I am in awe of people who can make something out of nothing—salvagers and re-purposers and cultivators, dumpster divers and weavers, farmers coaxing food from the harshest earth, entrepreneurs finding possibility in a world of scarcity. On my recent trip to Mexico I saw this first hand, on a microfinance tour through the Oaxaca Central Valley and a trajinera ride through Xochimilco, with its ancient canals and floating gardens.
In Oaxaca, the En Via Foundation gives micro-loans to women entrepreneurs. Micro really means micro, as in around $100. To many Americans, it is nearly impossible to understand how a $100 loan could make a difference in a business. Until you meet the women. En Via raises funds in part by offering tours to the Central Valley, to visit their clients and to learn why this matters.
On a hot and sunny Thursday afternoon, we set out from Oaxaca City. Our first stop—lunch – was at El Cazahuate [@el_cazahuate], a simple outdoor restaurant on the farm owned by Trinidad and her family. They have also opened a small B&B–Bambú–for the many visitors to Teotitlán del Valle, a weaving mecca. Over sopa de elote con chayote, tlayudas and chile relleno con queso, frijoles, washed down with cucumber water, we learned more about En Via. They work in communities that have scant access to regular banking. They do not charge interest in a world where commercial lenders might charge interest of 100% on micro-loans. They only work with women because, through experience, they have learned that women are more reliable than men. En Via requires that the women take business courses and work together in groups of three in each community. Their repayment rate is 99%.
The tour stopped at a weaving studio run by a woman and her daughter in Teotitlán and then moved on to another mother-daughter client team of En Via in the tiny, dusty town of Santa Maria Guelacé. It was here that I learned both about the limits of micro-finance and resourcefulness in the face of near despair.
I had visited this mother-daughter team on an En Via tour in 2020. The daughter had just opened her peluqueria (barber shop) in a cement room at the front of her family’s compound of one story wood and stucco rooms and animal pens around a yard filled with pigs and peacocks. She was hopeful-boys in the town stopped by regularly for the trendy razor cuts. The mother was using her loan to start a business selling chicken from a tiendita in the back of her house. There was a sense of possibility.
By 2022, all had changed. The pandemic decimated much of Oaxaca. Tourists disappeared, businesses closed, everyone was out of work, with schools shut down, boys no longer cared about fashionable haircuts, if they even had the 75 pesos to pay for them.
Unbeknownst to En Via until we arrived, the two women had decided not to continue with the loan program. There were no longer three women-owned businesses in Santa Maria Guelace; they were unsure they could even pay back a $100 loan; they had no spirit left for training programs. And yet, they welcomed us as visitors and shared their stories.
I was particularly struck by one inventive way the mother found to add a few pesos of income to the family. Her husband had lashed a loudspeaker to the top of a tall pole outside the house. For 15 pesos, she makes announcements that reverberate through the town—birthdays, anniversaries, new babies, community events, sales. In a poor and close-knit town where in-home internet is an unattainable luxury, shouting over the rafters works like texting. One of our tour members announced that her birthday was coming up and that she would be most pleased if an announcement could be made. And so, the town of Santa Maria Guelacé learned about a stranger’s birthday that day.
Xochimilco is a land of winding canals and floating flower gardens known as chinampas and long wooden boats painted in brilliant primary colors (trajineras) in the south of Mexico City.
The network of canals dates to pre-Hispanic times, when the Mexica people, the rulers of the Aztec empire, figured out how to build a city on Lake Texoco. The Spaniards, although marveling at the lake and the system of canals. destroyed much of what was there. Today Xochimilco , which means “flower field” in Nahuatl, remains as a reminder of both the past and the future.
We embarked on our trajinera tour early on a Sunday morning with a charming and loquacious guide from Mexico Underground. Most people – tourists and chilangos alike –come to Xochimilco to spend a delightful afternoon, floating on the trajineras, listening to the mariachi music passing by and sampling homemade food along the way.
What you don’t see on a lazy floating Sunday is that Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to more than 140 species of aquatic birds and water-dwellers, is a fragile and threatened ecosystem that has been under assault for centuries. Some of the water was sucked out or polluted to drive the unchecked urban sprawl that is Mexico City. Some came from well-intentioned but badly misguided efforts, such as the introduction of non-native tilapia as a potential food source. Those unassuming-looking white fish have taken over the waters, preying on native species. In the midst of this assault are people working tirelessly to rebalance the ecosystem to its native state, often with little financial help from government.
Our first stop was with Laro, who, in a small cement room with a dirt floor, is trying to re-introduce the axolotl, a species of salamander which has been devastated by the tilapia. The axolotl is native only to Xochimlco and is unique and the subject of much study for its ability to regenerate parts of itself, including limbs and organs.
Here, plastic tubs of lake water are arranged according to the life span of the axolotl. Laro gently removed one of the baby axolotl to show us its still-translucent body curled up in his palm. He cares for each one until it can be safely placed in a special, guarded and filtered sluiceway called an apantle. In the apantle, together with other native plants and animals being reintroduced, the axolotl will learn to flourish and repopulate the waters of Xochimilco.
Our trajinera guide then paddled us over to another chinampa to meet Carlos, a graphic artist and farmer. Carlos kneeled on a dry grassy part of a chinampa and spread out a beautiful colored map that he had created of Xochimilco, shaded to show intensity of uses such as homes and farming.
He then brought us to a small rectangle of black dirt. There Carlos had etched out squares to mark sections to germinate seeds. Carlos, like other dedicated farmers of Xochimilco, are experimenting with ancient methods of cultivation and composting. They forswear nonnative species for those indigenous to Mexico, such as the Mexican marigolds which festoon altars on the Day of the Dead.
I ended the day in Xochimilco with renewed awe for all of the people who work against great odds, with a pride and a love of place, of their ancestors and history. It speaks to hope for the future.