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
Diablitos.

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
opportunities.

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
same.

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.

Fútbol, Friends, and Phraseology

“¿Cómo?”

I can tell you right now, this is the word that I will have used by far the most times by the end of my 10 weeks here.  Literally, it means “how,” but in conversation it means “what?” as in “I don’t understand, please say that again.” Needless to say, I have to use this word frequently. Also topping the charts will be “¿otra vez?” (again?).  In Mexico City (and nowhere else), you can also use “¿mande?” in the same way as “¿cómo?,” though it literally means “order me.” But try that in another Latin American country, and people will look at you like you’re crazy.

“¿Cómo?” will be followed closely in frequency by “con permiso,” which is basically “excuse me” and what you say when you pass someone on the street, squeeze behind someone, make your way to the door to get off the metro, or leave any room in which others are sitting.

A random but very pretty alley in the neighborhood of San Angel

The other thing we have discovered is that Spanish teachers lie. They tell you that “lo siento” means “sorry” and leave it at that. They don’t tell you that where you would say “sorry” in English,  there are actually about five possible things to say in Spanish, and rarely is “lo siento” the most appropriate. For example, you would much more often say “disculpa” (informal “forgive me”), “disculpe” (formal), “perdón,” or “con permiso.” “Lo siento” (literally “I feel it” is really only appropriate for commiserating, for example, if someone’s pet died). Learning this is one thing, and breaking the habit of saying “lo siento” right and left is quite another.

That said, I do feel like my Spanish is getting smoother, which is exciting! I still make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t have to think quite so hard about everything, and I can conjugate a little faster and remember to use the subjective (most of the time).  Sometimes, sometimes, I even feel like I’m starting to think in Spanish. The difference between when you use por and para  (both “for”) still gives me a headache, though.

Two fantastic new phrases we learned recently:

“Shot adelante” is “shotgun,” like what you yell when you want the front seat.

Una “fresa” (the word literally means strawberry) is someone who is relatively wealthy and can afford to frequent places like gyms (not super common here among Mexican women. Unless they’re “fresas.” This was the context in which I learned this word). Maybe the equivalent of yuppie?

One of the challenges of living in a bilingual house: using Spanish. The staff and many of the volunteers at the Casa are from the U.S. and speak English. It is true that the default language in the reception is Spanish, and all volunteer meetings and dinners are conducted in Spanish. Some of the volunteers from Mexico only, or primarily, speak Spanish. However, a lot of the guests (though not all) are from the U.S.; some of them speak Spanish and some don’t. And of course, all of us interns speak English and spend a lot of time together. In the one sense, it’s comforting to know that I am surrounded by people who speak English. In another sense, I have to make a conscious effort to use Spanish so that I continue to improve. My work at the Equilibrium Fund is also a mix of English and Spanish, since the founder of the organization works out of Colorado, and many email correspondences and some grants are in English.

We made delicious pasta one night when we were on our own for dinner.

That said, it’s also incredibly wonderful and interesting to have this mix of languages. At the comida compartida (community potluck dinner every Sunday) there might be a conversation in English with several of the refugees from Africa staying here who only speak English, and a conversation in Spanish with one of the refugees from Columbia and a friend of the Casa who lives nearby, or between volunteers. Sometimes you ask a question in Spanish and someone answers in English, or you ask a question in English and someone answers in Spanish. Right now, one guest from Camaroon speaks mostly French, so Lizzy and Clay might be speaking French with him, or Liselot and Lizzy sometimes enjoy speaking German (Liselot is from Germany and Lizzy has family there. Lizzy is the language queen). We interns are discovering the beauty of Spanglish, for example: “I’m going to dar a paseo” (take a walk) or my personal favorite from Liv, “trabajaring is for lame-o’s” (working).

The weekly volunteer meeting.

Some of this post I started a week ago, so forgive me if chronology is a bit old.

We’ve gotten to meet and talk with so many interesting people at the Casa. Right now, two refugees from Nigeria, one from Cameroon, and two from Colombia are living at the Casa, all of whom we’ve gotten to know hanging out in the Sala de Huespedes (guest lounge) and excursions in the City. We got to know a graduate student who stayed at the Casa for several weeks who was in Mexico doing research at the national archives for his History dissertation. Another student our age came through the Casa for several days on his way to work at a women’s cooperative and then a border shelter. One woman was coming through the Casa on her way back from several months in Guatemala doing development for the organization she works for. We’ve recently enjoyed getting to know a student from Chicago working at a farming organization in Mexico for several months, as well as a college Spanish professor from a school in Ohio. It’s so interesting to hear what has brought people to Mexico, and just to realize the sheer number of places people here are from. Last week, a couple came for breakfast and to see what the Casa is all about who were from San Antonio, Texas (close to Austin!). The husband had worked for the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and they have been leading medical missions to Mexico for a number of years. Last week, the Casa had a group of more than 70 people from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship using its conference room for an orientation (they weren’t all staying here; they overflowed into several nearby hotels). There were absolute streams of people coming in and out through reception; they were a very agreeable group!

One of the boxes in the exhibition. Eggs decorated as Lucha Libre wrestlers.

A few of the boxes in the art exhibit.

Another cool box.

So much to catch up on! Two Saturdays ago, we met our friends Juan and Luis in the Zócalo (historic center) and went with them to an art gallery opening in a cultural center. The exhibit was of the work of a group of artists that had made art out of the boxes that the people who shine shoes in the street use to hold their things, and then to rest the shoes on. It was quite interesting- some artists had painted or collaged the boxes, some were beautiful, some were very political and angry, such as one denouncing Obama and referencing the new Arizona law, some were made into sculpture. One artist had made the bolero box into a drum, and gave a performance. Another had made her box into an instrument that sounded a bit like an accordion, and also performed. On our way home, we stopped for coffee at a café at the top of a Sears, probably 12 stories up, which had an absolutely gorgeous view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a grand building done in a French architectural style, and the Alameda (Park). You could actually see the mountains surrounding the City- it’s easy to forget that they exist when you’re surrounded by so many buildings, and so much smog.

The view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes from the Sears Cafe

And of course no blog entry would be complete without mention of the World Cup (here, the Mundial) which is going on right now in South Africa, and which is televised all over here: restaurants, the Metro, a giant screen in the Zócalo. Venders are selling Mexican jerseys all over the streets. Things pretty much stop here for the fútbol (soccer) games. At the Casa, they bring the TV down into the Comedor (dining room, where breakfast is served to guests and volunteers every morning) and everyone: staff, volunteers, guests, friends of the Casa, gather to watch the games. Mexico tied South Africa in the first match, beat France 2-0 (that was an exciting game!), and recently lost to Uruguay. I was working the breakfast shift the morning of the game with Uruguay, but Lizzy, Liv, and Andrew went to the Zocalo to see the game on the big screen, and their photos of the crowds are incredible, so I’m including some here. Sunday Mexico played Argentina and lost 3-1. It was rough. I went to a restaurant/bar to watch the game, and had to wade through a sea of people wearing green crowded around tables to get to our table.  There was much chanting, and the one goal that Mexico scored, everyone went wild.

The Zocalo (Historic Center) during the Mexico-Uruguay game

A wall of fans

Liv, Lizzy, and Andrew at the Zocalo during the game

Last Sunday we went to an all-day soccer tournament at a park in the City sponsored by a number of organizations in Mexico City that support refugees and migrants, including ACNUR and Sin Fronteras, the organizations that the Casa works with providing a place for migrants to stay (its Programa de Hospitalidad Solidario). Eleven people from the Casa went, and some even played in the tournament. Many refugees and people working for the rights of refugees were there. It was a wonderful show of support. There were 4 games total, and every team had men and women, children and older people. Afterward, a big lunch in the park was provided and we all sat and talked. Sunday night was the Comida Compartida, or shared meal (potluck- everyone brings a dish) with Casa staff, volunteers, and friends of the Casa. It was, as always, wonderful.

View from Liv's and my room in the rain. It rains almost every afternoon.

“Una Jenny, Por Favor”

So, a bit about food here, everyone’s favorite subject:

El Tigre is a torta stand on the corner, and just may be my favorite restaurant here. It’s also nice that it takes approximately 30 seconds to walk there, and that a giant torta costs 27 pesos, which is $2.07 dollars. Tortas are huge grilled Mexican sandwiches, most of which contain meat and cheese, and also pineapple and avocado, hot chilis if you want them, and various other ingredients. You can order “the Jenny,” the one vegetarian option (pineapple and cheese) so called because one of the old Casa volunteers, Jenny, was a vegetarian, and ordered the sandwich so many times they just started calling it that.

Me and Joey waiting for our tortas

The favorite taco stand of the Casa is El Progreso, where you can order a greasy but delicious taco with bistek and queso (steak and cheese: they slap it on a giant griddle right there in front of you and fry it in under a minute, cheese and all) and then smother it in toppings such as hot peppers and onions, potatoes, beans, cooked cactus, guacamole, and of course, salsa.

This is where the action is at El Progreso. They throw it on the grill right in front of you.

This is where the action is at El Progreso.

One thing that’s really different about Mexico: There are no supermarkets. You don’t go and stock up for the week. The big Mercado is an indoor market with many different venders with specialized stands selling fruit, dried goods, meat, or dairy. If you want to find the perfect strawberries, for example, (and Gio and I went on quite the strawberry hunt through El Mercado San Cosme when we were making dinner) you can muse over the fruit at approximately 12 different stands in the market before making an informed selection.  There’s no slice bread: you buy the bread fresh at the panadería (right around the corner) each day. By the next day, it’s stale. You also buy eggs fresh each day or so at one of the nearby corner stores. So nearly every day I find myself going out for one thing or another: eggs, bread, fruit, yogurt at a small store a block or two from the Casa.

Gio presents our fabulous dinner for the volunteer meeting

Casa dinners: Every Monday, two volunteers cook dinner for all the other volunteers, and we have our weekly volunteer meeting afterward. A couple of weeks ago, I made the Monday dinner with Gio, one of the other volunteers who has been here for almost 3 years while going to a nearby University. We made burgers, a fantastic salad, agua de sandia (water flavored with fruit is common here- this was flavored with watermelon), and chocolate covered strawberries for desert. If I do say so myself, it was delicious. I also really enjoyed cooking with Gio. I got to speak Spanish all day, while we went to the market and then cooked, since Gio is one of the volunteers that only speaks Spanish. He was very patient with me and all my mistakes in Spanish! Tuesday through Thursday we also have shared meals for the staff and volunteers living at the Casa. We have a meal rotation, so you end up cooking about every 3 weeks. We also have a rotation for clean-up duty. It’s really nice to have a nice dinner provided each night, and it feels good to serve a nice dinner for everyone else when it’s your turn. Sitting down to eat together is also a big part of living in a community together and keeping up that sense of the Casa family.

Best dinner EVER. Do you see that salad? It's exploding with color.

Best dinner EVER. Do you see that salad? It's bursting with color.

Every Saturday there is a tianguis, an outdoor market, at the end of the block. On one end are tons of stands selling fresh produce or dried goods or piles of candy or clothing or toys or kitchen accessories. The other side is prepared food- tacos, aqua frescas, pastries. A few Saturdays ago I had lunch at the tianguis with Nico and Jill (the directors of the Casa), Agnita (their 2 year old daughter), and Heather (a former volunteer who was visiting). We had tacos de barbacoa (not in fact barbeque, as it sounds like, but lamb). You eat them with chopped onions and fresh cilantro. They had a very distinctive flavor- I think I liked it, but I haven’t quite made up my mind. I do know that we are all eating very well here.

Lizzy and Joey at El Progreso

Starting Work at the Equilibrium Fund: The Maya Nut and How I’ve Semi-Mastered the Metro

Wow, we’ve been here for nearly four weeks, and we have six weeks left. It’s going so fast, I can’t believe we’re more than a third of the way in. And it is high time to update this blog.

Two weeks ago, I started with my partner organization, the Equilibrium Fund. The first time I met the director of the Mexico Program, Cecilia Sanchez, she had me and the volunteer coordinator at the Casa, Bart, over for lunch. It was a great way to get to know each other in an informal setting, not to mention it was an absolutely delicious meal. Cecilia, her husband, Chris, Bart, and I sat and talked and ate for close to 3 hours.

That was a Tuesday, and the following Thursday was my first day of work. I have to say that I felt quite a bit of pride in making it there and back on my own (which consists of walking 6 blocks to the Metro Hidalgo, taking the green line 5 stops, switching to the red line, and walking 4 more blocks). I also first took advantage of this wonderful invention called the women and children metro cars. Because the Metro is so absolutely and utterly packed during rush hour, and because the Metro has a not undeserved reputation as a place for getting pick-pocketed or inappropriately touched, during certain hours cars are set aside for only women and children. And they are so much better! The Metro is an experience, but I must say I’m getting accustomed to it. I’m starting to memorize the stops, so I can look nonchalant and like I know what I’m doing instead of anxiously consulting the list of stops along the wall every 5 seconds so that I may as well be wearing a t shirt with I’M A FOREIGNER PLEASE HARASS ME written across it. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m still pretty obviously a foreigner, but less so than when the 4 interns are all going around together. I have even almost mastered the standing up exactly 30 seconds before you know you’re going to pull into your stop move. That is, on days when I actually get a seat and am not already standing. Also, people are selling things constantly on the Metro: granola bars, children’s toys, computer manuals, how-to mechanical manuals, children’s math workbooks, tissues. One of the most common is CDs, and pretty much every time you ride the metro, a person with a backpack containing speakers blaring music gets into the Metro car to serenade you. Sometimes it’s kind of catchy, and sometimes it’s more like “geez, not again, please.” At the next stop that person gets off and switches cars and inevitably another one gets on, selling yet a different CD.

That first day at work, Cecilia and I chose and printed 170 pictures of children in the communities in Chiapas with which the Equilibrium Fund works. Each child is holding up a Maya Nut plant in the photo- some are smiling, some are looking straight ahead very seriously, and a few are crying because they didn’t want to have their picture taken. Each of the kids was given his or her own Maya Nut plant, and we’re going to use these photos to make calendars for the kids to help them keep track of caring for their plants.

The more I learn about this organization and what it’s doing, the more excited I am about it. The Equilibrium Fund is an international organization that started in Guatemala, and has since started programs in other Latin American countries, including Mexico. The organization encourages women in marginalized and indigenous communities to utilize and sell the Maya Nut, which grows on trees native to the area, and has tremendous but little-known health benefits. What’s so amazing is that this one plant can have positive effects in so many areas. It is a means through which to empower women to both revitalize their traditions of producing this nut, and start businesses to support their families and communities and increase self-esteem. The nut itself is rich in nutrients and abundant, making it a great way to fight poverty and increase food security. Finally, recognizing the Maya Nut as a valuable food source gives incentives to protect native Maya Nut forests, reducing deforestation. Many communities also reforest with the Maya Nut, helping reduce their carbon footprint.

One of the finished calendars, and one of my favorite photos. The kids with their plants are so adorable!

The organization gives workshops in the communities about the Maya Nut, and Cecilia described them to me. I was really struck by the way they structure and talk about the workshops. At least for the workshops in Mexico, they start by cooking, and the women from the community join in as they arrive. While they cook, they talk about what the women already know about the Maya Nut, and any experiences they’ve had with it. The Maya Nut was commonly used by indigenous communities in the past, but this tradition has been somewhat lost. Cecilia said that many of the older women especially have stories about the nut, being used for such and such a purpose, or having cured a nephew of a certain ailment, or that they’ve heard the nut has such and such health benefits.  In this way, the Maya Nut comes from within the community’s own traditions and experiences and existing knowledge, and is a shared experience, rather than something being “brought” to the community from the outside. After cooking, and exchanging  knowledge and stories, and tasting everything of course, there is a short presentation with some statistics about the nutritional content of the Maya Nut, things the organization has been able to learn. As Cecilia said, she tries to emphasize that women from the Equilibrium Fund are not bringing anything new; rather, these are the same foods that the women have been making for generations, but there are ways to make them with the abundant Maya Nut, and in fact, the Maya nut was used by their ancestors and this tradition has more recently been forgotten. The Maya Nut can be used to make a substitute coffee, soups, dried and turned into flour, made into cookies and pastries, used to flavor ice cream instead of chocolate, or made into a kind of maiz dough for tortillas or tamales. It can be dried and stays good for up to two years. I can’t wait to try some of these products myself.

Cecilia and I talked about some of the things I will be helping with at the organization this summer.  She wants me to work on finding grants that the Equilibrium Fund is eligible to apply for, and to work on cataloguing and making bibliographies for some of the more recent research done on Brosimum (the Maya Nut).

Another great picture.

Last week was my first regular week of work, going in for 3 days. Cecilia wants to apply for a big grant, Iniciativa Mexico, which is sponsored by the Mexican Government in honor of the bicentennial of Mexican Independence, and which offers money to NGOs and other organizations doing humanitarian and social justice work in Mexico. The top five organizations receive 1million pesos, and even becoming one of the 20 finalists would result in a lot of publicity for the organization. The deadline is approaching, so we’ll be working a lot on that. The initiative has five categories, and the exciting thing is that the Equilibrium Fund fits into 4 of the 5 categories, because it deals with so many things: health, poverty, the environment, sustainability, community development, women’s rights and empowerment, etc.

I also spent a lot of time last week trying to make these calendars happen. They’re pretty simple- one page, with a photo of the child in the center, but getting a template of the right size and the right days and changing everything to Spanish took a while. It was a lot of me fighting with Microsoft word to line this box up here and this text here. But I ultimately triumphed, and we have a functional template! Today we printed the calendars and started to make them! It was so satisfying to see them finally come together. And it’s fun getting to work with all the pictures of kids.

Last Friday Cecilia invited me to her son’s 7th birthday party, which was a lot of fun. I was a little worried about not knowing anyone and my Spanish coming out sounding ridiculous, but I didn’t need to worry. I had a great time talking with the mothers there (in Spanish). It was also a lot of fun to meet Cecilia’s son. I got to watch the breaking of the piñata (I always used to have a piñata at my birthday parties, but for some reason in the US we don’t sing while breaking the piñata. I don’t know why we don’t sing, it makes it so much better.) I also had the opportunity to try real, homemade, Mexican Mole for the first time. It was delicious! So, I’m really enjoying working with Cecilia at the Equilibrium Fund, and can’t wait to see what comes next in my work with her. I’m about to start reading two theses done about the Maya nut to try to extract relevant data.

The first week: aqui en Mexico we like to facebookear

We learned some useful new Spanish words this week. They are as follows:

facebookear- to facebook

twittear- to tweet

googliar- to google

We’ve been in Mexico for a little over a week. The rest of the first week we had more Casa orientation, and a lot more sightseeing with Professor Krippner. On Wednesday Clay and Samantha, another full-time volunteer here, gave us an introduction to the Casa’s program on economic justice. The Casa has been working to support solidarity economies, which have as their focus the well-being and humanity of all people involved in transactions. A lot of people think immediately of free trade. According to some of the reading the Casa provided us with, free trade can be a component of solidarity economics, but it more works within the system, whereas solidarity economics really re-envisions economic exchanges. I hope I’ll be able to describe this better in future blog entries, once I start working more with the economic justice program and understand it better myself. One component is the use of Tlalocs, which is an alternate money valued in reference to the peso, which is used in certain communities in Mexico and helps to create the flow of money where cash is not prevalent and to keep the money circulating in the community, instead of flowing out of the hands of Mexican workers to big business owners. The Casa has just begun accepting Tlalocs. Samantha was excited that yesterday she bought worms (for the compost) with Tlalocs. Sustainability all around, Yay!

On Wednesday afternoon we went to the Zócalo with Professor Krippner, which is the Historic Center of Mexico City. Despite warnings from a number of people, I definitely didn’t appreciate how crowded the Metro is (the subway) until we were actually on it. We had to let one pass because we couldn’t even crowd on, and once we did, it was like sardines. In the Historic Center, we walked around the building of the Secretary of Education, which has three floors of Diego Rivera murals along its covered colonnades. They were fantastic. We also got a sense of Mexican time. Upon arriving, we were informed that we would not be allowed to see the murals without a tour guide, and that we would have to return at two (the tour guide was presumably at lunch). When we returned at 2, the tour guide was still at lunch, and about 15 minutes later we were allowed to go see the murals without a guide. Upon reaching the 3rd floor of murals, we ran into a supervisor of some kind, who absolutely insisted that we have a guide to narrate every single one of the murals we had just seen so we could understand what we were seeing, and said that a guide was on the way for us. The man was very well meaning, but really at that point all we wanted was to go eat lunch, and when the tour guide didn’t show after a few minutes, we were able to make our escape. After a lunch of comida corrida (what you call a common large midday meal that comes with 4 courses, a soup, a rice dish, a main course, and dessert and coffee) we went to the famous Catedral Metropolitano in the central plaza, and the Templo Mayor, the ruins of the most important temple of the Mexica Civilization. In the evening, we continued our nightly discussions with Professor Krippner.

On Thursday Nico, the director of the Casa, talked with us about Quakerism at the Casa. While the Casa is not formally Quaker, as it is now independent of the AFSC and the Mexico City Friends, it has a strong Quaker history and continues to operate based on Quaker principles. It also has a strong relationship with the Mexico City Monthly Meeting, which meets each week in the Casa’s library. Liv and I also got an introduction to working the reception at the Casa (so many details!). In the afternoon we went to the market for the first time. San Cosme Market is maybe 8-10 blocks from the Casa, and to get there you pass about 6 blocks of straight shoe stores (Zapaterías). One after the other, they just keep going. The market was rather overwhelming, an indoor market full of stand after stand of produce, meat, dried goods, or dairy. On Thursday night, we went to a talk about photography in the Mexican Revolution at la Universidad de California en México, which was a great opportunity to learn more about Mexican history and the use of images. After the talk, we went out with the professor who had given the talk (an old friend of Professor Krippner’s) and his family. We had a lot of fun with the professor’s daughter and her boyfriend, who are close to our age. They were incredibly friendly and promised to show us the city while we’re here.

Friday, we had more orientation and a discussion with Professor Krippner over lunch at Café Habana about the book he had assigned us to read about Mexico City, an engaging combination of Mexican history, culture, a tour-guide, and profiles of the diverse people the author had met. On Saturday we walked through the fairs in the neighborhood of San ángel, which had a lot of art for sale and many artisan craft stands, where you could be anything from little skeleton scenes and brightly painted wooden animals, to homemade bags and woven shirts, to every kind of jewelry or basket. We also got to go to Frieda Kahlo’s Casa Azul, where she lived for many years with Diego Rivera.

Sunday was the pyramids in Teotihuacán. Honestly, one of the most striking things was seeing the slums as we drove out of the City. Mexico City is at a high altitude, but it is in a valley surrounded by mountains. There were slums endlessly crowding the steep hillsides as you leave the city, row upon row of dingy, gray, dilapidated buildings. It was really sad.

The pyramids were enormous, and packed with people. They were also packed with vendors, many of whom really wanted to sell us whistles that sounded like a jaguar roaring. We climbed the two main pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, and walked along the Avenue of the Dead that connects them. The view from the Pyramid of the Sun was incredible! Sunday evening was the Comida Compartida (weekly community potluck at the Casa). We also said goodbye to Professor Krippner, who was headed back to the US. It was so wonderful to have him here to help us get oriented to Mexico City. He took us so many places, and we swear he knew everything. Sunday evening we went to the movies with one of the volunteers, Giovanni, and saw Prince of Persia (English, with Spanish subtitles). Many of the films here seem to be American Blockbusters that are either dubbed or have subtitles.

This week we are starting our work at the Casa in earnest! Joey and I have shadowed two shifts of the reception and learned how to take payments and handle receipts, check cards, and make sense of the reservation binder. I even answered the phone, and promptly forgot all the Spanish I know except “un momento, por favor.” I’m hoping this is a temporary phenomenon. We’re definitely using a lot more Spanish now, and I’m excited to become totally immersed in the language and life at the Casa. Joey and I had a successful market expedition solo today, so I think we’re on our way. We should also all be meeting our partner organizations at some point this week, and I’m eager to start at the Equilibrium Fund and see what that will be like.

First Days in Mexico City

Today was our second full day in Mexico City. Things have been such a whirlwind of orientation activities that I’ve hardly had to time sit down and write about it. The four of us (me, Lizzy, Liv, and Josephine) arrived Sunday evening and were greeted at the airport by Bart, the Volunteer Coordinator at the Casa, and Clay, the Peace Programs Coordinator at the Casa. After about a 20 minute cab ride from the airport to the neighborhood of Colonia Tabacalera we arrived at Casa de Los Amigos! Everyone has been so welcoming. It was wonderful to finally meet the co-directors of the Casa, Nico and Jill, after hearing about them for so long. Bart gave us a tour of the house, Clay had prepared a wonderful dinner, and at 8:30 pm we met (almost) all of the volunteers at the Casa over Mexican hot chocolate.

Our first full day in at the Casa begin with the community breakfast prepared each morning by one of the volunteers and served to guests and other volunteers. We then walked to Café Habana with Nico, Bart, and Professor Krippner, a professor of History at Haverford who is here with us until Sunday. Café Habana is allegedly where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro sat and planned the Cuban Revolution, and it’s where we sat to hear the history of the Casa de los Amigos.  Briefly, Casa de los Amigos, a Center for Peace and International Understanding, was founded in 1956, and run by Quakers in Mexico and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) until it became independent of the AFSC in the 1980s to be run locally. Since its founding, it’s been an organization devoted to working for social justice, and everyone involved in its work tries to live by the Quaker testimonies of peace, community, simplicity, equality, and integrity. The Casa was very active in providing support and services to refugees in the 1980s and 90s when many people in Latin America were fleeing violence, oppression, and civil war as political refugees. A variety of programs have arisen and evolved over time, and today the main programs are its Hospitality Program, hosting guests from all over the world, and its Peace Programs in Economic Solidarity and Migration and Refugees. If you’re interested, you can read more on their website, www.casadelosamigos.org (It comes up in Spanish but you can click to read in English). That afternoon, we had delicious tortas from a stand in the Casa’s neighborhood (Mexican sandwiches on a certain kind of bread that have layers of different ingredients, like beans, pineapple, guacamole, cheese, meat, etc.) and learned our way around the neighborhood with Bart: we saw the panadería, the chicken shop, recommended restaurants, ATM, pharmacy, corner market, and the stand where the Casa buys fresh orange juice. Monday night is the weekly staff and volunteers meeting, which was a wonderful opportunity to get a feel for how the Casa runs and the different events going on this month. In the evening, we had a discussion with Professor Krippner about Mexican culture and history based on some of our observations from the day.

Today, Clay and Liselot, one of the full-time volunteers, gave us a presentation on issues that migrants and refugees face in Mexico currently, and oriented us in the Casa’s Migration and Refugees Program specifically. In the afternoon, we walked to several museums with Professor Krippner—the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, which houses an absolutely enormous mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” depicting dozens of significant figures from different periods in Mexican history; and el Museo Franz Mayer which contains the personal collection of paintings, furniture, and ceramics of Franz Mayer, a refugee who came to Mexico, became very wealthy, and began to collect art from Spain, Flanders, Italy, France, Mexico, you name it.  His collection was impressive and incredibly diverse. In the evening, a community dinner with Casa staff and volunteers, followed by another discussion with Professor Krippner. It’s been a wonderful first few days, and I’m excited to become more even more integrated into the Casa Community, and to begin working with our partner organizations next week.