Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Como Agua para Chocolate

By Kim Groves.

At first glance I thought the floor was filthy, but the dark colored dust that was stuck between the tiles was not dirt, but chocolate. I scuffed my boots a little in it, like a child. I stood around the storefront trying to look casual. Like I knew what I was doing. I was watching the people and trying to figure out the process. The process of buying chocolate.

There was an old woman with a huge bulging plastic bag of bread. I smiled at her and she seemed to accept me. She showed me the ticket she held that indicated her special order of chocolate. We talked a little. She wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the fascinating elaboration that was going on in front of us. A line of strange looking machines were grinding and whipping and combining. The smell that came off the warm metal was incredible. After a performance of some minutes, a man handed her a plastic bag full of a dark semi-solid mass. I leant in, leading with my nose, but before I could examine it more closely, it disappeared amongst a rustle of plastic and skirts.

The ancient Mexicans believed that the cacao bean was a gift from the gods, and thus only high priests and nobles were permitted to drink it. For a period, the raw bean actually served as a currency. It was originally prepared without sugar, and was instead sweetened with honey. It was believed to have many health benefits, including settling stomach problems, and stimulating healthy blood and heart function. The aphrodisiac effect was noted also!

It was the colonizing Spanish monks who introduced chocolate to Europe, where it was taken up most earnestly by the Swiss. Today the bean is grown in almost all sub-tropical regions of the world. It is a product bound up in both gastronomical pleasure and economic and political complexity.

Ever since that first day amongst the chocolate shops on Calle Mina, I have begun to experiment. More almonds. Less sugar. A certain touch of cinnamon. It is up to you how you add to this ancient magical bean. I admit, in my attempts I have burnt the tongues of quite a few friends. But, personally, I like it hotter than it’s good for a person. I take pleasure in handing someone, drenched and hassled by Oaxaca’s afternoon rainstorms, a dangerously steaming cup. And of course, in Oaxaca, bread accompanies chocolate like cheese does wine. The verb ‘sopear’ is a favorite of mine. It is practically bad manners not to dunk your bread straight into your cup.

The act of mixing the chocolate as it melts into water immediately took on a special meaning for me. Every time I roll that wooden tool between my fingers I sense that I am doing something that generations and generations of women have been doing before me. It speaks to me of the feminine power to transform something ordinary into something divine. Chocolate for me is something that symbolizes the combining of earth and water and fire.

The Mexican phrase, como agua para chocolate, made famous by Laura Esquivel’s novel of the same name, describes someone in a state of anger or passion. Ready to boil and burn, like water for chocolate. I personally like to think of it more in terms of being ready to transform, or about the richness and potential to rally and change…

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Macro-impact of Micro-finance

Story and photos by Julia Turnbull


On the T in Boston in May, I told someone about my plans to spend the summer in Oaxaca with Fundación En Vía, helping them with their interest-free microfinance program. Interest-free microfinance? My travel companion was a bit skeptical about the ability of interest-free loans to make real changes in the second poorest state in Mexico. I must admit that I also was skeptical about how a $1,300 MXN loan could change the life of a woman operating a grocery store or a weaving shop from the front room of her home. I knew that microfinance gives women access to credit, which they might not otherwise have, but was unsure of the potential of microfinance to inculcate growth and create new opportunities.

After three months in Oaxaca, I discovered that interest-free microloans are making subtle, but significant changes in individual lives, communities, and regions. With these loans, women are turning their ingenuity and dedication into businesses that allow them to support their families and grow their local economy. Many of the women in Teotitlán del Valle and Díaz Ordaz are extremely independent and have crafted livelihoods out of the skills that have been passed down to them over the years. With one $1,300 MXN loan, one of our borrowers was able to expand her cheese selling business. Another borrower bought wax and cotton thread so she could begin making candles after an illness left her too tired to weave. A microloan is an opportunity; it can be used to buy a new piece of equipment, buy enough of a good to guarantee a week’s supply and build a customer base, or allow someone to build credit and reach financial literacy.

I met Isabel in June, when she received her first group of tourists for her first En Vía loan. Isabel, her sisters, and her husband are all weavers. She gave us a dying demonstration and showed us the looms her and her husband work upon. Since the first afternoon I met Isabel, I have seen her confidence in dealing with the family business and her ability to manage and plan for her family’s future soar. At this week’s Tuesday meeting, Isabel presented to her peers how she has used the business management and savings strategies presented in the course offered by En Vía to grow her business. A few weeks ago, Isabel painted her new logo, a jaguar, developed with the help volunteers from Mexico City on the front of her family’s shop along the main street. She credits the design for two rug sales this past Sunday afternoon and plans to reinvest the profits back into her business.

Another borrower shared with me that she is implementing what she learned in the classes, and is setting aside money from her profits to cover recurring expenses. Before school began this week, she was able to use money from her savings to purchase school supplies, new shoes, and a uniform for her daughter. Her ability to make this purchase in cash and not on store-credit is not only important for her own cash management, but it also benefits the local economy.  The local stores are able to reinvest in inventory immediately, preventing them from running stock and loosing potential sales to the well-stocked stores in Oaxaca. Not to mention, that one of our borrowers makes and sells uniforms! The more the women feel that they are in control of their business money, profits, and personal savings, the better able they are to plan for reinvestment and important annual expenses. This all began with some $1,300 MXN interest-free loans.

En Vía’s interest free microloans are giving women new resources to help make positive changes not just in how they manage their business assets, but by also reinforcing community support systems, and building linkages in the local economy. In my three short months with En Vía, I met many women and saw many changes. One woman is planning on starting a new business selling her secret-recipe moles (sauces)in the local market, another has been able to save enough money to build a bakery in an unused space in their home, and many have learned how to save to meet the needs of their families. The most important positive changes that have come about from microfinance are d


ifficult to quantify, but there is no doubt that the sum of the impact of more than 350 microloans is greater than that of each individual loan.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Three Sisters

Story and photos by Julia Turnbull

The Lázaro Bautista sisters, Lucila, Josefina, and Silvia, have been working with En Vía since the organization began offering interest free microloans in Teotitlán del Valle. They are all part of the same borrowing group, and each sister brings her own business ideas and energy to the group. When twelve of us visited their family home and workshop this past Saturday afternoon, we saw how these women have worked together to turn their art, ideas, and everyday cooking skills into businesses that generate steady income. The three sisters are from a family of weavers, and they are managing to continue weaving tapetes (rugs), their passion, while also starting new businesses at a time when tapete sales are slow. 

Josefina purchases raw wool, which she then washes, cleans, spins into thread, dyes, and sells by the kilo to other weavers, including one of her sisters. Josefina uses natural dyes to color the wool, which are preferred by many of Teotitlán’s weavers. This aspect of working with wool is labor intensive, and takes up a significant amount of time. Many weavers prefer to buy yarn already cleaned and dyed, so they can devote their energies to weaving. With her loans, Josefina can buy a larger quantity of wool, wood for the fires to make the dyes, and the materials she needs to prepare the dyes such as indigo, alfalfa, and pomegranate. Josefina, who is about to borrow her fifth loan, has created a niche for herself in the local weaving market.


Lucila is a true entrepreneur. She weaves in her spare time, which she has little of because she has four other businesses. Her first loan went for the iron press used to flatten dough into obleas, the flat, sweet wafers that go well with a hot chocolate. Lucila used her second loan for a metate, a stone device on which corn is ground into meal, and a comal, upon which tortillas and tostadas are made. With her third loan, Lucila purchased a large pot for making fresh tamales, a delicious mixtures of corn meal, chicken, and sauces cooked inside of cornhusks or banana leaves. Lucila is now planning to use her fourth loan to buy cloth and thread so that she can sew blouses featuring traditional embroidery patterns. Lucila and Silvia have a stall near the center of town, where they sell their handmade textiles. Lucila said that having so many businesses ensures a steady stream of income with which she can take care of her two daughters, who are getting ready for first and third grade.

Silvia is a weaver. She enjoys drawing her own designs, and is experimenting with rugs that display figures from the ancient Zapotec legends, such as a jaguar or a butterfly turning into a woman. Recently, she tells us, the tapetes with single figures have been out-selling both the traditional geometric patterns of mountains and valleys and the customary diamond of Oaxaca. However, Silvia has discovered that what sells the most are purses, so she is weaving unique combinations of colors and stripes to make material for bags. She also sews linings and zippers into the bags, and then attaches either braided wool or leather shoulder straps. As rug sales decline, she tells us, she must find a way to use her family’s resources to make goods that are selling in the local market.


With interest-free loans from En Vía, these three sisters have combined their knowledge with work ethic to improve their livelihoods. With their collective business sense, Josefina, Lucila, and Silvia have found ways to adapt their income generating projects to changes in the local economy as well as changes in consumer preference.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

English Classes in Teotitlán: How Friendly Students Find Us


Story by Chris McCoy and photo by Kim Groves

The other day I was waiting for a bus, when I heard a man behind me say in English, “Excuse me, what time is it?” I looked at my watch and even though he asked me in English, for some reason I tried to answer in Spanish. But as is often the case when I have to speak Spanish on the spot, the words were reluctant in coming, “Er, a las dos y, um, y media, no como uh dos y viente…” He looked as if he couldn’t understand me (and who could blame him), so I finally gave him the time in English. I should have realized that he didn’t really want to know the time; he just saw an opportunity to practice his English. After that we had a short chat in English, and he asked me all the standard questions: where are you from, what’s your name, what are you doing in Mexico, and so on.

Then he asked if I had ever heard of Teotitlán del Valle.  I was taken aback by his question because I was at that very moment on my way to Teotitlán to teach English for En Vía.  He said he was from there and that he knows many people who don’t know English but they want to learn. I told him a little about the En Vía English program, and how we give free classes every Tuesday and Thursday in Teotitlán to anyone who is interested, regardless of their ability, age or gender.  He seemed excited about the program and promised to tell everyone he knows about our English classes. Which is good for us because word travels fast in a community as interconnected as Teotitlán.

Happily, interactions like this are a common occurrence in Oaxaca. And Jose, the guy who struck up a conversation with me is just one of countless examples of the friendly spirit that is in such abundance in Teotitlán. I can only hope our English classes will give our students opportunities to share some of that friendly spirit with even more people.

If you would like to volunteer to teach with En Vía, please contact us. We are always looking for dedicated volunteers interested in making an impact on people’s lives.  


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art Event

This past Saturday, from our outreach table at the Xochimilco market, we had the pleasure of meeting a member of an organization known as Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art. The organization works to preserve and promote the folk art and traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico, through public awareness and exposure programs in both Mexico and the US. 

This Friday, August 12, they will be holding an event at the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec. The event is to present/announce winners for their 2nd Annual Young Artist's Contest. The winners of the contest receive educational scholarships. In addition, the artisans work will be on display during the event. 

For more information about the organization please visit http://www.fofa.us/.>

WHO: Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art and the Museo Estatal Amigos de Art Popular de Oaxaca join together to promote artisans in Oaxaca.  

WHAT: An event to admire the work of local artisans, including an award ceremony for the winners and honorable mentions of the 2nd Annual Young Artist Contest.

WHEN: Friday, August 12 at 12:00 p.m. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Rewards of Volunteering

Story by Andy Healy and Photos by Kim Groves and Julia Turnbull

How I got into teaching English with En Vía was really straightforward. Living in Oaxaca, I wanted to do something useful. I searched Google for “voluntary work in Oaxaca” and here I am.

Twice a week, a small group of us head out to Teoltitlán to teach English for a couple of hours. As a rule there are five teaching groups: two adult and three children`s groups.

I teach the Entry class for our adult learners. I have been doing this twice a week for just over four months now.  My first week out to Teotitlán, I observed the classes and assisted the teacher with the group I was going to take over.

My group size is fairly stable with eight very good attendees and a few, what you might call floaters, who might float in, or not, as their circumstances demand.  That`s not to underestimate the commitment required for these ladies to find four hours a week in which to attend class. The curriculum is focused clearly on the immediate business needs of the ladies, delivered flexibly, and is responsive to the needs of these learners.  Essentially the aim for my group is to be able to communicate at a simple level with any and all English speaking customers and hopefully succeed in selling their wares.  That`s a very measurable outcome from their perspective.

Classes tend to be fun for both teacher and learners, as my Spanish is best described as appalling; there is much gesturing and pantomime. Whilst the ladies, on the other hand, are fluent in Spanish yes, but it`s not their first language. That’s Zapotec. Thus getting the ladies to be confident and speak up in English is a major objective. From start to finish, it’s all a bit of a giggle, really.

At the end of every session the ladies thank me for being their teacher and in return I thank them. I certainly mean what I say, and believe they do as well. Then it’s home to Oaxaca for a bite to eat and a couple of beers.

To say that these sessions are amongst the most rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had the pleasure of would not be too far short of the mark.  If you get the chance, you should come and join us; details on the main website (http://www.envia.org).

Friday, August 5, 2011

Straight from Our Volunteers: Day Trip Ideas Outside Oaxaca


During our time here, we have had a chance to explore outside of the city and see some of the beautiful sights that Oaxaca has to offer.  I asked some of our volunteers to share some of their favorite places to visit near the city.

Q. What is your favorite day trip outside of Oaxaca:


Flor: It's difficult to think of just one place because as an Oaxacan girl, I have several favorites.  But probably my favorite trip outside Oaxaca is to La Sierra Juárez and seeing the different towns there, such as Cajimoloyas, Llano Grande, Latuvi and Rancho Benito Juárez. I've walked almost everywhere in these towns and you should to believe me when I say that the surrounding landscape is just beautiful. I love walking through the woods, seeing the green color on every side, and viewing all sorts of different plants and flowers. There's no better way to view the stars than from the Sierra; I’ll always remember the sky full of small spotlights and shining brightly. Also, Sierra's delicious bread paired with a cup of chocolate is the absolute best. The weather is cold but the people are very warm. It's easy to have special moments: the Sierra has nature, quietness and yummy food…all I need!


You can take a bus or taxi from central Abastos to the individual towns. You can also go to a shop near the Sangre de Cristo Church on Abasolo street and ask for more information about tours and booking a night in one of the villages.



Julia: The best day trip I have taken so far is to Monte Alban. I visited on a clear, sunny morning one Sunday in June. What I like about Monte Alban is that it has been uncovered (and some parts reconstructed) in a way that allows visitors to get a sense of what the inhabitants of the ancient city saw when they looked into the skies, or out across the mountains, or down into the valley where the city of Oaxaca now sits. The pyramids, meeting halls, patios, and palaces of Monte Alban are quite impressive as well. Made of stone, and held together with little other than well-planned designs, the buildings are situated to align with the cosmos, marking the change of both the hours and the seasons of the year. I climbed to the tops of the pyramids, and from each one I got a different view of the site and how it may have appeared when it was a bustling Zapotec city. There are also lots of intricate details in the tiles and paint in the hall of the dancers, which depicts the figures that were captured and sacrificed. I also enjoyed the museum, which showcased artifacts found in the tombs and original carvings.

The easiest way to get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca for solo travelers is to purchase a ticket from the Hotel Rivera del Angel (Calle Mina 518, Centro, Oaxaca). For less than $50 MXN I purchased a round trip ticket that allowed me 3 hours at the site. Travel time each way was about 25 minutes. Monte Alban is a fantastic half day trip, just remember water and sunscreen.



Kim: The town of Santa Maria del Tule is just a short bus ride from the centre of the city of Oaxaca, along the highway towards Mitla. Do yourself a favour and pay the 5.50 pesos fare and go out there! In the town you will meet a very old and very beautiful being; El Árbol del Tule. A tree! She is over 2000 years old. She is 40 metres tall, and at 42 metres in diameter her trunk is the biggest in the world! She seems just as big as the church that stands by her side. Her ‘hijo’ (child), with an approximate age of 1000 years, keeps her company in the churchyard also. According to the Zapotec legend, Pechocha, a priest of Ehécatl the God of the Wind, planted the tree in this sacred site, and standing by the great tree I felt that it remains a special place. It was an experience I’ll never forget. She is magnificent! Local people and foreigners all flock to see her. There is a 5 pesos donation at the gate that goes towards the maintenance of the beautiful garden and the preservation of the tree which has suffered in the last years due to the compacting of the soil and the growing urban environment. I hope that she lasts another 1000 years! Go visit!



Sam: Santiago Apoala, a little village hidden in between the mountains of the Mixteca Alta Sierra about 4 hours northeast of Oaxaca has been one of my favorite escapes from Oaxaca City. It takes a while to get there, and the roads aren't too pleasant, but once you arrive you know the trip was worth it. Upon our arrival, we decided to first explore the beautiful waterfalls that had led to us to this place. We registered with the town tourism office, and were given a personal guide, an eager little boy, who told us about his village as we ascended down the gorge in search of the waterfall. The hike was short (45 min), a little steep, and the views magnificent. The waterfall was as expected, spectacular. After admiring her beauty, we continued along the path in search of a swimming hole. The water was freezing, and incredibly refreshing. We ended up spending the whole day at the swimming pool, and didn’t leave enough time to visit the caves nor the town, so I guess I’ll have to go again.


Kyra:  I really enjoyed visiting San Bartolo, the village that is famous for its black pottery.  Instead of buying from the shops right off the road, I walked into the town and found a number of stores run by local families. I also happened upon a demonstration of how the pottery is made and you can see that is almost completely done by hand – there’s no wheel just a base to rest it on and small tools to carve intricate designs.

Right off of the small park in the center is the Museo de Arte Popular Oaxaca. It has a pretty expansive collection of pottery, textiles, and paintings. It was completely empty when I arrived so it was a nice quiet place to walk around and visually take in local culture. You can take a collective taxi near the Abastos Market.  The ride takes about 20 minutes and cost about 8-10 pesos each way.   



Shelley: My favorite is the hike up past the Guelaguetza stadium, past the observatory, and out to the hills north east of Oaxaca.  Not exactly a day trip, as it can be done in a couple of hours.  But the views of Oaxaca and the surrounding areas are tremendous, and the exercise isn't bad, either.  Any sturdy shoe will work.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What does an interest-free microloan mean to a borrower and her community?


Story and photos by Julia Turnbull

The town of Diaz Ordaz is located several kilometers east of Teotitlán del Valle, in Santa Ana del Valle. It is near the infamous Sunday Tlacolula market and within the sights of the Fortaleza of Yagul (the fortress of the ancient ruins of Yagul). Fundación En Vía is working with nine women in Diaz Ordaz, each of whom are trying to either expand existing or provide new businesses, and support their families, all while using resources and assets they already have. The descriptions of the three women that follow demonstrate the ingenuity that our borrowers display again and again.

Maria Jesus is a young mother making pizzas and selling them both in Diaz Ordaz and in Tlacolula on Sundays. She makes the pizzas by hand, baking them one at a time in her mother-in-law’s oven. While the pizza bakes on the top rack, a chicken marinated in one of Oaxaca’s delicious moles simmers below. Maria used her first loan to purchase ingredients for making pizza dough, sauces, and toppings. With a second loan, she would like to buy a microwave so that she can make several pizzas, freeze them, and then sell them from her mother’s house which is in the center of the village and where there are more passerby. She will use the microwave to reheat the frozen pizzas, so clients can purchase freshly warmed slices. She offers Hawaiian and chorizo varieties, and proudly told me that she created the recipes herself based on her clients’ tastes. In addition to the pizzas, she sells roast chickens and cupcakes on Saturdays, when people receive their weekly paychecks. Maria has discovered how to use her own skills and resources, a long with some interest-free loans to provide a steady cash income and tap into the pizza market in Diaz Ordaz.

Herlinda, who lives with her husband on a hillside farm, has used her loans to purchase young lambs and raise them to maturity. When they have fattened themselves on a diet of a bamboo-like crop that grows in the river ways in Diaz Ordaz, she takes them to Tlacolula and sells them for a profit. This has been a successful project for Herlinda because she and her husband already have several animal pens and experience with raising livestock. It takes about three months for Herlinda to raise two or three lambs into sizable sheep. Upon the sale, she recovers her loan and also a profit. Their primary source of income is cultivating crops. Raising livestock is a second source of income. Sheep are always in demand in Santa Ana de Valle, where they are both a source of wool for the artisans and also a source of meat.


Ameli, who is full of energy and always ready to greet visitors, has a storefront on one of the main streets in Diaz Ordaz. She has used her first loan to purchase an old-fashioned popcorn maker. She also makes fresh potato chips, which she plans to sell with the popcorn during the weekends at the town’s festivals. With her location, it is easy to sell fresh snacks to passersby, and also easy to carry them to the town center, where families gather to enjoy sunny afternoons.

These women understand the local market and the challenges of operating a business in a small economy. Using assets they already have, whether they are land, a knack for creating new recipes, or knowing that locals are looking for fresh fare on an afternoon stroll, these three women are creating niches for their businesses in Diaz Ordaz. Interest-free microloans are helping Maria Jesus, Herlinda, and Ameli use their big ideas to turn their resources into sustainable income flows and create new markets for goods and services in their community.