I am volunteering with En Via, a non-profit organization serving women in six surrounding pueblos with micro-finance, health and nutrition, and education. Along with Isaura, another woman in my program, we are meeting with women in each of the six pueblos to photograph what they purchased with their most recent load. In Mexico, any loan through a bank has an interest rate of somewhere between 70-200%. En Via has no interest rates, and the women work together in groups to pay back the loans that they receive. Each afternoon, Isaura and I have traveled into the pueblos – Santo Domingo Tomaltepec, Teotitlan, San Miguel del Valle, Guelacé, Abasolo, and San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya to meet with the women in their homes and speak with them about their businesses – often pandelerías, convenience shops, tupperware shops, textiles, restaurants, animal livestock, tortillas, tlayudas… I photographed one woman who’s business is a bicycle loaded up with fresh fruit, fried potatoes, and other cheap snacks to sell in the surrounding pueblos. What each woman wears on her face is strength,
resilience, perseverance, and commitment to her children, her family, and her community.
It is overwhelming to be a photographer in the pueblos. The women’s stories, the stories that are told by the women and children’s clothing, the stories told by their homes and communities, the stories told in their bodies… As an En Via photographer, I am there to capture and document what each woman has purchased with her loan. I am welcomed into their homes to do this work. Although this is my job description, it can sometimes feel like I am peering into their lives and just as swiftly going about my day. I can come and go into the pueblos as I like. I have the privilege of being able to volunteer my time. Listening, observing, and noticing the stories that are told – either explicitly or through the witnessing process – is complex.
One older woman we met in Abasolo recently starting with En Via uses the money she receives from her loan to hire out a tractor for the day to plant her bean and corn crops in the campo. Her face wears numerous scars and she is missing several teeth. As she works the field, she wears her granddaughter in a rebozo and her 8 year old son works alongside her. Her son, wearing shoes strapped together with tape, responded thoughtfully to each of our questions about school, his goals, and his favorite things. This señora shared that her husband was abusive and
neurotic. All of the money she makes from her crops goes directly to feeding and clothing her three children and many grandchildren, but she may not always have enough to do this. We asked her about the strengths and changes in health among her community. She shared how many go into businesses selling food or products that contribute the health issues already in the community in order to meet their own basic expenses. She said it is both a strength and an issue that the opportunities for successful businesses often come at the expense of her community’s health. Listening to this señora, I was so struck by the many, many stories she holds: as a survivor, as a mother, grandmother, business woman, fighter, breadwinner. Despite the trauma in the story she told, what I saw in her was strength, resilience, and love.
Connection and recognition: especially in the pueblos, but throughout all of Oaxaca, everyone greets each other: they look each other in the eyes, they touch cheeks or hands or embrace. They recognize each other, they learn names, they’re present. On a walk through the campo, or farm land, in Abasolo, one En Via participant remarked: “Aqui, todos les
saludan” (here, everyone says hello).
My hip has been injured for my entire time in Oaxaca. Almost daily, someone – the woman who makes me my juice, or sells me my coffee, or owns the local convenience store – asks me how my hip is doing, recommends to me a treatment. I feel acknowledged, individualized, and cared for here in a way that is distinct from how I feel in the States: anonymous among others who are moving through their busy day.
Patience: something that has come from being injured is that I have to take more time to get places. In walking more slowly and taking time to be patient with myself and my body I have become more patient with myself. I have let go of the need to get places quickly, let go of the need to plan down to the minute what a day holds. I think that a lot of this comes with the pace of Mexico compared to America’s pace. The shift was instantly palpable to me when I landed in Mexico. I constantly remark about the patience I see in Oaxacaños: waiting to pick up Robbie at the airport, blockeos, traffic, the general no te preocupes mentality reinforces the practice and benefit of patience. I notice in myself that simply being in Oaxaca makes me a more patient person. Perhaps it is because I don’t see impatience mirrored in others, perhaps it is because the alternative makes for a far less pleasant trip.
Something that I am focusing on now is how to bring this no te preocupes mentality back home with me when our trip all too soon ends. Looking at myself as objectively as I can, I see a lot of growth. I see how I have participated, maintained a positive attitude, let go of many of my unmet expectations, acted asserted when I need something I am not getting, and allowed for myself to have space within the group to do what I would like to do. Throughout my life, I have carried around a story with me that I am difficult, asking for too much, a burden in my family or in the group. Maybe it is simply the experience of growing older, but I do not feel as tethered to this identity. I see flexibility in myself when I am able to look at a four hour commute to and from San Miguel with excitement: time to read, be outside of the city, spend time with new people, and have a mini adventure. I see growth when I am able to appreciate Oaxaca for all it has to offer and for all of its shortcomings. I see growth and learning when I have a “good Spanish day” and am able to communicate with relative ease and efficiency with my colleagues, the señoras at En Via, with my Oaxacaño friends throughout the city. I am overwhelmingly grateful for my time in this city: as a participant in Sin Fronteras, as an extrañero to Oaxaca, as a volunteer for En Via, and individually.