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Originally published October 12, 2013 at 7:04 PM | Page modified October 14, 2013 at 9:48 AM

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Small loans, big smiles in Mexico’s Oaxaca

A microfinance nonprofit offers tours to meet Mexican women in their small businesses — and your tour dollars go to new loans.

Seattle Times travel writer

If you go

Meet the women

Fundación En Vía works through microfinancing to support the small business endeavors of almost 300 women in five rural towns across the Oaxaca Valley.

For visitors, the foundation offers guided half-day cultural tours to meet the women and learn about their lives, their businesses and the benefits of microfinance. Visitors may also purchase their crafts such as handmade rugs, candles and more. Lunch and transportation provided, departing from Oaxaca City, 650 pesos (about $50 U.S.); all proceeds go toward new loans to the women visited. See

Why women only?

Why does En Vía offer loans to women only? While there’s an element of chanelling benefits to a traditionally underprivileged group, it also has to do with the history of microlending. From the nascent days of microfinance in Bangladesh in the 1970s, women more so than men have been found to spread loan benefits throughout their families, and have demonstrated better payback records.

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OAXACA, Mexico — We’d just stepped into a farm shed with bamboo-stick walls when the Mexican weather gods decided to give full meaning to the term “rainy season.” As a September deluge boomed like a kettledrum on the low metal roof, Anastasia Soriana Martínez, the smallest and most serene person in the shed, introduced us to her pig.

Over the aural onslaught, our group of gringo tourists was just barely able to hear that this pink and white swine sloshing unconcernedly in a rapidly widening mud pit beyond the shed’s eaves was Martínez’s latest business endeavor. Her source of capital? A microloan from En Vía, the local foundation that had brought us on this visit.

In fact, 100 percent of the 650 pesos — about $50 U.S. — that I and three other U.S. visitors had each paid for this six-hour tour would finance more business loans to women such as Martínez in small towns across the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico.

In this next-to-poorest Mexican state (after neighboring Chiapas), loans go to endeavors such as weaving works, neighborhood shops, candle-making for local churches, and agricultural projects such as this.

We were visiting Martínez in her farming community of San Sebastián Abasolo, about a half-hour outside of Oaxaca City. As the downpour quickly turned dirt streets to muddy streams, we looked out at tethered burros with drooping, dripping ears, while next to us under the shed’s cover a skinny shepherd-mix hound with soulful brown eyes snoozed atop a pungent mountain of seed garlic ready for planting when the earth dried.

The garlic? Also financed by an interest-free loan from En Vía.

Success without the sharks

Carlos Topete, director of Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, a language school catering to foreign visitors, and Emily Berens, a U.S. citizen active in managing nonprofits, co-founded the organization in 2010 to assist local women who live in poverty and for whom traditional banks are not a viable financing source.

En Vía aims to offer better options than established microfinance lenders, some of whom charge interest rates of 200 percent and more, and informal moneylenders — sometimes called loan sharks in the United States.

Key to En Vía’s formula is its symbiosis with cultural tourism. It draws money from visitors like my group — including a medical researcher from Boston, a university professor from England, a state worker from Sacramento, Calif. — eager to meet local people in their homes and businesses and to learn about their way of life.

If tour-goers buy a $50 hand-woven rug to take home, with the happy memory of befriending the person who made it, that’s just gravy — or, you might say, salsa — for all concerned.

The tourist dollar goes directly to people who can most benefit from it, Topete told me, “and the traveler has the feeling that even if they don’t buy, they leave something behind.”

The tours are “an empowering thing” for the locals, added Helen Lyttelton, a program volunteer from New Zealand. “People who come are interested and ask questions and put them on a bit of a pedestal.”

If smiles measure success: Every woman we visited was happy to see us.

Lunching with a client

In the Zapotec town of Teotitlán del Valle, we lunched on tasty local specialties such as tlayudas — sort of an oversized taco in a pan-crisped tortilla — at Dulizún Cafe, which represents a microloan dream come true for proprietor Teresa Lopez Montaño.

With a strong indigenous population, Teotitlán, like almost three-quarters of municipalities in the state of Oaxaca, is a semiautonomous community with traditional ways of governance.

Local committees rotate responsibility for everything from road maintenance to putting flowers in the church. In exchange, residents pay little or no federal income tax. Local pride shows in the faces of people like Lopez Montaño.

Fittingly, “Dulizún” means “our house” in Zapotec, the still-spoken language of a people whose history reaches back at least 2,500 years in this valley, as chronicled by fabulous archaeological sites rivaling the neighboring Maya. The cafe fronts the home Lopez Montaño shares with her husband, Manuel Bazan Chávez, his mother, Enadina Bazan Chávez, and her mother, Juana Chávez Ruiz.

Both Teresa, in her 30s, and Juana, almost 80, have put microloans to use, first for the family weaving business, a trade that dates to 500 B.C. in this town, and then to add the cafe.

It doubles as a gallery for the rugs handmade by almost everyone in their extended family.

Juana is also developing a chocolate-making business, using microloans to buy cocoa beans from Chiapas. She makes hockey-puck like discs of aromatic chocolate with a tingle of cinnamon that are dissolved in hot water and milk to make one of southern Mexico’s signature beverages, to which I became pretty much addicted in two weeks there.

Between rain showers in a softly steaming courtyard, with a rooster crowing nearby, Juana’s smile radiated through the mist as she explained to our group how she makes red dye from cochineal, insects that live on prickly-pear cactuses.

Pulling one from a potted cactus, she squished it between thumb and finger to show the crimson color, as if she’d pricked herself with a needle.

“Her mother taught her how to make chocolate and her father taught her how to weave,” translated Kim Groves, an energetic young Australian in red Converse high-tops who is one of En Vía’s few paid employees.

“Right now her cocoa beans are out, and she wants another loan to buy more. They come in 100-kilo sacks and she’ll buy a half sack for about 1,500 pesos.” (That’s a little more than $100 U.S., about the starting range for an En Vía loan.)

Only after initial loans are repaid does any of the money go to En Vía’s overhead, which is relatively low (Groves’ “office” is a table on the courtyard terrace at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca).

To boost the success rate, every new loan recipient must take a three-week course in basic business practices and money management. Free English-language lessons are offered to help them interact with visitors.

Stocking the shelves

Piled after lunch into En Vía’s new 12-passenger van, purchased recently through online crowdsourcing, we climbed like a mountain goat up the steep cobbles of Calle Emilio Zapata, where the town bumps up against spiky emerald-hued foothills.

We stopped at an unlit brick tienda with no sign out front, where Silvia Pérez González opens her shop from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to serve neighbors who pop in and out with cuckoo-clock regularity.

Calling her inventory modest is like calling a sand grain small. A shelf held one bottle of shampoo. Three bags of Big Nix, a local snack food, hung from a rack. An open burlap bag on the floor bulged with dried corn. There was Tang — a few packets. Fresh eggs. Twelve tomatoes.

Not a lot, but to neighbors she’s closer than the competition a few blocks away. With her next loan, she hopes to add soft drinks, soup noodles and salt.

Her quiet smile spoke of pride and dignity.

“She had started by selling shoes and taking orders for catalogs, and her customers asked, ‘Don’t you sell other things?’ ” Groves translated. “She felt that because she didn’t finish primary school she didn’t think she could do this.”

A $100 loan, thanks in part to a few gringo tourists, proved her wrong.

Brian J. Cantwell: Blogging at­northwesttraveler.

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