By Jessica Neville
For the fourth consecutive year, the Caldwell Fellows traveled to Puebla and Atencingo, Mexico this past Spring Break to engage in the opportunity to serve and learn from the Mexican people. These trips have become an integral part of the Caldwell program, in part because of their continuity in structure and purpose over the past four years. Spring break service trips have become a rite of passage for many University students, but rarely do trips have the pervasive influence that a continuous trip such as this one to Mexico brings.
Esmeralda Luna Ramos had the initial vision for a Caldwell trip to Mexico, and she implemented and led the first trip in 2008 to Mexico City and Puebla. The trip consisted of cultural immersion experiences as well as service through teaching children in Puebla. In 2009, Esmeralda decided to lead another trip back to Puebla, and managed to convince a hesitant sophomore, Saul Flores, into going with her. Saul’s hometown, Atencingo, was a two-hour bus drive from Puebla, so on this trip the group took a day-trip to see the Atencingo sugar factory.
It was during this day-trip that Saul began to think about the possibilities of bringing a group of Caldwells to Atencingo for a longer period of time. He saw it as his opportunity to give back to the program and to share with his friends an important part of his heritage. With that in mind, Saul offered to lead the trip in 2010 as Esmeralda graduated. The students who went on this trip spent half of their time in Puebla and half of their time in Atencingo. The trip was so successful that Saul decided to lead again for the fourth trip this past Spring Break, together with Luisa Jaramillo, his co-leader in 2010 as well.
The successive trips to Mexico over Spring Break have evolved, but not in a linear fashion. Each trip has varied experiences to offer students valuable lessons about the differences and similarities between life in the United States and in Mexico. Participants have come to value the balance that is a common thread between various aspects of the trip. The choice to divide the trip between two cities is reflective of this search for balance, as it is not really so much a division but rather two halves that together make the trip whole.
As in America, Mexico is a wide spectrum of life styles and wealth, and this trip offers Caldwell Fellows the full picture. In the city of Puebla students stay in the heart of the gracious and beautiful historic city center at a hotel converted from an old convent. In Atencingo, the experience is of life in a more rural and economically modest town. In Puebla, students spend time shopping in local markets, attending a city soccer game and authentic ‘Lucha Libre’ wrestling match, dining out, dancing, and visiting with student-peers at one of Puebla’s fine Universities. Many students were impressed by the bright colors found in Puebla, and were thrilled to see them again in Atencingo. No matter what the income level, the Mexican people seem to celebrate life and the ‘zocolos,’ the square at the center of every Mexican town, are a hubbub of shared life and energy as families and friends meet and mingle.
In Atencingo, Fellows stayed in a hotel that met basic needs but in beauty and comfort was quite a contrast to accommodations in Puebla. By Puebla standards modest, it was still considered to be one of the nicest places in the city. In fact, it is the only hotel in town. The sparseness of living arrangements were far outweighed by the warmth and welcome of the people of Atencingo and especially the students at the school of General Emiliano Zapata. Caldwells prepared lesson plans beforehand that included everything from hands-on science to screen-printing t-shirts to singing “head, shoulders, knees and toes” in English and Spanish. The goal of teaching English was simply a stop along the way to the larger goal of making connections with the children of Atencingo. At night students enjoyed quieter hours eating dinner in the local square, swapping stories on the hotel rooftop, attending Ash Wednesday service at the town’s Catholic chuch, and joining in the festivities of the village’s Festival de San Jose – complete with carnival rides. Mealtimes in Atencingo were truly unique as our group of 19 pressed into the home of Saul’s grandmother, who daily cooked us breakfast and lunch. The warmth and openness that we were given will not be easily forgotten.
As in the larger Caldwell program, there was emphasis on and evidence of balance within the trip; jam-packed days were contrasted with nightly reflections led by Dr. Odom, sitting outside Italian Coffee Company shops pervasive on the busy street corners of Puebla and being invited into tiny restaurant kitchens in Atencingo to sample food before ordering; watching a soccer match in a stadium the size of the RBC Center followed by playing pick-up games in the schoolyard; authentic Talavera shops and homemade pottery; this was the essence of the dynamic and vibrant experience that is Mexico.
After leading his first Spring Break trip to Mexico, Saul embarked upon a self-designed walk across 10 nations in South and Central America, which he named the “Walk of the Immigrants.” This walk was intentioned to help bridge the gap between pressures on the Hispanic community in America with poverty in Atencingo and show the relationships between the two. The four goals Saul set out to achieve were enlightening the American audience, bringing awareness to issues, creating a partnership with the school in Atencingo, and bringing attention to the journey that immigrants make to come to America. Saul is now selling photographs taken on the trip to benefit a foundation for the school. Issues of immigration in America are complex and multi-faceted, but one obvious discrepancy comes from the fact that most Americans form conceptions of Mexico based on media-driven stereotypes. Mexico is as varied and complicated a country as America. The students who travel on these trips can return with the unique perspective of in-depth interaction with the people of Mexico and seeing the country for themselves. We are challenged to translate this educated perspective into advocacy for better understanding within our own community.
The Caldwell Fellows aspire to continue our service-learning partnership with Puebla and Atencingo and to make issues of immigration and poverty campus-wide topics of discussion.