The En Via Office.
We heard about “responsible tourism” tours and found their office not far from our Airbnb. We decided a book a full-day tour with them with the following agenda:
San Miguel de Valle – A village 37 km from Oaxaca – population 2,800
1. Woman making chocolate & mole
2. Woman making machine-embroidered aprons
3. Woman running a restaurant – have lunch there
Teotitlan del Valle – Largest village 30 minutes from Oaxaca – population 6,000
4. Stop at the local church to use the bathrooms
5. Woman weaving handbags (sister to the woman we see next)
6. Sister (to the woman we just saw) and their mother weaving rugs on large looms
We learned first-hand about this foundation from the volunteer, Suzanne, who was our guide for the day. While Norman, our driver, was driving us to the villages, Suzanne told us about how our “tour fees” are supporting women in this area. The process of how the women get and payback their loans was of most interest to me. So I am recording the details in my own words (as I learned it from Suzanne) even though they have an excellent website (which I haven’t perused).
The En Via Foundation:
En Via was started by two men in 2008 (by Carlos and __) and it was founded in 2010. Presently Carlos and Viviana are at the head of the organization.
The MISSION of En Via: Fight poverty & empower women giving them skills and tools. There are three programs: a) microfinance b) education c) responsible tourism.
They have five paid staff as well as volunteer staff. Sometimes college students or others from abroad get grants and are working for En Via, teaching college students, etc.
En Via is working in 6 different villages around Oaxaca. Oaxaca is the poorest state in all of Mexico.
There are 250 women in the program now.
3400 loans have been given out.
En Via is not interested in expanding but rather they want to do what they do and aim to do it better! They are, however, willing to serve as a model.
I learned what Microfinance is:
Mirror-finance is available all around the world. Microfinance are financial tools provided on a very small scale. It’s for women in poverty who have ideas of what they would like to do but they don’t have the means or the tools. It’s for the women because women are always more likely to spend the profits of their business on their families. Many of these companies are often for profit and will provide loans with 30% interest for even as high as 70%-200%. One other company in this region (KIVA) is offering loans at 76%. The reason the interest rates are so high at 30% or more is because the people receiving the loans have no bank accounts, no credit history, and there’s no info on the people who are lending the money. They are accustomed to paying their bills in cash, and therefore the payback loans have to be collected in cash. This means that Administration is labor intensive.
En Via is a non-profit organization and have 0% interest on their loans.
Women have always worked. Many of them were working at their weaving, for example, before they had the support from En Via too. But they can contribute differently with the loans than without them (more power).
The PROCESS of getting a loan, and paybacks:
There is no advertising. It is only through word of mouth. A mother tells her sister, who tells her aunt and also her niece, who tell their cousins who tell their daughters and their grandmother. The largest community En Via works in has 6000 people and the smaller ones are perhaps 2800, so everyone knows everyone.
En Via holds a weekly meeting in each community. If someone is interested in getting a loan, they attend that weekly meeting and speak to the organizer.
There are two things a woman must do to qualify for a loan:
1. She must find two other women to join her. Each of the three woman will receive their own loan, but loans are only given out to a group of 3. The 3 women hold each other accountable for the payback and they support each other. Sometimes the 3 who start-up together stay together and sometimes they change.
2. The other thing they must do is attend 10 business classes in their own community, offered by En Via (before they can receive their first loan). It’s not just a “hand-out” and “Good-Luck!”
The first loan women receive is $1500 pesos ($100 Cdn roughly) each. Payback of that loan is expected in 10 or 15 weeks (non-optional!) After that, they decide if they want a second loan. The second loan goes up to $2500 pesos ($175 Cdn). The three women can determine their payback schedule for the second loan. When women pay back their loans, all three women must pay back their loans on the same day. That pay-back money goes back into the programs. En Via goes to each village to collect the payments.
If one of the women can’t make their payback, or doesn’t show up (she’s forgotten, she or her family is sick, etc.) a minimum payment of 20 pesos can be made (that’s just over $1.00 Cdn). But there is no extension on the rest. The other two women can make the minimum or the entire payment on her behalf. Then all three of their loans stays in tact. If that minimum payment is not made, all three of them are fined 60 pesos ($4 Cdn). More than 3 missed payments within a loan period means they can not receive another loan; they’re out.
En Via has a 99.7% repayment rate! It is working!
They can get additional loans too. Three years ago, a maximum of $4500 pesos could be loaned. Now $7500 pesos can be given ($500 Cdn).
Within a loan period, the women are expected to host one tour (a small van of 10 people and an En Via volunteer will visit, where they show what they are working at, and answer questions about how the loans is helping them).
Different types of businesses women have:
En Via does not make judgements about what is a good business because the people’s views are very different from ours. We are talking about VERY SMALL businesses. For example, one family was operating a hardware store. They were aware that no one in their community sold cleaning supplies. So the woman of this family had the idea to seek cleaning supplies. When she received an En Via loan, the first thing she purchased was a single metal shelving unit which she placed in the family’s hardware store. The second loan she received purchased a shelf full of cleaning supplies.
Some of the businesses include: selling tortillas, raising chickens, operating a hardware shelf, opening a restaurant, making cheese chocolate and mole, and creating and selling artisanal work. Many have more than one source of income; they might sell tortillas from 8 until noon, and then weave all afternoon. They depend on multiple ways of earring a living.
The Education component of the program:
The women learn
⁃ How to figure out their profit
⁃ What is a fair price
⁃ How to separate their money into living expenses, business expenses, investment, and savings. They use a physical box or can system.
There are also monthly business classes which they MUST attend for 2 years! If they miss classes, the group of 3 can not increase their loan amount.
The education has been expanding to become specialized:
-how to incorporate leather on their woven bags and learning to identify quality leather
-learning from a vet, for those raising animals
-learning from someone in agriculture, for someone growing garlic
-workshops on natural dyes
About the women and the communities:
Most of the women have a primary education only. Most are married. Some of their husbands may have gone to the US to work.
All of them speak their native Zapotec language as their first language. Most speak Spanish as their second language (only the oldest women do not). Crops commonly grown in the village of San Miguel where we visited are milpa, beans, and corn…3 crops grown at once, in one field.
The street signs in the villages are in Zapotec and in Spanish.
Rainwater and wells (and some large hoses) is where the source of their water; water is scarce and precious!
The church was built on top of the Zapotec temple. The Zapotec carvings can still be seen. The designs in the old Zapotec remains are incorporated into the rugs. Every community has a saint. The biggest community, Teotitlan has a high school. Away in the mountains, sheep are raised. There’s also a place in the mountains where silk worms are raised. And cotton grows where there’s more water. There was life in the village of Teotitlan 10,000 years ago!!! This is the community known for it’s weaving, using traditional designs.
If you are a godmother, you get to pay for all the special events….graduations, birthday parties, confirmation, etc.
They achieve 0% interest on loans because they also have Responsible Tourism that supports the organization. People pay $850 pesos per person for a small full day tour including lunch. $120 goes to the van, gas, and driver. $70 goes to the lunch. And the rest of the $660 goes into the programs.
They have many tours going out in the high season and just 2 per week in low season, but En Via is able to keep the loans going throughout all seasons.
Tourists get a deeper sense of the culture and traditions. Oaxaca has depp cultural traditions and these tours give a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the culture, traditions, and the people.
Entering San Miguel del Valle. The sign proudly welcomes us to their indigenous community, established in 1450!
It’s relaxing and interesting to be driven out into the countryside.
The woman who made chocolate and mole:
She told is she used her loan for
-buying a scale to measure her ingredients
-buying a phone so she could get special orders
After she’s washed, seeded and dried her Chile’s, and measured out all her ingredients for one recipe (gathered the laurel leaves, the avocado leaves, cinnamon, etc. etc.) she takes her batch of ingredients to have it all ground (and she can get this done right in her village).
Her biggest sales come on the day they celebrate “The day of the dead”.
Her brother works in LA and when they have big events in LA where there is a demand for and interest in mole, she ships mole to her brother.
She sells to the tourists who come when she is a host (just 1X per loan cycle).
Other than that, she has no other aspirations. She learned the recipe for making chocolate and mole in a workshop and follows the recipe exactly, not dreaming of changing a thing. I didn’t get her recipe unfortunately.
I’ve read mole recipes however, and they include 17-30 ingredients, depending on the kind of mole. Ingredients include: 7 kinds of chile, 2-3 kinds of nuts, raisins, marjoram, oregano, avocado leaves, laurel leaves, sticks of cinnamon, cumin, plantains, tomatoes, chocolate, pumpkin and sesame seeds. The ingredients are chopped, ground, and sautéed together to make a sauce to slather on chicken.
This one up-close is 3-Dish, that’s how layered the thread is.
I love her aprons hanging on the concrete wall. These photos look fantastic in large view and before they are reduced.
The young woman who makes the aprons:
She started her business 5 years ago, but started with En Via 3 years ago.
She has 30 outfits of her own – Women always wear an under slip, a dress, and an apron to match. She has 30??!!!!! She makes them so I suppose that’s why.
She wears a specific apron with a specific dress. Sometimes she tries to combine an apron with a different dress but this is a new and recent idea that has been suggested to her by outsiders. She knows of one lady who wears an apron with a skirt rather than with a dress.
There used to be 10 other women in the village who made these aprons but people have been learning and now there are 20-25-30 women making them. Each community has their own style or designs. Some communities have just one piece. These aprons are only worn here in this community.
Her father fixes and sells sewing machines.
Her mom used to use a treadle sewing machine. That is how she learned.
An industrial machine costs $10,000 pesos ($700 Cdn).
She will pass this knowledge along to her own kids, if they are interested in it.
The elaborate aprons are worn for special occasions – fiestas, reunions, weddings, funerals.
Some mothers start putting fancy aprons on their children from early on – age 2. As they grow older, the kids choose if they want to wear them or not (for school). All women in the community wear the dresses with aprons, always. And all the girls wear them too when they attend special events. The young woman said she is invited to fairs sometimes, in Mexico City, but her expenses are too high for her to profit from her displays there, so she’s not so keen to take her products elsewhere.
The landscape. The hill is referred to a “sleeping woman”; the big bump being her breast. Then we went to a woman’s home who has established a restaurant in her home, using the En Via loans. It was a delicious lunch of stuffed hot peppers (not too hot), filled and rolled tortilla dipped into mole sauce and covered with cheese and cilantro, rice, steamed veggies, chicken breast, black beans, and best of all….mole sauce!
Then we stopped at the local church to use their decent bathrooms. 🙂 Of course, it was constructed directly on top of the foundations of the indigenous temple. And you can still see the original foundation and it’s inscriptions and artworks.Have you ever seen SO MANY fresh flowers in one church? They line the sanctuary on all four walls placed at every saint with multiple vases. Fresh! Daily! This seemed to me a particularly nice Guadeloupe.
I enjoyed the quiet and deep shade of the large peaceful grounds set on a small hill with a nice view of the surroundings. It’s a relaxed tour, we’re just a small group, and then we are off to visit more women in the afternoon.
The family of three women who weave bags and rugs:
First, the woman, standing holding wool yarn, who made bags (living in a large concrete building). She learned to dye her wool using pecan shells (from her mother’s tree), indigo (plant that has been boiled, fermented and dried), cochineal bugs that have been dried, and marigolds for the yellow dyes. Lichen and pomegranate are used in some places too. It takes her two full days to fully make one bag. (14 women in this town have also formed a Co-op; each of them made their own handbag design.)
The hand-woven wool rugs feature pre-Hispanic designs like dragons, jaguars, eagles, skulls, and geometric patterns from the archaeological sites.
Nopal, hanging from the rafters. The Spanish went crazy for the cochinea, exporting a lot of it to Europe – the crimson dye made from the insects that live of nopal (prickly pear) cactus. Used for centuries by the ancient Zapotecs and Incas, etc., they are still using them today.
Teotitlan de Valle is known for it’s tapetes – hand-woven wool rugs colored with natural dyes.
The woman working the loom is the sister to the woman who made the handbags. She and her mother weave rugs at their home. They are two individuals working at one business. The mother does not read or write. The younger woman started working with wool at the age of 8: washing, carding, spinning, weaving. They have been with En Via for 7 years. Before this, they were both working at weaving, but they were being brought the wool and told what to make, working for “the Casas Grandes”. Now they buy their own wool and make their own designs.
There was a lot of income disparity between the weavers. “The Casas Grandes” is where big buyers come, where they export rugs. They have a demand and therefore they go to the weavers in the villages, bringing them wool and telling them the sizes and patterns they want to have made, and they pay the weavers very little for their work. These rugs get re-sold for a lot of money. So the villagers are doing piece-work so they have a steady income. Now, with the En Via loans, they are able to get their own wool, create their own designs, and sell their work independently. They go door to door to stores in their town. They have been invited to bring their rugs to fairs elsewhere too, but it’s expensive for them. They bring their rugs to Tlacolula (TLACOLULA) market each Sunday.
The biggest challenge for the En Via organization has been TRUST……Initially, before it took off, people struggled to trust the founders and operators. Trust can continue to be an issue for newcomers who lack experience with the company.
Important people on our tour:
Suzanne – A volunteer from Minneapolis – Been living in Oaxaca since 2003.
Susan – Is tutoring at The Oaxaca Learning Center – Murguía 703, Oaxaca.
Ruth – Interpreter/Translater from Spanish to English and English to Spanish.
I really enjoyed meeting the women and talking with them about their business! Microfinance, education, and responsible tourism…a good approach!