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School Days in Oaxaca – You’re Never Too Old!

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Story and photos by Betsy Marvin

Carnivalesque markets tempt tourists’ pocketbooks, but the best souvenirs come not from markets or museum shops, but from photographs and notes recalling the sweetest spots of a trip. Or just plain memories. When we’re in a place for more than a few days, we like to do more than look at sights – to get into the community somehow, and come away with a less superficial understanding of local culture and people. Some people volunteer, to help teach English, build a house, give technological training or medical consulting.

Another way is signing up for an educational program, most likely language lessons, and this is what we chose in Oaxaca. The Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, in existence since 1985, offers an intensive Spanish course plus various cultural classes, like cooking, dancing, needlework, etc. They arrange field trips to nearby artisan villages, and help find homestays or other accommodations for students.

For our first visit we decided to do a one-week program, saving some time for sightseeing on our own or with a tour. The school, established 25 years ago by two couples, occupies a lovely old house, the former family home of one of the families. A broad lawn filled with blossoming shrubs and tall palm trees surrounds several low ochre buildings, all with broad verandas and multiple classrooms. A cafeteria serves snacks, lunch and nonstop coffee out on the patio.

We arrived early our first morning to register and be tested for our Spanish level. Carlos Hernandez Topete, a current director and the son of two of the original owners, met us and chatted with us each briefly in Spanish and then administered written tests. We were placed in what seemed to be the perfect classes, my husband at a step above beginners, and I (who lived in Venezuela, decades ago) at an intermediate level. Classes were small; my group was entirely female and mostly American West Coasters; some young, some older, professionals, students and retirees.

Soledad, the cooking instructor at ICO, demonstrates how to grill a tortilla.Soledad, the cooking instructor at ICO, demonstrates how to grill a tortilla.

We had three hours of grammar, difficult work with homework and recitation, and then an hour of conversation. Usually we moved outdoors for the last informal hour. One day we had fake criminal trials, inventing light crimes of larceny and libel, and laughing more than we talked. Our Spanish improved greatly in this brief time, and in several weeks would have been not perfect, but certainly fluent.

We had heard about the marvelous Oaxacan cuisine, and for our afternoon elective, we chose Culinary Arts. We learned to make chicken in green mole sauce, arroz con leche, hot chocolate Oaxaca style (with water) and chilaquiles verdes. Soledad, our instructor in the kitchen, a small grandmotherly woman, all smiles, seemed to enjoy our silliness and incompetence as she clearly spoke and demonstrated her wonderful ingredients and concoctions. For trying these recipes at home, foreigners need access to an international grocery, as some ingredients were very exotic.

In addition to the class offerings, the school sponsors tours out to such nearby attractions as Monte Albán, a Zapotec archaeological site west of the city. Another very interesting offshoot of the Instituto is an 18-month-old initiative, En Via, a ‘microinvestment’ or microenterprise program in which visitors pay to take tours to an artisan village. Once there they meet local women with ideas for improving their small creative businesses, and then are asked to determine which are most deserving of loans funded by tour ticket sales. On the other side, these entrepreneurs apply for the loans through quite a rigorous process, make their presentations, and must begin repaying within a month of receipt. The loans are tiny, beginning at around $100.00 to be divided among teams of three.

Rug-maker and applicant for En Via loan, in Teotitlan del Valle, near Oaxaca.Small rugs, recently woven.

We took the trip on Friday, visiting the rug-weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, and visiting six (two application teams) artisans. First we toured a 16th century church built on Zapotec (pre-Spanish) temple ruins, incorporating pieces of the earlier artwork into the Catholic church. (This becomes appropriate, when considering how Christians of that period wove elements of indigenous religions into the local Catholic culture, making it more palatable to the conquered Indians.)

Two rug makers, a woman who wanted to sell organic products, a tortilla maker, and two women who sold fruit and vegetables at the market had applied for loans, and it was up to us to choose. Six charmers, all with good ideas, mostly with amazingly good networks; several were already selling to buyers in the U.S. Most wanted the loan to replenish their raw materials or upgrade their tools. We were completely seduced by a rug maker, to the extent of buying a small carpet. (And tried to recuse ourselves in the vote in the van on the way home!)

Tortilla maker, applicant for En Via loan to buy new cooking pan.Tortilla maker, applicant for En Via loan to buy new cooking pan.
Rug-maker and applicant for En Via loan, in Teotitlan del Valle, near Oaxaca.Rug-maker and applicant for En Via loan, in Teotitlan del Valle, near Oaxaca.

The “losers” will have more chances to apply for later loans; these tours occur several times a week. And winning recipients, if prompt at repayment, may become eligible for larger loans. This worthwhile program made a fascinating tour, as we were encouraged to ask questions and inspect the premises and products.

While the program gives local artisans and businesswomen a chance to improve their entrepreneurial scope, it also deepens the tourists’ understanding of the lives and culture of these rural women.

Participating in the school activities, we met other students, people of all ages, from several countries. The director told me that most come from English-speaking countries or Germany, although they currently had four from Japan. They get a lot of retirees, and many university-aged students as well. Astounding to us was the number who were in Oaxaca for extended periods of time – weeks, months, indefinite. One couple had taken a year off work to travel, and had already spent seven months in Eastern Europe. Another had quit their jobs to come and learn Spanish for nine months. Many Canadians, escaping winter for a period of time, enrolled at the school. We met no one staying as short a time as we planned.

Students at the Instituto enjoy the front veranda.Students at the Instituto enjoy the front veranda.

We enjoyed seeing fellow students around town, feeling a sense of community we didn’t share with most tourists in Oaxaca. And if we return there, we will certainly sign up for another week or two at the delightful Instituto.

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