Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Giving Thanks in Oaxaca

By Kim Groves

We do not have the Thanksgiving tradition in Australia, and I’d never really had cause to think much about it. That is, until this past week, when I was included in my first such celebration here in Oaxaca.

You may accuse me of being sentimental (you’d be absolutely right), but this past week, as I went about my usual routine in Oaxaca, I took note of all that I valued. I was grateful for the little kids playing soccer in my street, and even for the music that spontaneously blasted from the churchyard; for the neighbours sweeping the footpaths, and for the men who refill the water in the park fountains. I was thankful for the mountains, and for the afternoon sun. Most of all, I was grateful for the opportunity to continue to work with the women of En Via.

It was the actual Thursday of Thanksgiving and I was out on a tour in Teotitlan, the main town in which we work. I was outside the church, in a small pocket of shade by the old gates with two of the borrowers; sisters Alicia and Elia Mendoza Pablo. Alicia had her baby boy in her arms and he was looking out adorably at all that was going on in the courtyard.


Suddenly I found myself talking about the unfamiliar tradition, and the idea of giving thanks. Asking them what they were grateful for in their lives, they both laughed a little, perhaps at how obvious was the answer. “Por la vida”, Alicia said. For life. “And that we have work”. Elia nodded with agreement as her older sister spoke, and then added, “Yes, for life, and for health. I am grateful for what we have. For the little we have”.

When I asked the same question to Lindsey Shilleh, a fellow volunteer with En Via, she spoke also of being grateful for the relationships in life: “the connections with people”. As she said this, she was struggling to cook a giant family size dish of sweet potatoes and leeks in what must have been the smallest couple of frying pans in Oaxaca. Later, I also saw Samantha Wattson, our very own Managing Director, standing attentively at her oven in the cutest purple embroidered apron made by Juana a borrower from Teotitlan. She was closely supervising the turkeys, which were also sourced from the town, to absolute perfection. 


Why was it so important to both of these women to cook these particular dishes? Simply answered, it was because they wanted to share their favourites with their friends. More than that, I felt it was a gesture that they felt at home here; that this tradition was just another layer to many others, from here and from afar, that have merged and grown in their hearts. They were grateful for those connections that they had made with the people here, and cooking was just a symbol of that creation. It may have appeared to a passer-by that the day was all about food, but I knew it was not the eating, but the company, that mattered most.

Like many national Holidays around the world, Thanksgiving can be historically problematic and politically contentious, and sometimes the message can get buried under mountains of food or excessive consumerism, but I believe there is something to this tradition that is worth remembering. Most importantly it is about sitting down to share, breaking bread with friends and family, and the act of being grateful, as Alicia and Elia reminded me, por la vida, and everything beautiful and challenging it entails.

Who would have thought that I would learn about Thanksgiving in Oaxaca, Mexico? It makes me, well, grateful, to be here, and to be amongst people who I know are constantly giving, and giving thanks, in so many different ways.



Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Hidden Art of Candle Making

By Lindsey Shilleh

We enter into a dimly look room where, scattered around the floor are pots and pans, molds of wax, alongside a small fire. Fifteen to twenty velas (candles) hang from hooks overhead, waiting to be adorned, waiting to be brought to life. This is the workshop of Sofia Lorenzo, an En Vía borrower and candle maker in Têotitlan de Valle. More than a workshop, it is her sanctuary for her cherished pastime, a pastime that has merely morphed into “work” and a source of income.


Sofia begins her presentation explaining the process of candle making and its history. She is exuberant. Her eyes glow and you can feel her excitement to share her passion with us. She tells us that she would do this even if it didn’t produce an income. Attached to that is a strong sense of pride; she is preserving the tradition and secrets of the trade.

Sofia learned the art of candle making as a nineta, a little child. She learned from her paternal grandmother, who herself learned from her grandmother. Candle making is laborious work and only certain children are selected to learn its secrets. Out of 23 grandchildren, Sofia is the only one her grandmother taught. As she tells us, not even Sofia’s mother learned the trade; a mother will not teach her daughter in-law her trade but instead will wait to teach her grandchildren. 

At age nine, Sofia’s grandmother passed away and the responsibility to preserve the familial tradition fell on her. As Sofia spoke, the reverence for her grandmother became apparent. When her family started, is not exactly clear, but the history is long. Sofia suggests that her family began making candles before the Spanish arrived. She carries her family’s history as well as her grandmother’s love for velas on her sleeve. This has become her mission; to preserve the art of her ancestors.

The scent of bee’s wax fills the air. It hangs in there, thick, intimating that thousands of candles have passed hands, and the stories each purchase brought with it. The scent is not perceptible to Sofia, nor is the heat of the wax as she runs her calloused fingers along the still hardening wax. Not anymore at least.


When Sofia’s grandmother passed away, she had no choice but to jump right in, on her own. Her grandmother had outstanding velas that she owed within the town from prior Guelaguetzas. Guelaguetza, which hails from the Zapotec language, means an mutual offering or gift. Traditionally, the offering was made to a specific deity. For example, in exchange for rain needed for a harvest, an offering would be made. Over time this evolved into a ritualized exchange of gifts within your community. It is an act of reciprocity and a practice that benefits everyone. Whenever there is a major event, perhaps a house needs to be built for newly-weds, there is a birth or a death or a celebration of a saint, everyone chips in and shares the cost. The names are recorded so that at a future date, this courtesy can be repaid. For Sofia’s grandmother, she of course offered her candles but had also been the recipient of this exchange.  As there is no deadline on returning the favor, this form of social etiquette fell upon Sofia to fulfill. 

To make a Vela, Sofia starts with just a string. Kneeled over the fire and a cauldron of wax, she lets the wax come to a boil and then pours the wax over the string. After each pour, she must wait 15 minutes for it to dry.


Hundreds of pours go into each candle. Depending on the candle’s size it can take anywhere from fifteen days to eight months to complete a it; Eight months for a two meter tall candle!). In Teotitlán the larger candles are used during the ceremony of asking one’s hand in marriage. The tradition is that at four o’clock in the morning, the man must bring his entire family to his girlfriend’s house to ask permission. As a sign of both respect and an offering to the brides family, he must not only bring a two meter candle to his future mother in-law, but his entire family will carry candles of varying sizes.

Candles play a significant role in the Zapotec culture. No celebration is complete without them; from feast days at church to funerals, quinceaneras (Fifeteenth birthdays)to births, candles are a staple. Altars during Day of the Dead celebrations are decorated with candles, lit for each lost soul in order to guide them home once again. But perhaps most interesting is that no candle is adorned without purpose, and rarely purchased without reason. Each candle tells a story through its adornment. 


After the candles are dried and reach their desired size, Sofia’s decorations transform the candles into living stories and symbols of both life and death. Red wax flowers, died with the cochineal insect, line the center and symbolize the four phases of life: birth, growth, marriage and death. Wax pineapples, apples and birds accessorize the sides and are crafted through hand-made molds. At the base you will often find an angel, who is there to protect you, and look after you through all the elements of life.  The decorations vary in size and color but each added element has a meaning. Different colors are used for different celebrations. White and pink for weddings and births; purple, which represents ‘luto’ (mourning) is used for Day of the Dead in contrast to red, a living color, never used for Dîa de los Muertos candles..

As our time ran out, Sofia didn’t want her presentation to end. She had much more to share. I could sense a rich history lurking behind her eyes; a history ripe with stories and secrets begging to be shared. But these generational secrets must be preserved, after all, this is why Sofia is so dedicated to her work. We did manage to get one secret out of her, passed down from her grandmother, a special trick to make the wax not stick. But I cannot share it here. We made a promise. Perhaps you just need to come visit with En Vîa to find out yourself!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Discovering En Via (in Translation)!

By Tannia Carroz

*With our international group of volunteers as well as tourists who experience En Via, we wanted to take this opportunity to share what we do, but in French! Tania Carroz, a volunteer from Switzerland with a Swiss father and Mexican mother, is working with En Via over the next several months to run and teach our Business Classes. She comes to us after working in the Finance Industry in Switzerland for several years.

Je me présente, je m’appelle Tania. Je suis de mère mexicaine et de père suisse. Je travaille actuellement en tant que bénévole pour l’association non-lucrative En Via à Oaxaca.

En Via a pour but d'associer le tourisme au Mexique et le développement économique du pays, particulièrement dans la région de Oaxaca. Elle est spécialisée dans les micro-crédits.

La fondation a comme mécanisme de proposer des tours touristiques. Ces derniers offrent la possibilité de découvrir la région des vallées centrales de l’Etat de Oaxaca, où les villages ont conservé leurs traditions artisanales, et de partager un moment avec les communautés indigènes en visitant des femmes entrepreneurs. Avec l'argent récolté des touristes, 50 USD par personne par tour, En Via fournit des micro-crédits sans intérêt aux femmes qui participent à cette association.

Actuellement, En Via compte 130 femmes. En premier lieu, elles doivent suivre un cours de "comment gérer leur argent". Après la réussite du cours, elles reçoivent le premier prêt de 100 USD par personne. Afin de soumettre une demande pour de nouveaux prêts, elles doivent avoir remboursé la totalité des prêts reçus ainsi que présenter leur travail lors de 2 tours touristiques. Le deuxième prêt se monte à 150 USD et le troisième à 220 USD.


En Via a plusieurs missions qui la touche à cœur: en premier lieu elle a pour but d'éduquer les femmes en organisant des ateliers (cours d'anglais, cours de business et prochainement des cours d'internet). Le but est avant tout de faire découvrir aux femmes le monde de la finance en l'adaptant à leurs besoins. Les résultats ne sont pas forcément visibles le lendemain, mais il s'agit avant tout d'une éducation à long terme. Une manière d'apprendre à travailler qu'elles pourront elles-mêmes transmettre à leurs enfants pour le futur. Toutes les femmes font partie d'un groupe de 3. Elles sont étroitement liées entre elles. Si une des trois ne paie pas, tout le groupe a une amende à payer. C'est également une façon de leur faire prendre conscience de l’importance de la collectivité. En Via a également comme but de sensibiliser les touristes au monde de la micro-finance. Les guides des tours sont formés et connaissent bien le domaine.

En Via associe l’éducation, le développement économique et le tourisme. C’est une magnifique manière de découvrir ce coin du monde riche en culture, en nature et en relations humaines. Le contact direct avec la population locale ainsi que le support apporté donne une authenticité et une réelle satisfaction à un tel tour.

Au plaisir de vous voir prochainement et vivre cette enrichissante experience avec nous.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Day of the Dead and the Celebration of Life in Oaxaca

By Kim Groves

I moved slowly in the deep shadows, trying to tread lightly and breathe softly. The candles warmed my ankles as I passed by the graves. There was a swell of tender yellow light all around me. The air was sweetly cold. Bright flowers glowed against the dark, roughly turned earth. Low murmurs mixed with distant music and quiet laughter. Silvery wisps came from the cups of hot atole that many clutched in their hands.

It was unbelievably intimate, there in the graveyard, but at the same time public. That is what fascinates me about this tradition of The Day of the Dead; the way the people of Mexico have taken what in many places has become the most private, or even unspeakable thing—death—and made it something vibrant, colourful, at times loud, and always revered.

I have never seen a graveyard as full of light and life as I have here in Oaxaca this week. Whole families sit together about the graves. Food and chatter pass between them easily. Some actually sleep, wrapped in great blankets, by the resting bones of their loved ones. At this special time, they are sending back the spirits of the visiting dead that have spent the past days among the living.


It is believed that during the first days of the festival the spirits of the dead return to the houses that they lived in. This is why many households make beautiful altars in their homes to welcome them. In smaller towns, the families will sometimes leave a trail of marigolds from the grave to the house, so the dead can find their way home. On the last days, the family guides them back to the grave and sits alongside them as their relatives leave them once again.

This time of year has many layers of spirituality and significance in human conscious and history. It is the time when the days are getting shorter, and the night colder. It is traditionally a time to reap harvest and to prepare for winter. It is a time to reflect, and to give thanks. At this time we remember that we are part of a natural cycle; that we are earth and to earth we will return.

I love the way the senses are nurtured and indulged in this festival. I have eaten the most delicious meals this week. I have licked dripping mole negro from my fingers, and dipped sweet bread in the most scrumptious chocolate. It delights me that the people of Mexico continue to eat even in death. Altars of food have appeared in all corners. Little cups of mezcal glitter seemingly untouched, beside gushes of flowers, oranges and apples. It is believed that the dead return to sample their favourites from life. Be that sweets, bananas or cigarettes, it is all laid out for them in welcome. 


It is said that the spirits of the dead do not return until a year has passed since their death. Around the more recent graves, the atmosphere is noticeably sadder and quieter. Cold little tears spring to my eyes when I see the photos of children, los angelitos, pinned to tombstones. I stood for a long time by one simple, small grave that someone had sprinkled sweets and chewing gum over. At other graves nearby, perhaps the ones at which the pain was less immediate, people seemed more inclined to be talking or even playing instruments. I could not always catch the words that were exchanged, but there was often a lot of quiet laughing. I imagined that they were telling stories to their lost loved ones.


Traditionally, they share with those lost everything that is happening in the world of the living. It is a time to remember, and to share family news and gossip. I realised that is exactly what I would want of my family and friends after I am gone; just for them to sit down together and chat with me every now and then. This tradition is a safe keeping of memory and love.

This week in Oaxaca, I have learnt of the courage to look at death in a different way. It can be sad, and often comes with pain, but it is also joyful and full of sweet mystery. In acknowledging death, we celebrate what we value of life: family, friends, food, drink, music, laughter. Yellow and deep pink, are the colours I will always associate with these last few days; the colours of the flowers that bloom just a short time, as well as the deep rich colour of the earth that goes on and on.