The state of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most diverse in terms of climate, geography and culture (there are 16 officially recognized indigenous groups in the state). It is also one of it’s poorest. Roughly 61% of the population lives below the poverty line, with 23% living in extreme poverty. In a 2005 report the United Nations compared conditions in some of Oaxaca’s pueblos to rural African villages. With almost half the population living in highly mountainous rural communities, providing health and education services is often difficult. Weaknesses in infrastructure, planning, development and implementation of services all contribute to the problem. Further, with 418 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities running on an autonomous system of “customs and traditions” (where selection of local officials, customs, and communal work obligations are dictated by ancient tradition), organization of a cohesive budget for services and infrastructure gets complicated very quickly.
Most tourists who visit will only ever see the city of Oaxaca or beach resorts like Puerto Escondido, where the economy thrives on their business. Life for people who live in the pueblos is different. Most struggle to find enough work to make ends meet and provide a decent life for their families. Many have left their hometowns to search for work in the capital or other states within Mexico. For most, the possibility of their situation changing or assistance from the government is slim.
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit founded in 2010 with the goal of supporting the development of income generating small businesses, within pueblos around Oaxaca. With interest rates for micro loans in Mexico being anywhere from 75-150%, they are completely out of reach for most people in these communities. En Vía offers a solution as simple as it is well thought out. They provide 100% interest free micro loans to support the growth of businesses; with the loans being fully funded by proceeds from tours to the very communities they help. In addition, they offer free English courses to anyone interested, taught completely by volunteers.
En Vía only provides loans to women, and only in groups of 3. The reasoning goes that women are more likely to use the loans to improve the lives of their families, and that being part of a collective encourages proper management and repayment of the loans. Once the women agree to work together and come up with a business idea, they have to take a course on small business skills before being given the initial loan. Since their inception, En Vía has provided over 1500 loans to 400 women in 6 different communities around Oaxaca. They have also boasted a 99% payback rate on all those loans.
Last week I joined a group to visit women in the communities of Teotitlán de Valle and San Sebastián Abasolo. Teotitlán is a Zapotec indigenous community and one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in Mesoamerica. The community is well known for its tapetes (traditional hand woven rugs), so it was no surprise that the first few women we visited were hard at work making these intricate decorations. With support from En Vía, Ines Ilda Ruiz has been successfully operating her own tapete business for the last 3 years. Before that, she had worked in the same industry but had always been employed by someone else. She barely made enough to make ends meet, and couldn’t save money to purchase her own supplies for a business. When she heard about En Vía she partnered with other women in the community, who were also interested in working for themselves. Since then the changes have been positive and notable. Ines now owns a profitable business designing and manufacturing tapetes, and has control over every aspect of the business from start to finish. She sells her tapetes both locally and at wholesale markets in the city of Oaxaca. Ines has money to purchase supplies for her business, food and household items, as well as education costs for her sons (both of whom help out with the weaving, and are brilliant designers themselves).
Ines’ loan partner, Filipa Martinez, who lives just up the hill, echoed the same sentiments. Filipa used to work preparing all the wool for another business, so it was easy for her to transition into starting her own operation. Every day she wakes up at 5AM to start cooking tortillas, which she sells in town, before heading to Oaxaca where she brings her rugs to stores and markets. It’s a hard life, but there’s optimism in the fact that she now works only for herself. She commented on the state of those who can’t make ends meet; “Many people are leaving to find work in the city [Oaxaca] or in DF or the United States. Men are sometimes leaving their families for years to work and send money home.”
Indeed, the population in some of Oaxaca’s pueblos has dropped by as much as 45% in recent years, due to the rampant poverty and limited work opportunities. It’s easy enough for those who live near Oaxaca city to head in for the day and sell their goods, but those in more remote areas often have to completely uproot to find income.
In nearby San Sebastián Abasolo we visited Karen Garcia, an esthetician. At just 18 years of age, Karen is running her own beauty parlor using a room in her grandmother’s house. She studied at a beauty school in Oaxaca for two years, worked in salons afterwards and opened her own 6 months ago. She offers everything from basic haircuts, to coloring and manicures. Most of her clients are men and so far nobody has opted for her purple hair dye option. Most other girls around her age are thinking about marriage and children. In these smaller towns, it’s still very common for women to marry young, have children and be relegated to household task and being subservient to their husbands. Karen couldn’t be less interested in these things. “I’m happy with my salon and I enjoy being single,” she says grinning. “If I had a husband and a family to raise, I wouldn’t be able to run my business.”
On the way back to Oaxaca I talked with Katie Sullivan, an En Vía volunteer who has been living in Oaxaca for the last 6 months. She said they are receiving requests from new women all the time and are hoping to expand into more pueblos. There is still skepticism in some towns, as to the validity of the interest free loans. People have gotten used to being taken advantage of, having promises broken, so they are wary when someone shows up offering them money to improve their lives, without asking for a pound of flesh in return. Katie also mentioned something else I hadn’t thought of, namely that the word poverty isn’t really thrown around much in the villages. “People don’t really think of poverty being something that is happening to them. For them, this is just life, there’s good months and there’s bad months,” she says. “It’s hard, but this is how it’s always been for them.”
The improvement En Vía has had on these women’s lives may not be noticeable at first glance. Most continue to live very simple lives by American standards, and own barely more than the essentials. They might never turn their small operations into multi million dollar entities, but they are free and answer only to themselves. This may be the most quantifiable aspect of progress one finds when they take a tour with En Vía. You see it in the laughter and smiles on the faces of Ines Ruiz and Filipa Martinez. You see it the confidence Karen Garcia uses to speak about her salon. It’s not numbers in an account, or a BMW in the driveway. It’s pride.