Barrio Activo and Los Diablitos; A Stranger Post

Contrary to what she may have you believe, this is, in fact, not Emily
Dix, but instead Olivia Swomley.  My contribution to this lovely blog
has so far been behind the scenes (a few of the pictures were taken by
me).  But, with Emily’s permission, I’m taking my involvement to the
next level, and I am here to tell you about Barrio Activo and Los

Barrio Activo is the partner organization I have been working for
outside of the Casa.  I had a last minute switch soon after I arrived,
as my original partner organization, Casa Hogar, had misplaced its
director, who traveled to Haiti to help with earthquake relief.  Casa
Hogar didn’t show any signs of finding him with any sort of
punctuality, so the Casa staff recommended that Joey and I work for
Barrio Activo instead.

Erick, me, and Edgar

Barrio Activo is a small organization based in La Pastora, a poorer
area about an hour north.  Edgar and Erick, who founded and run Barrio
Activo, work to create safe spaces for youth expression.  In La
Pastora, after school lets out, there is little for the young people,
or chavos, as they are called in Spanish, to do besides take to the
streets. Violence, drugs (including glue sniffing, whose addictive
high relieves cold and hunger pangs but leads to brain damage), teen
pregnancy, and dropping out of school are all problems that affect the
chavos.  Barrio Activo gives the chavos a place to go after school and
a forum to discuss their lives and the frustrations of having so few

The First Caravana

Barrio Activo also organizes Caravanas, which are sort of like block
parties with microphones, in which the chavos are invited to perform
for the community and talk about human rights issues.  Mostly, the
caravanas amount to a lot of budding hip-hop and rap artists and
readings of human rights.  I was twice roped into singing, though my
style didn’t exactly gell with the beep-boxing and rapping.

Kolping, where the curso was held

Three weeks ago, Edgar and Erick took the show on the road and worked
as teachers for a Curso de Verano, essentially a Mexican summer camp.
Kolping, a non-profit organization that was founded in Germany, hosted
the curso, providing the space and teachers, and organizing
everything.  Joey and I worked as monitoras.  We were each responsible
for a particular group of kids, and we went with them to each class
(sports, recreation, dance and movement, and arts).  Joey was in
charge of Los Borregos, 33 kids  from 4-7 year olds, and I was in
charge of Los Jaguares, 20 kids ages 10-12.

All 83 kids in the curso de verano (summer course)

Joey and I quickly learned that discipline may as well be an
untranslatable American world.  One of my diablitos (little devils)
drop-kicked another on the second day, and with 15 boys in my group,
there was rarely a moment that one wasn’t trying to kick the crap out
of another.  They called each other names, porky and gordo (fatty)
being some of the favorites, but puto/a (whore) and perra (bitch) were
also used liberally.  I’d forgotten how charming boys ages 10-12 are.
They were disgusted with the girls in the group, and would
fastidiously wipe off their hands if they had any physical contact
with the cootie-ridden females.  They were all very vociferous if
anyone had wronged them, in any way, and the moment they were
bored/tired/hungry, I was the first to know.  The biweekly fieldtrips
were highly interesting, as evidently no one had ever impressed upon
these children that one must actually be seated while a bus is weaving
in and out of the overcrowded Mexico City streets.

I am pleased to report that while I was not always successful with my
disciplinary measures, by the second week, my children knew that I was
not to be messed with.  I discovered that the threat, “do I have to
speak to your mother?” is highly effective in most circumstances.  I
introduced time-outs, first instituted when Christopher tried to catch
a fish by sticking his hand in the fish tank.  I also went on a
personal quest to keep everyone seated during the field trips.  During
the final week, while heading back from a long outing, I was forced to
ride in a different bus and saw through the window that a few of my
kids were standing and waving out the window.  I was particularly
pleased that the look I shot them from my own bus was enough to sit
them all down.  It was a small triumph.

However, no matter what I did, sometimes certain situations were just
too much for me.  One particularly difficult day, I was with my kids
in art class and this little girl from Joey’s group, kept
coming in and messing with the supplies my class was using.  The first
two times, I had to physically remove her because she wouldn’t budge.
The third time I’d just about had it, and I noticed that she was
vigorously sucking on something, which I assumed to be a stolen
lollypop, as this particular child was quite fond of stealing food from other
children.  Then she pulled it out of her mouth and I realized with
horror that it was not, in fact a lollypop, but instead a blue plastic
tampon applicator.  She was merrily pushing the plunger in and out of
her mouth.  “¿Qué estás haciendo?”  I asked. She shrugged
and said “nada.”  When I asked where she’d gotten it, she helpfully
pointed to the trash next to the toilet in the women’s room.  I wanted
to wash her mouth out, but instead settled for washing our hands
together and having a conversation about what we do and don’t put in
our mouths and about how the trash, especially the one next to the
toilet where all used toilet paper is placed, is not for touching.

Me with two of the girls

Despite all of the difficulties of the curso de verano, I actually did
have a rewarding experience.  I taught dozens of the kids how to make
friendship bracelets, and answered numerous questions on Justin
Beiber, my personal life, and race in the US.  My kids were very
startled to learn that people in the US often have different skin
colors.  I’m afraid my discussion on marriage was not quite as
successful.  When they asked me when I was going to get married and I
told them that I didn’t have a set age, they suggested 23.  When I
suggested that perhaps when I turn 23 I won’t have met the person I
want to marry, they took that to mean that my boyfriend is
disrespectful and does not treat me well.  When I explained that this
is not the case, they suggested 25 instead.

When the curso ended last Friday, I was actually sad to see them all
leave.  Kolping gave me a beautiful gift bag with honey and coffee
from their southern offices where they conduct microloans.  All the
parents and relatives of the kids came to see their final dance
performances, and all the teachers were made to get up and say a few
words.  Joey and I posed for lots of photos with the kids, and helped
them show off their crafts.  The parents were very appreciative of our
time and effort.  It was a strange feeling, taking the busses back
home for the last time.  Although I am thoroughly exhausted from
chasing children around for three weeks, I feel like through them, I
was able to catch a glimpse of Mexico from the eyes of a child.  They
were utterly forgiving for my often-choppy grammar, and answered my
questions with complete honesty.  Thankfully I have a Tinkerbell
poster they made me to remind me of them, but I’ll miss them all the

Me and some kiddies

A Casa Day Out

The Casa Crew at Xochimilco

On Saturday, July 17th, we had a day out with all the Casa staff and volunteers, a day to hang out together and (more or less) get out of the city. We went to Xochimilco, kind of at the edge of Mexico City, where you can take boat rides through canals and gardens. There were more than 20 of us, but we managed to fit on one boat. We ate a picnic lunch, lay out on the boat, listened to music, and watched the other boats and the gardens as they passed.

Xochimilco was wonderful because of the people I was with, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. You hear stories- “oh, the floating gardens, they’re so beautiful, you have to see them while you’re there.” It supposedly recreates what Mexico used to be like, before all of Lake Texcoco was filled in. Mexico City was built on a lake, and people used boats and an elaborate canal system to get from one piece of land to the other. Over time, the lake was drained and filled in, but Mexico City still sinks a little every year since it’s built on a lake bed.  Pretty cool. But I thought Xochimilco would be… tranquil. Silly me- no part of Mexico City is tranquil.

You can’t even escape the informal economy on the water. We weren’t on the water five minutes before a woman climbed onto our boat (uninvited) with a basket of sweets and went around to each person selling them. There were little boats that would come right up next to us selling corn on the cob (elotes), tacky souvenir trinkets, woven blankets, and perhaps most popular of all, the services of mariachi bands, in full costume and ready to serenade you for the right price. The water was absolutely crammed with boats carrying Mexican families and tourists of all varieties. Like all of Mexico City, it was noisy, crowded, colorful, and a bit chaotic. But very festive.

The Interns at Xochimilco

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a fantastic day! It was a chance to hang out and talk about nothing in particular, or have conversations you don’t normally get to have in the busy-ness of everyday life at the Casa. It did occur to me as we were floating along that we (the four Haverford interns) are so lucky to be part of this community at the Casa, to be welcomed so completely and in just a few weeks feel like we’d known these people for months, maybe years. And it also occurred to me that there were no 20 other people I would rather spend the afternoon with.

Oh, and for those of you who know me well and know that riding horses is my passion (and can imagine how much it was killing me not to ride for 10 weeks), we got to ride horses in a park in the town that afternoon. The horses were a little bit sad- the kind that tourists who have no idea what they’re doing are thrown onto regularly, who do the same circles around the park day after day. But it felt so good to ride! Samantha, one of the volunteers, and I discovered early on that we share a love of riding and a childhood growing up in the barn. So we went off cantering, and the horses got into it after a while.

Overall, an amazing day with amazing people.