Into the Oaxacan countryside: poverty; artisans; and miracles

Zapotec tamale maker in Teotitlan, Mexico. Photo by Tom Murray

By Carolyn Callison Murray

The state of Oaxaca, Mexico has the largest indigenous population of any place in Mexico. Indigenous here means the same thing it means in the United States: those who thrived before the European explorers arrived.

Much like the indigenous population in the United States, most here live at a poverty level unimaginable to most of us.

Enter En Via, a non-profit that aims to empower the indigenous women who live in mountain villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca through micro-finance no-interest loans. On March 25th, we joined 10 other visitors on an En Via tour visit to half-dozen Zapotec women to hear them talk about their work, their families and what En Via has meant for them.

The visits are led by two guides, one of whom serves as a translator. In this case, Nancy Clingan provided history and background and our translator was dear college friend and seven-year Oaxaca resident, Susan Bean Aycock. (And I must add, we don’t look a day older than we did back then. Especially after a few dozen shots of another local specialty, mezcal.)

In case you didn’t learn this in your history classes, and it was definitely not on the Hazelwood High School curriulum circa 1970, the Zapotec civilization dates to the 6th century B.C. Today, they are the largest of six indigenous populations in Oaxaca.

Each village has its own its own dialect of the Zapotec language, and its own specialty. In the village of Teotitlan (te-o-tet-lan), as they saying goes, behind every door lives a weaver.

They are a tiny people, making this 5-foot-nothing woman feel tall. Well, tall-ish. Size does not equal strength, however. To get firewood to their homes in the hills above the town center, they bundle a load in a large cloth carrier, strap it to their foreheads and tote it up the hill home to heat the water they need to make the dyes they use in their rugs. Oh yeah, many also have to transport their water and their yarn. By that same method. For one woman we visited, it’s a 40-minute walk down the hill to town.

When their rugs are completed, they reverse the process and carry them down the hill to the market. What were you saying about the morning traffic and the line at Starbucks again?

Despite such challenges, these men, women and children exuded serenity and the kind of happiness that can only come from knowing what’s really important.

A weaver from Teotitlan shows visitors one of her rugs. Photo by Tom Murray

Isabel and Augustin were selling rugs from their Tlocalula (T-lock-a-lu-la) home. When sales lagged, Isabel, who cooked in Mexico City before they married, began selling her tamales in the market. Then she began selling from their house. They added a table, but spoons were the only cutlery they had for patrons. Their first loan from En Via allowed them to put up a sign out front (Jaguar) and buy some silverware. Customers asked for more than tamales so she added chicken mole (mole is a sauce prepared in part with Oaxacan chocolate, though it comes in many flavors and none of them are that chocolatey), sopa de guias (squash blossom soup), and chile rellenos (mild chiles, stuffed with cheese or meat, dipped in batter and fried — my personal litmus test for any Mexican restaurant in the states).

Isabel tells her story to the En Via tour as we polish off our delicious lunches atEl Jaguar, their restaurant, shop and home. Susan Bean Aycock stands to her left, prepared to translate. Isabel’s husband Augustin is standing to her right. Photo by Tom Murray.

Oh my. The rellenos. The woven works of art. The smiles of these warm people. By the end of my meal, my heart was as full as my stomach.

Intricate and colorful, these designs set the aprons of the women in San Miguel del Valle apart. Photo by Tom Murray

In San Miguel del Valle, our last stop of the day, we met Hortensia, whose skills create the colorful aprons worn by the women of this village (recognizable in other towns because they are different from the aprons made elsewhere in Oaxaca). After explaining all that goes into her work, she talked about En Via’s help, and what our visit meant to her.

“Ustedes estan un milagro.” (You all are a miracle.) “Dios le envió a nosotros.” God sent you to us.

For more about En Via’s history, micro-loan program, business education classes for its clients, and how to donate, click here.

A steer skull keeps watch over a home in the hills of San Miguel Del Valle. Photo by Tom Murray.

Tom Murray and Carolyn Callison Murray are retired journalists who live in South Carolina.

Carolyn Callison Murray

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Recovering journalist exploring life outside my comfort zone.

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