NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- This past January, 11 Bethel College students flew south for the month in order to experience the rich culture of the people who share our border. Most of us were social work majors with one business major and a social science major who wanted to learn about social development and social justice in Mexico. We arrived in Mexico City to 80-degree weather and a gorgeous view of the mountains surrounding Mexico City and Cuernavaca. The program we worked with for the first two weeks of the trip is called Quest Mexico and is run by a Canadian named Gerardo Debbink.
On our second day in Cuernavaca, Quest split us up into groups and gave us a list of food items that we needed to buy downtown in the people’s market. Each group was given 49 pesos--a little less than five American dollars--which is the daily minimum wage in Mexico.
The first thing I saw when we entered the market was booth after booth filled with the bright colors of fresh fruit and vegetables. There were people everywhere bumping into me and vendors selling and bargaining in each direction I turned.
Our mission was to find the cheapest potatoes, garlic, papaya and peas we could. The problem was that I spoke very little Spanish in a market where I was definitely a minority gringa. I went up to a stand full of fruit to buy a papaya and somehow communicated the transaction with the man.
This first experience in the market helped me to feel some sort of connection with Mexico. I felt more confident in my ability to get around in this new culture I was being thrown into and I also had a greater understanding of the everyday struggle to pay for the basics such as food.
Through Quest, we also met with many different individuals who shared with us their stories and struggles of living in an impoverished Mexico.
One of our most difficult experiences happened the day we went to the rural mountain village of Tlamacazapa. We all piled into an old beat-up bus and rode up the mountain for a very bumpy and dusty hour to get to our destination.
The first house we entered was no bigger than my living room at home. It was made of what looked like tin and bamboo, with a dirt floor. The people who lived there told us that their mother was very sick, but since they had no money to pay for medicines, they just prayed. They didn’t have an indoor toilet. There were holes in the roof and walls of the house.
But when they spoke to us about their lives, these people were not bitter. They all had smiles on their faces and laughed about the holes in the roof.
Even though this was one of the most difficult days of the trip, it also gave me hope. These people were the poorest in material possessions that I had met, but they were richer than many in love, family and a sense of community. I was amazed at how each person we met could be so welcoming and gracious to us, especially since many Americans are not as welcoming to Mexicans who come to visit our country.
The students who participated in the Mexico interterm, led by Larry Friesen, Newton, professor of social work, were Angela Carriker, senior from Colby; Aislinn Conrad, junior from Goessel; Kezia Hesed, freshman from Pawnee Rock; Andy Orozco, sophomore from Earlimart, Calif.; Karrie Peterson, senior from Pella, Iowa; Emily Piper, freshman from North Newton; Malcolm Rhymer, sophomore from West Palm Beach, Fla.; Tina Schmidt-Tieszen, junior from Newton; Spencer Sward, senior from Wichita; Amy Swartz, sophomore from Wichita; and Kristin Wedel, sophomore from Hutchinson. Donna June, Newton, and Katy June-Friesen, Columbia, Mo., were also part of the group.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.