by Heather Baxter
Providing an opportunity to “build bridges” between Mexican and American cultures, Debbie Roberts, Protestant Campus Minister and director of peace studies minor, and Davíd Román, Spanish instructor, led a group of twelve students deep into Mexico for a three-week trip during January Interterm.
The experience, touted under the three-unit “Mexico Study Experience: Historical, cultural and political awareness” class, was an attempt by Roberts to help students gain perspective of current Mexican reality.
Students flew into Mexico City on Friday, Jan. 8, then took a bus to Cuernavaca, their first stop on the adventure.
They spent two weeks in Central Mexico, in Cuernavaca, and one week in the Southeastern portion of Mexico, Chiapas. The former part of the trip was facilitated by Román, a citizen of Mexico who is originally from that area.
Much of the trip centered around Román’s interest in “the point of view of U.S. citizens in relation to the Mexican people.
“My role in this trip is to provide information for my students about our own [Mexican citizens] history, about our own culture,” said Román.
Students lodged in small groups with local families in order to fully experience life in a small Mexican city. Fully integrated into the family life of the home in which they were staying, students were forced to hone their Spanish-speaking skills, as few household members spoke much, if any, English.
Many students saw living with these families as a profound experience. Kaori Nasu, a junior communications major, said, “The people were always so friendly and kind. I wasn’t nervous about staying with them at all.”
But with the enjoyment also came harsh realities. One student commented on the lack of plumbing. The bathrooms in many households were little more than holes in the ground.
It was these new experiences that had many students realizing what life was truly like for the people with whom they were staying.
In addition to the experiences that students had while staying with families in Mexico, they also had the opportunity to see many political figures, including mayors from outside the ruling party, city council members and the bishop of Chiapas.
These figures helped to clarify the struggles of the indigenous people in Mexico, as well as the importance of U.S. involvement in Mexico.
“I believe that it was an eye-opening experience for many of the students,” said Roberts. “They became aware of a reality that they didn’t know before. The students had a very strong reaction to everything that they were exposed to.”
In addition to the cultural learning experiences, students were given the opportunity to visit historical sites such as Aqua Azul, a famous waterfall in Mexico, and Palenque, the Mayan ruins.
The group was joined by Kim Martin, professor in behavioral science, and Elena Cardeña, Catholic Campus Minister, in Cuernavaca.
Several students also earned Service Learning credit, as they volunteered their time in a local day care center.
Many of the students began the trip fearing what was ahead. For many, the biggest concern was getting sick. In fact, all but one participant fell ill during the duration of the trip.
Through all the experiences, Roberts and Román feel they were affected the most .
“I was so impressed with the willingness and courage of the students to experience as much as they could to the fullest. Few of them spoke much Spanish, yet all would volunteer to introduce the group to the Spanish-speaking families the groups would be staying with,” said Román.
Students did not remain unaffected, however. Nasu summed up her experiences and what she learned when she said, “I realized that I survived everywhere we went, even though I didn’t speak the language. I learned despite the barriers put before me.”
Another student who was greatly affected by her trip to Mexico was Georgina Negrete, a sophomore. Roberts said Negrete was visiting her sister in the hospital when she felt a sharp sting on her leg. Thinking it was a staple, she reached down and extracted a small scorpion from her pants. The scorpion, unbeknownst to Negrete, apparently traveled back to the States in the pocket of her pants, only to be found later. Negrete was not seriously injured. As Roberts put it, the trip was fraught with “thrills and excitement, even after we returned to the United States.”
The culmination of the experience will be presented at this year’s Peace Fair, scheduled for the week of March 15. On March 18, pictures from the trip will be displayed, and Roberts is hoping to provide students with volunteer opportunities in or outside of Mexico.