By Nikki Fanta
After spending 8 hours traveling from La Crosse to Chicago to Dallas and finally arriving in Mexico City, we are all exhausted but excited to begin our Mexican journey. We met Sister Marie, a Franciscan sister from Viterbo, and our tour guide Jaime, also a Viterbo graduate, at the airport. They will remain with us for the first ten days of our trip, sharing their expertise and knowledge about the country they love. As soon as we left the airport, an overwhelming stench—a combination of sewer, pollution, and thousands of sweaty bodies—reached our noses. I was glad the scent didn’t last very long as we traveled across town to the Anglican Center, our place of residence for the next few days. The traffic here is insane! Vehicles zoom in and out and up and down in every possible direction! We got involved in a bit of a traffic jam on the way to the Anglican Center, and I felt as if we were about to crash several times. There are very few stop signs or traffic signals, and cars just drive wherever they need to go with little consideration for pedestrians or other vehicles. They don’t like you to flush toilet paper down the toilet here, which takes a lot of getting used to. You also have to brush your teeth with bottled water to avoid contamination. In America, we take for granted simple things like clean water. I’m so glad I live in a country where I don’t have to worry about things like that. I’m so happy to be in Mexico, but I’m overwhelmed by the 24 million people and 300 million vehicles! I’m sure this will be the start of a great adventure…
Today we listened to a presentation by Laura Alvarado about children of the street. Laura is part of an organization that finds street children, gets them back on their feet, trains them to feel emotions, makes them realize their full potential, and allows them to form essential human connections. I’m so inspired by what Laura and her team are doing. Being a future educator, I have a special place in my heart for children, and I would like to see all children thrive. Many of these children end up on the street because they are not happy with their lives in school. I think the resolution needs to begin at an early age, within the schools. Keeping children in school keeps them off the street and out of trouble, creating productive members of society. As a future teacher, I now realize what an impact I can make on my future students. I will have the power to make a difference in the life of a child. That is such a great feeling! We all have such an influence on each other, even if we don’t realize it.
In the afternoon, we went to the National Museum of Anthropology. What a fascinating structure filled with so much Aztec, Maya, and Olmec culture! I was so impressed by the intricate creations from ancient times. Some of the cultural traditions may seem weird to us, simply because they are not normal for us. For example, sacrificing people to the sun and rain gods seems incredibly inappropriate by our modern standards, but in ancient times, it made perfect sense. We must never judge others based on their beliefs or behaviors, but instead put ourselves in their shoes. No matter how much diversity there is the world, everyone deserves fair and equal treatment. We are all human beings.
Today we explored the heart of Mexico City. It was a day filled with spectacular art, fabulous architecture, history lessons, and rich culture. First we admired the beautiful murals of Diego Rivera. I’ve heard so much about Diego Rivera and his work, but to witness it firsthand was absolutely spectacular. There I was, standing right in front of such a significant part of Mexico’s art history. Wow! What an incredible feeling. Walking around the Zócalo was an amazing experience. It was so crowded with so many people in the market square. Local vendors were selling a variety of beautiful handmade crafts. The cathedral at the Zócalo took my breath away. The amazing architecture both inside and outside amazed me. I was intrigued by all the small altars on the side of the church in addition to the main altar.
During lunch today at a local café, I noticed a man with the biggest smile on his face standing outside the door opening it for each person who walked through. I watched him throughout my meal, and I saw a few people hand him some pesos on their way out. That is probably the way that man makes a living, just greeting and smiling at people outside a little café. I don’t really know why, but that man really made a strong impact on me. After seeing him, the rest of my day just got more fascinating.
I felt an overwhelming sense of wonder at both the Plaza of the Three Cultures and Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica. Standing in front of the monument at the Plaza where several college students were killed while protesting, I realized that I was truly walking in the footprints of history, standing where so many great people before me had once stood. Right on that particular piece of ground, a Mexican tragedy occurred—a tragedy that will never be forgotten. It was a pretty powerful moment to say the least!
I’ve learned so much about Our Lady of Guadalupe over the years, so it was very special to see the original image of Our Lady in person. Everything at the Guadalupe site was so beautiful and spiritual. I understand that it is a public attraction, but spirituality is usually a very private matter, and I felt a little awkward and almost ashamed to observe people during their time of worship. In the main basilica, there was a wedding going on. It would be wonderful to get married there, but I’m not sure I would like to have random tourists wandering through and taking pictures during the ceremony! What a wonderful day in Mexico!
Today we visited a charming little part of town called Coyoacán. We walked around the plaza and market for a bit and then toured the gorgeous John the Baptist Church while mass was going on. I felt like I was intruding on people’s private worship. It just didn’t feel right to go parading through the front of the church and taking pictures while people were praying.
We made a surprise stop at the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Again, I’ve read and learned so much about them and their influence on the Latin American art culture, but to be standing in the actual house where they once lived was surreal. I’m intrigued and fascinated by both Frida and Diego’s work. Without them, the history of Mexico would have been completely different.
We had a nice flight to Tuxtla Gutierrez, but we were hit with a heat wave as soon as we stepped out of the airport near the Mexico-Guatemala border. Driving through the mountains to our hotel in San Cristobal de Las Casas, though, the temperature quickly dropped to a comfortable level. Our hotel is beautiful and much nicer that I was anticipating. Maricarmen Montes, a leader of women’s workshops who empowers many women to live better lives, came to the hotel to give a presentation. I was fascinated by her description of the women’s transformations throughout the program. She made me proud to be a young woman and instilled in me a feeling that I have the potential to change the world.
Our first night in San Cristobal, I went out to explore the town with Jaime and a group of other students. Jaime took us to the market square downtown where there was live music. The band sounded great! After listening to them for a while, Jaime got us lost, and we ended up at a bar. I don’t drink at all, but it was fun to just sit there and observe the local culture…everything from the fried flowers we ate for appetizers to the children selling things on the street to the juggling act that was being performed on the street outside the bar. Sometimes the best way to learn about a culture is to simply sit and watch.
Today was my favorite day so far. It began with meeting my newfound role model, Sergio Castro. This is a 70-year-old man with a large family of his own who does all he can to serve God and his community. In addition to healing burn victims and treating other ailments, he finds the time to dedicate himself to various water projects in an effort to provide clean water for his neighbors throughout Chiapas. He’s also built 25 schools but never had a home of his own. Sergio also gave us a tour of his museum, where tradition indigenous clothing is on display as well as documentation of all the wonderful humanitarian work he’s done over the years. Sergio’s commitment to his fellow human being is unmatched. I felt extremely honored to meet and shake the hand of such an exceptional man. He inspires me to go out and help people and make a difference in the world. Mr. Castro is the epitome of the phrase “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Many people don’t realize the impact that one small person can make. When people come together for a common cause, an even bigger change is possible. On our way up to the water project site, we saw a large group of men walking up the road with shovels in hand. Sister Marie explained that today was their day off, but the community men volunteered to clean out the ditches to help drain the rainwater during the upcoming rainy season. I was very impressed by that.
I loved my experience in San Juan Chamula. We were bombarded by children trying to sell us things and and asking for food. Sad! The church in the village was so simple, yet so beautiful. I had a moment inside the church that really hit me. I was really touched by all the community members praying and meditating with candles and incense. But once again, I felt awkward imposing on their private way of life. We are intruding on these people’s lives and interfering with their daily activities. How do they feel about that? I haven’t experienced any hostility from Mexicans, but I haven’t experienced a great sense of welcome either. It’s more a sense of ignorance. I meet strangers on the street and smile or wave at children out the van window, and they don’t even notice I’m there. I wonder if these rural communities just aren’t used to visitors and aren’t sure how to react, or if they’re just sick of foreigners interfering with their simple lives. Walking through the large market at Chamula, I felt pity for the women walking around carrying heavy loads on their heads with barely anything for shoes and sometimes having babies strapped to their backs. These women cried out to us to buy their handmade materials and the same response came over and over: “No gracias.” I felt bad for the Chamula villagers at first, but then I realized that they are content with the way they live. This is the only way of life that they know. They don’t want high profile jobs or fancy houses. They like things just the way they are, and I respect that. Who am I to come in and say, “How can you people live like this?” Just because living in a run-down shack with an outhouse isn’t “normal” by my standards doesn’t mean it isn’t normal for them. So far this trip, I’ve really learned to appreciate others and the way they do things differently than I do.
Today we visited the CIEPAC office for a presentation on the history of Mexico. I’m by no means a history buff, but I was intrigued by Mexico’s rich and vibrant past. There was so much information packed into such a short time that it was sometimes hard to follow along, but I still learned so much. It was very interesting to find out that Mexico’s independence day is actually a dictator’s birthday rather than a day of independence!
I was emotionally moved by our afternoon in Acteal. The long, winding drive there was definitely worth it! I was inspired by the sense of hope among Las Abejas despite the horrible tragedy that struck their peaceful community in 1997 with the brutal murder of innocent women and children while they prayed. I got chills seeing the bullet holes in the chapel building where the victims prayed just prior to their untimely death. Walking through the memorial underneath the auditorium was also extremely moving. Just to see the names and faces of all the victims—so young and innocent—and to realize they are buried right underfoot was overwhelming. The mural representing the whole history of Las Abejas was so symbolic and beautifully painted. I’m glad that the family members and friends of the victims of the tragedy in Acteal are able to carry on the peaceful tradition of Las Abejas. It’s unfortunate that three members of our group missed out on today’s adventure due to illness. They missed an absolutely wonderful day.
We headed back to CIEPAC today for a lesson in modern-day Mexican challenges and economic issues. I have to admit I didn’t take a lot away from this presentation. Too much information was thrown at me too quickly, using too many technical terms and complex concepts that I didn’t understand. One thing I did learn, though, was that the richest man in the world is from Mexico. What a contrast between the rich and the poor! How is it that two people living in the same country can live on such different ends of the spectrum? The unequal distribution of wealth seems so unfair.
Meeting with the indigenous women of the CODIMUJ was very inspiring. I really felt a sense of community there. I was impressed that the housing unit/women’s shelter was completely built for free. It’s so great to know that there are still organizations out there to empower women and help them achieve their full potential in a man’s world. Just visiting with the CODIMUJ women for a short time, I felt inspired, empowered, and proud to be a woman.
I was unsure about the University of the Land at first, but I quickly grew to love it. I also felt a strong sense of community there. Many young adults in the San Cristobal area probably would not have the chance to attend a university if not for the University of the Land. I like how the University teaches basic life skills like sewing, cooking, and auto repair. After getting a bit of education in those areas, people can return home and become thriving members of their communities. If it weren’t for Viterbo, I could definitely see myself going to school at the University of the Land!
One aspect I noticed today while traveling the countryside was how open people are about public displays of affection (PDAs). People just hug and kiss like crazy on every street corner! I guess I wasn’t really expecting that, and I assumed that Mexico would be perhaps a little more conservative concerning this matter. Another thought that crossed my mind pertaining to the whole week was, “Why aren’t these people at work or school?” There seemed to be people everywhere on the streets at every time of day. What are they all doing there? Don’t they have better things to be doing?
Sergio came to our hotel tonight, and we gave him a donation to assist in all the great work he does. Again, I felt so honored to be in his presence and shake the hand of such a wonderful man. Before he left, Sergio hugged each of us while uttering, “Thank you for your friendship.” That tiny phrase really struck me. I’ve known the man two days, and he already considers me a friend! Wow. What a humbling moment.
Today we visited a rural Zapatista village. I really didn’t know what to make of it at first, as we waited outside the gates of the village to be summoned inside. While we waited to enter, I observed people coming in and out of the gate. Each one of them cautiously shut and latched the gate each time after passing through. I was surprised by clothing. I guess I was expecting a more traditional form of dress, similar to what we saw in the Chamula village. Minus the black masks, the Zapatista villagers were mostly dressed like us. They just seemed to go about their daily lives, without a care that they were practically confined to their own little gated community. Once we were finally allowed inside, we waited even longer to gain access to the office of the “good government council.” I understand that the village runs on its own time, but I can’t comprehend what the masked council members were doing inside their little hut so that we couldn’t come in. It was nice of the Zapatistas to answer most of our questions, but I felt disconnected with them because of the mask. It was also more difficult to understand their Spanish on account of the barrier created by the mask. I’m not quite sure where I stand with the Zapatistas. I need to do some more research on them. I like the idea of their close-knit community, which seems very secure, family-oriented, and self-sufficient. However, something seems contradictory about their promotion of peace and the weapon imagery. I’m not so sure they’re sending the right message, but the least I can do is accept their beliefs, even if they’re different from my own.
One thing I’ve been craving since I got here is cold water, we’ve been provided with plenty of clean water, but it’s always been lukewarm. Today I realized, though, that I’m complaining about not having cold water when people have no water at all. Water is a resource that we take for granted in the United States, and I’ve never been so thankful for clean water.
Today we awoke to a surprise opportunity—a boat ride on a beautiful river through a vast canyon. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip so far. It was so nice to just get away from all the hustle and bustle of the city to enjoy the natural beauty of Mexico. I loved seeing all the rock formations and wildlife. We saw various species of birds, pelicans, iguanas, and even crocodiles! That’s quite a difference from the wildlife found back home in Wisconsin! The gentle breeze and warm sun on the boat ride was so relaxing, and I didn’t want it to end. What a wonderful way to end our time in Chiapas before flying back to Mexico City…
Today was our last official day of the GATE portion of our trip, and I’m actually kind of sad! I’ve had a wonderful time these last few days and met so many fabulous people. Today was a great ending to our trip with a visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids. First we visited a little site to learn about a cactus plant that has many different uses and the obsidian rock used to make sculptures. It was fascinating to know that one plant can provide an alcoholic drink, needle and thread, an arrowhead, aloe vera, and even paper. What a versatile plant! I never knew such a plant even existed. I was overwhelmed with fascination upon arriving to the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. It’s crazy that these enormous structures were left behind by an unknown civilization. I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I reached the top of the pyramid, and I felt honored to be walking on sacred ground. The view from the top was breathtaking! This was an ideal activity to end our GATE experience.
I hate goodbyes, but they always seem to be inevitable. I guess I didn’t expect to form such a close bond with our travel group in such a short amount of time. We’ve been through a lot together though! I think of our group as a little family—Papá Todd, Tío Jaime, Sister Marie, Jesúsito, and all their hijos. In a way, we’re all brothers and sisters, and that is something that I’ve really come to realize this week. No matter what culture we come from or what language we speak or what color our skin is, we are all human beings united by the common bond of humanity. It took me ten days of traveling around Mexico to realize this, but it’s something I will take with me for the rest of my life. I’m so thankful that I was given the opportunity to truly experience Mexico.