Thursday, June 28, 2012

Park Life: Living Outdoors in Oaxaca



Many times, when people have asked me what they should do in the city of Oaxaca, I have said; go down to the park. Which, park? It doesn´t matter. You will find what you are looking for, whether it is colour, company, energy, or a place to unwind.

The wind catchers, twirling red, blue and white, seem to show up for sale just as the sun’s rays are at their richest and shallowest and dusk makes the hills glow. A mass of shiny balloons passes by like a cloud, possibly with a person selling them, completely lost to view underneath.


A very pregnant woman is doing laps of a small park called Conzatti. She has her hands firmly bracing her lower back, and is blowing bright pink bubble-gum bubbles that I can hear pop from metres away. At the other end of the space, fathers playing with their little kids make me smile. You can never quite tell who is having the more fun, as paper planes fly in and around branches and plastic action figures tumble in and out of fountains.


I love these shared spaces. If I am feeling lonely, I can find the comforting and inclusive rhythm of society there. Coming from a world where people spend most of their recreational time in private backyards, the intimacy and vibrancy of this public life is a delight to me.

Bible study groups and Zumba dance aerobics classes, use the same space respectively. The white coated medical students, seeking a little fresh air, fall down in heaps under the trees to rest. I always peek at the pages of the drawing classes from the local high school as I walk by, but my favourite demographic is made up of the old men who do Tai Chi in the morning. I feel relaxed just watching them, and more than once I´ve considered ditching the office to join in.

A formidable herd of running shoes pound the concrete footpath of the Llano Park of a morning and early evening. Leather sandals are kicked off on the grass. The young couples, kissing on park benches, hardly notice that the whole world is traipsing by.

Casual picnics appear at lunchtime around the variety of food vendors. Hamburger carts sizzle noisily in the midday heat. Elotes, which are whole corn cobs, dripping in mayonnaise, lime and chili, inevitably get all over your chin. The last bites of popsicles fall stickily and tragically off their sticks into the dust. The tortas from La Hormiga in Conzatti Park are delicious and worthily famous. Another favourite of mine is a chorizo, papas and quesillo empanada made as you watch by a young woman at the south end of the Llano.

Kids run, soaked to the skin, through the fountains that seem coordinated to music, on the North end of the Llano. Skateboards carve out territory here and there. Books stalls, markets, and community fairs appear sporadically. You can always find a conversation with the shoe shiners, and get a chance to read the newspaper in the shade.


And it is not just human life you will encounter. Many birds and bees call the parks their home. I remember, back in my very first weeks in Oaxaca, saying to Samantha, LOOK, LOOK, and running over to see a furry brown thing scurrying all about a tree. She raised her eyebrows good naturedly. “Don´t tell me you´ve never seen a squirrel before?”

The wet season is no reason to dampen your enthusiasm for the outdoors. It has brought with it the potential of jumping in puddles and singing in rain. I recommend a pair of waterproof boots, preferably bright yellow, like the ones you had when you were five years old. Go out, swing an umbrella in hand, take a friend, and explore the secret life of the park in Oaxaca. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Harnessing the Power of Technology – En Via’s Internet Classes in Teotitlan


By Charlotte Newman. Photos by Kim Groves

 I didn’t know what to expect the first time I walked into the Ciber Doña Lola internet café to give my first computer class in Teotitlan. How many women would come? What would they know? More importantly, what wouldn’t they know? I’d given English classes, business classes…but this was something new. Not to mention I’m no computer geek myself; I can turn it on, check my email, turn it off. If anything goes wrong it’s a call to mom. And if you ask me how to make the “@” key on a foreign keyboard, forget about it. I’m lost. Fortunately, what I would consider a computer expert isn’t necessary in Teotitlan. The women, of course, are always wonderful, patient, eager to learn, and extremely grateful for our assistance, and most of them are in the basic stages—open a word document, find the letters on the keyboard, create an email account—I can handle that.

 As it turns out, the computer classes are an incredibly eye-opening experience. At least 3 women come each Tuesday, and usually more, and they are surprisingly punctual, which demonstrates their desire to maximize their time with us. They are always so passionate about learning, and it’s rewarding to see their optimism that this new skill will help them grow their businesses in ways that weren’t possible before. They anticipate using the internet to keep in touch with old clients and hopefully reach new ones. They see the internet for what it is—a giant market full of possibilities.
The women do a variety of different things during our hour together. Many practice checking their email in an attempt to remember all of the steps. One young woman spent the full hour last week working with a typing program to start memorizing where all the keys are. Others are captivated by YouTube and spend their hour watching videos on making papier-mache or travelling the world. It is fun to see their excitement when we Google “Teotitlan” and pictures of their friends or celebrations appear: “That’s the Danza de las Plumas!” “There’s the municipal building!” During the hour last week, several of the women visited the Vatican and toured the streets of Rome. It’s great to see how animated these women are to learn about other places, even though “we’ll never actually be there,” as one young lady said today. Watching this happen really makes one remember how much information we have access to, and how much we can learn by utilizing these resources.



Those of us who have been using the internet ever since it came screeching into our worlds with that terrible dial-up tone so often take for granted the resources we have at our fingertips, and in no way take advantage of everything that is available to us. Then you have people like Maria, the sweetest woman you will ever meet, who is truly utilizing this new resource to the best of her ability. She has spent the last several weeks battling with the mouse (“Me desespera!” she cries, as she touches it ever so slightly and the cursor goes shooting across the screen) in order to enter her brand new email account. And who, might you ask, is she writing to? Why, the Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, of course. An old friend. Seriously?! Give them the resources, and these women are connected and powerful. They will never cease to amaze me. 


Of course there are also younger women who are more familiar with computers; the ones who are already creating their own websites and transferring pictures from their digital cameras onto their blogs. In some cases, their frustrations become our frustrations as we struggle with formatting and alignment that, hard as we may try, will never allow us to get it quite right. But they are progressing, and rapidly. They are hopeful that their websites will start to help their businesses soon, and each week they come with new pictures and new ideas to improve their sites. We are all optimistic that they will soon get their sites up and running.
As with every class I give to the wonderful entrepreneurs of Teotitlan, I always leave feeling like I am the one who has been taught. Of course, these classes are a lesson in patience for me, the daughter of an era accustomed to completing a search in 0.2 seconds, to having everything right here and right now. I have to remind myself that speed is not the goal, and stop myself from saying, “Here, just let me do it” as they struggle to double-click fast enough or remember which button means “go.” However, their own patience and perseverance is calming and reminds me that I, too, had to learn, and someone had patience with me as well. Their perpetual excitement at discovering new things reminds me to never give up that thirst for learning, and their optimism and perseverance is a reminder to appreciate the opportunities we have to further our education and further ourselves, just as these amazing women are doing. I am optimistic that all of these women will continue to learn, and I hope that in the near future they will be able to share with the world not only their merchandise but also their lives, their stories, and the culture that stands so strongly behind their work; that Teotitlan will not only be renowned for its beautiful rugs but also the amazing women and men that make them, and who touch us in so many ways. 
Charlotte and Maria 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Heroines of Independence: En Via in Abasolo.


I will never forget the first time I met the women of San Sebastian Abasolo, Oaxaca, Mexico. There was a busy hum coming from the backyard as we passed by some low built homes. They were waiting for us there, 15 women, sitting in plastic chairs in the shallow shade. 

As I shook each of their hands in turn, I felt as if I was being handed a different emotion in the spectrum. There were some fluttering nerves, some palpable excitement, some soft apprehension, and a great deal of bold enthusiasm. Older women sat proudly, hands folded over plaid aprons. Young women expertly balanced their papers amongst the children that climbed in their laps.

Pilar with her sons Fabian and Isaac

There are just over 300 homes in this particular town of Abasolo, and we had been fortunate enough to be invited into one of them in order to introduce En Via’s microfinance program to another community.

Apart from the patron saint, the town is named after the hero of Mexican Independence, José Mariano Abasolo. The town is located 21 kilometres from the city of Oaxaca, and belongs to the district of Tlacolula. Numbering at approximately 1700 inhabitants, the town´s members are principally occupied in the agricultural industry. And with the patchwork of corn, bean, chili, tomato, and onion crops, as well as flowers, blooming around us, I had no trouble believing that the area is one of the most fertile in the valley.

It soon became clear who the quiet leader was in the group, the one that had gathered and invited these woman just a few weeks ago. She was seamlessly moving through the group, making everyone comfortable and included. Juana heard about En Via’s program from a friend in the neighbouring town of Tlacochahuaya who is currently investing in her business with her interest free loan from us. Juana attended a meeting to find out what it was all about, and then took this information back to her own town and shared it with her family and neighbours.


When I asked Juana what the women’s initial reaction was to this idea of En Via´s, she said they thought it was “incredible”. That is, they simply did not believe it at first that we were offering an interest free loan paired with education programs. “The money lending services we know are nothing like this”, said one of the women, Oliveria, glancing around fondly at the women who were then busy signing their names and receiving their first loans.

I am always fascinated by the variety of businesses held by the women we work with, and that first day it was a pleasure to learn about the individual projects that would be nourished by the coming loans in this new community. Juana will use her loan to invest in her business of selling shoes. She has had the business for two years now, and has had some success in selling from catalogue orders to her neighbours.


Flor will invest her loan in her new business that involves selling a range of clothes and underwear in the town. Her two daughters, of 1 and 3 years, were with her, and it was my job to entertain them, (mostly just with the novel redness of my hair), as their mother occupied herself with organising her application.

Rosa´s plan is to put her loan towards her business of selling vegetables in the market. Olvieria told me that hers will be invested in her little café. Carmen was hopeful that her loan would be a lot of help in the running of her corner store. Domtilda was listing the things she would buy for her taco and sandwich bar.  I happily noted that the initial shyness fell away from the voices of the women as they were talking about their plans and goals.


As we discussed the model and the processes underlying the program, one woman asked me about what the tours would be like. “I am a poor woman”, she said firmly, “I don´t have a fancy house to receive people in, but I do work hard and I am very proud”. “It is not your house the people will come to see”, I told her, “they want to meet you, and learn from you and the people in your community what it is like to live in Abasolo, and in Oacxaca, and in Mexico. They want to share with and support you in the process you will undertake with this loan”.

We are honoured to have been invited into this new town, and we look forward to working with these women, and in the weeks and months to come to getting to know their families and communities. Your support and friendship is present in the relationships we will build there, and for that we are also grateful.

I do not know much about Abasolo´s namesake hero of Mexican Independence, but I do know that I went away from that meeting feeling like I had just gained 15 new heroines.

Flor, Rosa and Juana.