Fundacion En Via is a non-profit micro-financier of small (really small) women owned businesses in outlying areas around Oaxaca city. But that’s just the facts.
What they do is to make small interest free loans to women who are brought into the program by others in it, to improve their businesses or, as we like to say, ‘take it to the next level.’
When I say small businesses, please don’t picture toy stores and restaurants, real estate agencies and delivery services. It’s smaller than that. It’s the woman who sells tortillas she makes in her kitchen who needs to buy more corn to make more tortillas to make more money. It is he weaver who must rely on a big weaving house for wool (and then must turn her finished product over to them for sale) who could be paid for her own work, her own art, if she could get enough money together to buy her own wool. It’s the woman who makes candy over an open fire in a pit in her ‘kitchen,’ who would like to finally buy a real, wood burning stove.
The goal of the program is to ease poverty buy giving enterprising women a leg up in a difficult world.
Why women? The Fundacion believes that statistically, the most stable family members in these households are the women. The men may be very deserving but also may depart next week for opportunity in other places. Consider the little town of Teotitlan del Valle. It is famous for weaving, a cottage industry that got its start in the 50s when almost all of the men departed, mostly for the United States, to find work. The weaving business was started by the women who stayed behind.
Interest free loans are a miracle for these people. A similar commercial loan would come with 70% or more interest, IF the borrower could get it. And we’re not talking BIG loans, either. First loans are in the neighborhood of $100. Women who have been in the program for awhile may get larger loans, up to $500. But $100 goes a long way here.
Each time a loan is awarded, there is an additional set of tasks the borrower must complete. Usually it’s some kind of class in business management, very basic business management. Things like keeping business money and household money separate, like keeping track of what sells and what doesn’t. For one of the loans, the women agree to host tours of their homes and businesses and to present what they do and what their plans are. People pay to take the tours – about $50 per person – and all of the money goes to fund the program.
That last task had me in a van with half a dozen other outsiders, cruising through the countryside to meet women in the program and hear their stories. We saw six women that Saturday, each with a business and business model that was intriguing. There was the woman who goes to the big in-town market, buys chilies, onions and garlic in bulk and then resells it at an outlying market for a small profit; the hairdresser who painted her shop and had an attractive sign painted on an outside wall; the woman who keeps items available several blocks away and sells them to her busy neighbors who don’t want to walk to the other side of town: tortillas, cheese, even chicken on weekends; and the woman who lives out in the country who gets up every morning and makes tortillas by hand between 4 and 6, then comes into town and sells them (all) between 9 and noon.
But there were two women who really stood out for me. First was Gloria, the candy-maker. She lives in a typical country house: brick walls, dirt floors, essentially open structures that offer minimal protection from the elements. I didn’t get to sample the candy because she had sold out and was about to start a new batch, but they are made with corn, garbanzo beans, cinnamon and pilancillo (a caramelized sugar). She brings the concoction to a boil in her ‘kitchen’ – a rough out-building made of bamboo with no counters, no sink and no stove. She heats things over an open wood fire in a pit dug into the floor. The hot liquid is poured into molds for cooling and then wrapped to be taken to the Mercado a few blocks away. All of this is done without electricity.
What was remarkable about Gloria was her tenacity. Everything we take for granted in our lives is either a struggle for her, or is something she can live without. Her life is simple, basic, utterly connected to the natural environment in which she lives and works . . . and working is what she does, everyday, all day. She has had several loans from En Via, mostly for purchasing more ingredients for her candy, but is now applying for a larger one. She wants to buy a real, wood-burning stove to replace the pit in her kitchen. It should enable her to cook more and inhale less.
Toward the end of our visit, someone asked what her plans were for Dia de Muertos, coming up the next weekend. She talked about flowers and food and family, then said it would be an important Muertos this year: her son had passed away in Tijuana the previous month. All she could say about it was that he had diabetes. Whether she and her family were able to retrieve the body and bury him in the local cemetery or not, I don’t know. I do know that the financial burden of that kind of effort would be huge for a family like this.
Next we went to visit Olga Guitarez, a Teotitlan weaver. Teotitlan is famous for hand made wool rugs. It seems almost every home in the pueblo has at least one loom. Olga’s family has been in the weaving business for generations. In fact, her father was rather famous, having been featured in books on Zapotec weaving.
One of Olga’s proud moments during our visit was when she brought out a rug her father had made. It had been sold to a woman in the United States, who years later, returned it to the family. The rug was magnificent, unique.
Teotitlan sits a short distance from the main highway, and the first few businesses you come to are large tapette (Zapotec for rug) showrooms. They have looms, spin and dye wool and even weave, but mostly as a show for commercial tour busses that come though daily. The rugs are often made elsewhere by craftspeople who get a fraction of the proceeds.
Olga, whose house and workshop sit far off the main drag, was one such weaver. The big rug dealer would give her wool, which she would then dye and weave into a tapette. She was paid a flat fee for the rug which would then be sold for many more times that amount. Olga’s first loan with Fundacion En Via was simply to enable her to buy her own wool and to begin selling her work herself. She’s gone from being a poorly paid contractor dependent on the big rug house to being a self sustaining artist.
The rugs are beautiful! I’ve been on a commercial tour to Teotitlan, been to the large rug houses, seen the demonstrations and even bought a rug: a beautiful thing that I love. But Olga’s work, and that of her husband, Luis, is amazing. Completely unique in design and color, so much so that they have taken to signing their work with a family logo.
I bought an extraordinary rug from Olga. Actually it was made by her husband Luis. It took him a little more than a week to complete and I paid about $125 for it. By comparison, the rug I bought on the commercial tour, which is very nice but hardly the work of art that Luis’ rug is, cost about $280.
If you come to Oaxaca, go to Teotitlan on the bus or in a collective taxi. Walk into town and ask where to find Olga and Luis Guitarez. You will get to see the real deal, get to meet some very nice people and may come away with a rug you will cherish for decades.