Amigos in Oaxaca: A Life-Changing Experience
Since 1965, Amigos de las Americas has selected and prepared high-school and college-aged students to volunteer in Latin America in a culturally sensitive manner.
AMIGOS provides students an opportunity to experience hands-on cross-cultural understanding and leadership by means of living with host families in rural communities or underserved semi-urban neighborhoods and volunteering as public health, education, and community development workers.
AMIGOS volunteers typically partner in teams of two or three and spend four to eight weeks June-August living and working in one of eight Latin American countries: Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, or Paraguay.
Below is an account, written by Sarah Austin, one of the student volunteers about her experiences on our program in Oaxaca, Mexico.
For about two years my mom could not use her hands or arms at all. She was diagnosed with an acute case of Fibro Mialgia and many other crippling conditions. She could not cook, drive, clean, work, or do anything my whole family had relied on her for so a lot of responsibility was put on me.
I would come home from school, clean the house, do my homework, cook dinner and eat, and then I would return to my homework and not sleep until eleven when I was completely wiped out.
My parents never made me do any of this, but I always felt like my older brother never cared, so it was my responsibility to be a mom. My four siblings came to me with their problems, I assigned them chores, and I even yelled at them to finish their homework or their dinner. I would joke about “being a mom” with my friends, but I never really knew the toll it was taking on me.
Tough Love in Oaxaca
Whenever I would show up at the Summer Search office, everyone would know when something was wrong. They listened to me talk about my problems and they really cared. They know my strengths and my weaknesses and always want to help.
Summer Search was hard on me a lot, and sometimes I didn’t even like them but honestly, I needed the toughness for what they were saying to really sink in. In my entire life, I have never had a family away from my own that loves me and cares for me no matter what.
In my second interview, Linda suggested Amigos de Las Americas for my Junior Summer Search trip. She said that it would be hard but deep down I knew why she had chosen it. She knew that it was what I needed, I needed the challenge and I needed to see that I had the strength to make a difference.
Amigos is probably one of the hardest summer programs that Summer Search offers. And I know that is why Linda choose it for me. She wanted me to see other parts of the world where people experience way more hardship than I had ever known.
Every summer AMIGOS trains and then sends students to live with host families in Latin America to volunteer on construction projects like building latrines, stoves, or even libraries. They also work on youth-education projects to teach kids about nutrition, the environment, leadership, and volunteerism.
Step Outside of the Picket Fence
She wanted me to step outside of the wealth and so-called “perfect” day-to-day life of Marin County, California. To be the most sincere, that is what the old me needed; one big kick out of my picket-fenced community.
In Mexico, I lived in the southern state of Oaxaca, which is rich with history, Zapotec heritage, great food, and beautiful landscapes. Many indigenous groups, including the Zapotecs, still live in this region. While in Mexico, I got to see the famous Guelaquetza Festival, which began as a celebration to thanks the gods for sufficient rain and a bountiful harvest.
Guelaguetza in Zapotec means “offering” or “mutual help,” so today it is a festival of sharing and the practice of contributing to the betterment of the community. It was neat watching all of the dances and the bright-colored costumes!
The town, El Trapiche, is in the mountains and has a population of eight hundred people. There are two main streets, and only a few stores. Women walk for miles with over ten-pound wraps of bamboo sticks all tied up balancing perfectly on their heads. They will walk forever bearing dark wrinkled faces, with eyes that have seen more than I could ever imagine in my lifetime.
Children called to me “Sarita, Sarita, ven aqui.” They ran to me, propelled by bare feet
springing from the dirt ground. Their arms were always open to me, I was one of them, I was their kind, their blood, their sister.
Amigos de Las Americas is based on what the volunteer can give. The whole six weeks I did not think about myself as I was forced to immerse myself fully and completely into this community. I gave health and nutrition classes to children, cooking classes to over 100 women and I organized the construction of an amaranth community garden, to reintroduce the highly nutritious grain native to Oaxaca that was a staple to indigenous diets for thousands of years before it was outlawed and eradicated by Spaniards in order to weaken their Aztec adversaries.
Time went so fast that now when I think back it seems like one day, one blur that I can’t seem to unfold and don’t want to because it was the most beautiful time in my life.
Learning the Important Things
Never have I felt that I lived so vibrantly. I felt so alive. The most empowering thing about it is I achieved this. With the help, love, and motivation of my entire community, they showed me that all of us had the power to finish the project until the date came that I returned home.
I learned more in these six weeks than I have learned in my life. I learned the importance of family. I have learned how important all six people in my family are to me. I can also see how much each one of them looks up to me. I am such a role model and I never knew it before. I learned to embrace and accept my family instead of always fighting against them.
I learned to be self-confident in what I can do. If I can go past my usual comfort level, build a garden, teach classes to women and children, gain the respect and love of an entire village, and learn a completely new and different language then, I can do just about anything.
I learned that life is hard. For a long time in my life, I thought that I was the only one who had
challenges. I thought that because my friends had more material things than me that I was somehow not good enough. I thought that because my family was larger than other families in Marin that I was different.
I also thought that because my mom is handicapped that I had a harder life. Because I have had more responsibility than most of my friends in the town of Mill Valley, where I live, does not mean that I am weird or different. It only means I had to grow up a little faster.
This was not just an ordinary summer, this was a life-changing event. When I told people in Mexico that I have seven people in my family, I was proud. I was proud to tell them of my responsibility at home. And they understood me and embraced me. I feel like my heart and my eyes have been opened up.
And I love my life. I am keeping my new eyes and my opened heart. I am eager to love and open myself up to share who I am.
If it were not for my experience working with Amigos de las Americas I honestly can say I would not have the insight and personal growth that I have come to attain in my future life. All I can say is that I am glad that there are good people in the world like those who make programs like Amigos work.
The greatest feeling is that of giving back and finally seeing the repercussions of all the work, it can change the world.
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