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Stick houses, tamales and smiles: Interterm introduces students to ‘the real Mexico’

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – While most Bethel College students who took a January interterm class stayed on campus, one group of eight, led by Larry Friesen, professor of social work, spent three weeks getting to know Mexico’s people and culture.

Only half of us were social work majors, but all of us were interested in learning about social development and social justice in Mexico.

Before taking a tourist-oriented week in Mexico City to explore Mexico’s cultural masterpieces, we spent the first two weeks of class in Cuernavaca at a program called Quest Mexico. It teaches North American students about the realities of life in Mexico by having students visit with people in several area communities.

We met, talked with and learned from many different people, including natural and spiritual healers, university professors, social workers and activists. But the most striking stories we heard were from the average Mexican people who shared their stories with us.

We met Brenda, a 25-year-old woman who lives with nine family members in a two-room house. Between her husband’s salary of about $10 a day and the little money Brenda makes cutting corn, they must feed all 10 people, buy clothing and school books for seven children and provide Brenda’s husband with diabetes medication.

In the indigenous mountain village of Tlamacazapa, we met Leti, who in her late 20s is unable to read or write much more than her name yet is incredibly well-informed about Mexican and U.S. politics. A speaker of Spanish, English and Nahuatl (an indigenous language), Leti told us about her work braiding hair at the beach – the racism she encounters while doing it and how the language she chooses to speak influences people’s response to her.

While visiting with people comprised most of our class time, we did spend some time doing more traditional activities. A local university professor gave us a whirlwind overview of 20th-century Mexican history. A theologian lectured on liberation theology. We watched videos about the current political situation in the Mexican south – where indigenous people are being oppressed – and learned about the people’s response.

Quest Mexico also engaged us in the community. On our second day in the country, we were sent downtown in groups of three with a mission: Take the daily minimum wage of 52 pesos, or about $4.80, and buy enough food to feed a family for a day.

It proved impossible. My group, assigned one kilo of rice, 15 eggs, a half-dozen avocados and a roll of toilet paper, was only able to buy the rice, six eggs and one avocado before we ran out of money.

The poverty we encountered in Mexico was sobering, especially in the context of today’s global economy. However, as we dealt with feelings of sadness and guilt, we learned some of the more important lessons of the trip – lessons of our interconnectedness with the Mexican people, of how to understand our role as wealthy Americans in fighting poverty and injustice, and of the amazing hospitality of people like Brenda, who despite the hardship in her life, spent the time and money to make tamales for us and welcome us into her home.

In Mexico City, billboards with pictures of beaches with expensive hotels told us to “Get to know the real Mexico.” How ironic, I thought, when the real Mexico is welcoming us into its two-room stick houses with smiles and tamales.

Other students in the Social Justice and Social Development-Mexico class were Simone Classen, senior from Wuppertal, Germany; Amber Goossen, junior from Beatrice, Neb.; Abby Miller, junior from Wakarusa, Ind.; Joshua Nathan, sophomore from Moundridge; Lindsey Ortman, sophomore from Marion, S.D.; Melinda Stucky, senior from Goessel; and C.J. Unruh, junior from Perryton, Texas.

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 was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

Allison Boehm is a junior from Prairie Village, majoring in biology.

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View photos from the trip.

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