Of the many rich and impactful experiences I had during my time in Oaxaca, the day we spent building stoves in San Miguel del Valle stands out in my memory and my heart as one of the most meaningful. Fundacion En Via is a non-profit organization in Oaxaca that works to promote community development and the empowerment of women through microfinance, responsible tourism, and education programs. This summer, En Via partnered with engineering students to build new stoves for women who are participating in their microfinance program. The stoves are more fuel efficient and are designed to channel smoke out of the kitchen in order to reduce harmful health consequences. Sin Fronteras had the opportunity to volunteer and help with this project for a day and it was wonderful. San Miguel del Valle is a gorgeous pueblo nestled in the Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca and surrounded by the Sierra Norte mountains. When we arrived, we were quickly divided into small groups and each group was put to work building a stove for a family. We learned how to mix mortar and cement as we attempted to form bricks into straight lines and 90 degree angles. After several hours of work (and much guidance from the engineering student) the stove was ready and we shared in the women’s delight as we lit the stove and watched the smoke leave the kitchen through the new chimney. Warm thank yous were exchanged and we left the house happy, thinking our day was done. However, we were then led to the home of Cecilia, one of the En Via participants in San Miguel Del Valle. We learned that Cecilia is a vital part of this program’s success: she hosts meetings for the other participants, welcomes new women into the En Via family, and facilitates community and connection among participants. That afternoon, she was hosting a party to celebrate her son’s graduation from elementary school and, without pause, we were invited to join the festivities. What followed was two joyous hours of laughing, dancing, sharing, and connecting. I left with a giant smile on my face and a warm heart.
What was so impactful about this day was not simply that I was able to help someone in a tangible manner (a lovely change of pace from spending my days inside a classroom studying grammar). But it was that I was completely enveloped by the warmth that that exuded during my time at Cecilia’s party. We were strangers and some of us did not even speak Spanish, yet we were immediately brought into this inner circle of joy. It was not a question in any of the women’s minds that we were there to celebrate with them. It was demanded that we dance and laugh and join with these strong women in their happiness. There wasn’t any other option. We twirled and boogied and embraced as jokes were exchanged and smiles were shared. In this afternoon, I learned the true meaning of Oaxacan hospitality. Despite being strangers and despite the language and cultural barriers, I felt so connected to the women of San Miguel del Valle that afternoon and so full of love. That connection was transcendent and profound. I was inspired by the strength, vitality, and passion I saw and felt from these women. They were proud, warm, and open. They were unapologetic in their desire to celebrate and to love. Their generosity and openness was unparalleled and I will carry that with me as I move forward in both my professional and personal life. I feel so appreciative for having had the opportunity to learn from the women of San Miguel del Valle. I hope to bring some of this Oaxacan hospitality home with me and use it to build community and emanate warmth in the manner I learned from the strong and inspiring women I met at Cecilia’s home that afternoon.