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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Different Kind of Mexico Spring Break

My first experience with Cuentepec involved a broken-legged puppy and outdoor classrooms separated by thin sheets, waving in the blazing afternoon air. As a group of thirteen privileged students from Los Angeles, our first impression seemed to beg for a stereotype: a rural, indigenous town in Morelos, Mexico where we could make a difference in the impoverished life of its inhabitants. The next five days did more than prove that stereotype wrong.
The goal of an Alternative Breaks trip is to trade a week where most college students would enjoy the comforts of home or wild times in Cabo for an immersive service experience. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts about exchanging a week of relaxation for a different kind of spring break in Mexico. We had been warned that showers would be few to none and sleeping on the floor should be expected. We were also only allowed one traveling backpack, so there was no need to worry about packing matching outfits or expecting a variety in our wardrobe for the week. I also knew that I would be without electronics, essentially cut-off from the outside world. All this I knew, but what I didn’t expect was how little I would care.
The town of Cuentepec met us with open arms and intense curiosity on our first day. We had been taught that smiling and saying a greeting to everyone we passed was the custom, but the intense stares of interest that followed us were certainly telling of the effect our visit had on the town. Most of the inhabitants of Cuentepec speak Nahuat, an ancient language that existed before the Mayans, and are still in the process of learning Spanish. It was only fifteen years ago that a road was built to connect the tiny village to a main road. Therefore, the influx of commercialized products and introduction of wildly different cultures is still new to the shy people of Cuentepec.
Our sleeping accommodations were on the cement floor of the community center where the elementary school had temporarily set up shop while its main building was undergoing repairs. This meant we often woke up at 7:30am to the wide brown eyes of first through fifth graders peeking around the hanging tarp that separated our corner of the center. The first day of our work in Cuentepec was with these understanding souls that I will always remember as never giving up on me and my complete lack of Spanish. We observed many of their classes throughout the day, learned a little Nahuat ourselves, and attempted some English workshops with them. One little fifth grader in particular, Star, the brightest in her class, took an immediate interest in helping me to understand what the other children were trying to say to me in their mixture of Spanish and Nahuat (here they’re already bilingual and still wanting to learn a third language, while most Americans groan over having to take a second language in high school). Star never let go of my hand and always repeated the words slowly and with actions. Our languages finally collided when she asked me about the Jonas Brothers. I replied by singing one of their songs and watched as her eyes lit up, convinced that all of her patience with me had payed off.
The other half of our work in Cuentepec consisted of working alongside the women of the village. All thirteen of us piled into the back of a rickety truck and drove out to the desert to collect bags of clay and cow dung, used for fuel. We were able to collect enough bags to provide the women with up to six months of supplies, saving them the usual two hour walk they would make for only two bags of materials. It was when I was side by side with one of the sixty year old women, kicking over a dried piece of cow dung to check for hiding scorpions that I realized what this trip really meant.
As all of us drug our tired and dirty bodies through customs days later, we weren’t thinking of how privileged we were in America. We weren’t pitying the living conditions of Star or the grandmother of the village, Dona Jose, who made lunch for us in her home everyday. We hadn’t come as a blessing to these people, the only thing that could help them continue on and better their lives. In fact, the people of Cuentepec had given everything to us. We had worked according to their customs and routines that had served them well for decades. We learned bits of their dying language, and were inspired by their strict conservation of water and use of the land. The people of Cuentepec live happy, functional lives that are not bogged down with consumerism or waste. By immersing ourselves in their culture for just one simple week, we had gained perspective and humility. And not for how great we had it back home, but for how much our uneducated, “advanced” country needs to learn. That is the message we felt in our bones as we left the dusty streets of Cuentepec. Not pity, but respect and gratitude.



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