mobility. This past summer, the team figured out a solution and built a composting toilet that will greatly increase the quality of life for their family.
Delfina Contreras Mendoza oozes charm and joy. Her house is in a gorgeous spot in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains overlooking Teotitlán. Delfina weaves gorgeous tapetes, rugs, on several large hand-operated looms that live in a covered courtyard in her home. Her husband’s carpentry workshop next door buzzed with noise during our visit, and I was lucky to catch two of her children at home. The older one worked the huge loom while his mom showed me her recent En Vía purchases. The youngest hung close to me so he could show off his small woolen coasters, which are the first starting step as the children of weavers learn the family trade. Like many weavers, Delfina bought weaving supplies in bulk, and a huge variety of wool colors so she can expand her offerings. With several older children studying at university, she is hoping the En Vía loans will help grow her business and offset those high expenses.
María de Lourdes García Ojeda, known as Lulu to her friends, has a big dream for her sewing shop in San Sebastián Abasolo. Abasolo is a tiny community just outside of Oaxaca City, and the women in this small town have used their microfinance loans to level up their businesses in an area with few local opportunities. While many in the town commute to nearby Oaxaca City, Lulu has used her loans to provide a niche sewing service to the women in Abasolo. Before her microfinance loans, she would simply sew and mend clothes for the women in town, only charging for her time. With her loans, however, she has invested in fabric, buttons, and even a mannequin so that she can create dresses, skirts, and shirts from scratch. By providing both the services and the goods, she has managed to greatly increase her profits. While she once sewed in a small area in the back of her home, she now moved into a sunny room that overlooks the street. She was all smiles as she showed me the colorful buttons, stacks of fabric, and piles of zippers that she had purchased with her previous En Vía loan. She now has a larger stock of items for sale, and she noted that women place orders with her months in advance in anticipation of local holidays and fiestas.
The warm, earthy scent of toasted corn tint my memories of Emiliana Antonio Miguel. When I first met Emiliana, she was supervising a team of volunteers who had journeyed from Minneapolis to build stoves for those women most in need. She produces hundreds of tortillas every day, and En Vía gifted her with a custom stove designed to meet her needs. The stove had three curved cooking plates, called a comal, and a spot to boil water. It all stood at waist height and allowed her to cook multiple tortillas at once, shortening the time she had to spend cooking each morning. Emiliana uses her En Vía loans to bulk purchase large sacks of corn (pictured behind her). Each time she saw me pass her home, which is located at the very center of town, she would pass me a fresh, warm tortilla. This made for ideal fuel as I huffed and puffed through the steep roads. If you’ve never had a large tortilla pulled off of a warm comal, then make it a bucket-list item — the flavor is unlike any tortilla you could buy in a store.
Across the many months that I spent living in Oaxaca, it’s my time with the women in En Vía’s microfinance program that most profoundly shape my memories of this beautiful part of southern Mexico. I have traveled through many other parts of Mexico, from the Yucatan to my tiny west coast beach town. This time, however, I left Mexico with a more nuanced view of the peoples and cultures. It is through the deep connections to other people that I have found travel most transformative. These women welcomed me into their homes. They shared food and stories and laughter. I can only hope that I was able to give back as much as they offered me.
This is an extract of an article published on A Little Adrift. Read the full article here.
Shannon O’Donnell is a writer and photographer who was nominated Traveler of the Year by National Geographic in 2013. Shannon volunteered as a photographer for En Vía in early 2016.