The Oaxacan sun is already peaking when our small group of Fundación En Vía volunteers and employees pile into the tour van at 9am. We are the pilot tour; a group consisting of two photo journalists, a translator, a prospective En Vía tour guide and communications intern, the new tourism coordinator, me, a communications and journalism intern, and a couple other interested En Vía fans. Although En Vía has been successfully running tours for 10 years, they, like the rest of the world, have stopped because of the pandemic. Our purpose here today is to test out new Covid safety protocols and hopefully get the ball rolling for many tours to come.
As the tour van bumps along the winding dirt road towards the small community of San Marcos Tlapazola and the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range rolls along beside us, our responsible tourism coordinator reads off the itinerary for the day, emphasizing the importance of the new Covid-19 protocols for these communities that were hit so hard in the past months.
This is the first coordinated tour with En Vía since December. This is also my first time venturing outside of Oaxaca de Juárez since arriving a couple months prior and making a comfortable life for myself volunteering at a hostel. A life that, as full of friends, delicious food, and mezcal as it was, prompted a prying restlessness. I began interning at En Vía with the desire to scratch the surface of the tourism culture here and discover what I could about everything going on underneath.
Since December when Covid-19 finally made it’s daunting sweep through Oaxaca, En Vía has relied on the generosity of donors to keep up with its interest-free micro loan program, which has been the backbone of the organization since the beginning.
With interest rates in Mexico ranging from 70 to 200%, an organization that offers interest free loans is almost unheard of, and certainly hard to believe for most of the indigenous artisans who have struggled to get their businesses off the ground without the kind of opportunities that are offered in the west.
This was the case for Angelica, who waits for us at 10am behind the counter of her dress and apron shop with her hands confidently folded in front of her own embroidered apron.
She was introduced to En Vía by her sister in law, who convinced her after her own success story that the micro loan program offered by En Vía was to be trusted. A year later, Angelica has turned her craft into a growing business using her facebook business page as outreach for her commission work and drawing in customers from America.
As security and as a way to hold the women accountable for paying back their loans on time, En Vía groups the women into threes. If one of the three women in a group doesn’t hold up her end of the bargain to pay a loan back on time, the whole group is charged with a fine. Therefore, in most cases these groups of three are bonded by family ties or close friendship. After thanking Angelica for her time we step outside her shop to gather around her sister in law, Marcelina.
Marcelina is standing proudly behind her table of assorted pottery and tostadas, wearing an embroidered apron made by Angelica. Her pottery is an assortment of tea kettles, mugs, vases, and mezcal shot glasses with faces molded from the clay. She describes to us her process of hiking to the mine to harvest the clay she uses for her pottery. She says for each trip she hikes back with about four sacks of clay tied to her back. She says that although the clay itself is free, she has to pay people to help her harvest and hike the clay back. She admits that the pandemic has been hard on her business, but that she has found relief in the Growing Strong program provided by En Vía, a program that gives the women the option of either starting a vegetable garden or hosting chickens. Marcelina, like most of the women, chose the chickens which she says provides her with the options to either sell, butcher, or keep for the eggs. She says that she started off with 35 chickens, and when asked where she kept all of these chickens she answered with a grin, “Tengo en mi casa [sic],” (in my house).
Angelina is the third woman we visit in their group of three. In 2018 she joined the two women and has since put her loans entirely into her clay business. She has a spacious studio that is a sweet relief from the harsh midday sun. She says she has come a long way since she was a teenager and would help her parents with their clay business, carrying the pottery in a basket into Oaxaca city center and using the money she got from her sales to buy groceries and carry them back to her family in the same basket. She leads us outside and gives us a thorough demonstration on how she makes her pottery by hand, using a seemingly strange assortment of tools in replacement of the wheel.
After we break for a delicious lunch of sweet chicken mole over yellow rice, grilled Oaxacan cheese, crispy enchiladas and pickled vegetables, we visit the community of Teotitlán del val, home of the weavers. We are warmly greeted by a group of three cousins, Minerva, Magdalena, and Leticia. They have laid out for display on a hard dirt floor a multicolor row of yarn with bowls corresponding to each color. Inside each bowl are the various natural ingredients used for dying the yarn. Spanish moss creates shades of forest green and beige, sweet acacia bark for blacks, and a type of scale insect that lives on prickly pear cacti called cochineal creates oranges and reds.
Minerva is the oldest of the three and has been weaving since the ripe age of 12. She is the most advanced and specializes in the most intricate of patterns. She has just completed a large woven tapestry after three months of work with over 30 colorful birds flying around a geometric tree and vines crawling in and out of the branches.
Similarly, Magdalena, Minerva’s younger cousin, hopes to save up enough money to buy smaller looms so that her own children can already start learning how to weave. She says that it is common in the community for the children who aren’t yet tall enough to reach the looms to perform other tasks such as brushing and washing the wool. As soon as they are tall enough to reach the pedals of the loom, that’s when they begin learning how to weave.
She speaks of how before she was introduced to En Vía she worked for companies that required her to weave certain patterns with certain colors, stifling her creative process. Now that she has been able to build up her own business using the loans from En Vía, she says she is free to weave on her own creative terms. Minerva is passionate about her weaving and its significance to Teotitlán, and she shares her concerns that this age old art form is dying with the older generations. In attempts of preserving her culture, and with the help of her growing business, Minerva has a long term goal of founding a weaving school for the children of Teotitilán.
After Minerva’s weaving demonstration I meander over to watch Leticia skillfully play her loom, which resembles a piano in its grandiosity, foot pedals, and many strings. The patterns she has planned for her rug are based on grecas, which is an ancient Aztec pattern. She forms these patterns through mathematical formulas that she has memorized, counting the rows of each color based on her chosen design. She says her goal is to become as skilled as Minerva so she can bring to life all of the designs she has in her head.
At the end of the visit the women hand us each small cardboard cutouts, which I realize soon after are their business cards neatly handwritten with their name, type of business, phone number and if they have it, their email. After shopping around their store, and personally after eyeing a particularly fashionable black and grey woven handbag with leather straps, we thank the women for their time and head back to the tour van, our appetites satisfied by Oaxacan cuisine, cultural exchange, and handmade trinkets gathered from each stop.
It is 3:30 and our pilot tour has come to an end. I am exhausted from the heat of the day and all I can do on the trip back to Oaxaca de Juárez, back to my little hostel life, is stare out the window with my head pressed against the glass and reflect on the passion and talent of the women I met today. It makes me wonder if more female indigenous artists everywhere had the opportunity to weave or mold or sew their way out of the poverty trap, where they may take women on a global scale; what dent in the patriarchy they might make. It is questions like these that run through my head after this tour and fill me with not only my own excitement for my adventures with En Vía to come, but for the prospect of these tours inspiring other tourists who, like me, are restless to scratch the surface and engage in organizations that give life-changing opportunities to women who have been historically bullied out of their creative freedom.
A huge shout out to Payton Haynes for his natural talent with a camera. To follow his work check out his photography page on Instagram @payrayhay