NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The poster in our classroom in Cuernavaca, Mexico, quoted the famous educator Paulo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
In our three weeks in Cuernavaca and Mexico City, I and eight other Bethel students traveled with Professor Ada Schmidt-Tieszen and her husband Wes. Our class consisted primarily of social-work students, with one pre-med and one nursing student.
Our trip was a time of listening and learning. The class focused on issues of social justice. We spent each day with an interpreter, listening to our brothers and sisters from all walks of life tell their stories.
We listened to those who lived in absolute poverty – a family of six who lived on less than 150 pesos a week, the equivalent of $7 U.S.
We listened to those fighting for the rights of indigenous people.
We listened to local social workers and their stories of working with communities to develop new roads, clean water and personal confidence.
We shared time with a church devoted to creating a safe space for LGBTQ people and with a mission of serving others.
We also listened to stories from many people affected by human mobility in different ways. One way was through sharing our space with refugees at the Quaker guesthouse, Casa de los Amigos, in Mexico City. We also heard more in-depth personal stories from immigrants and refugees.
A key speaker, and friend, we shared time with was Gloria. She and her husband fled to Mexico from El Salvador in the 1980s, as refugees from the violence in their country.
Gloria grew up in a small village in El Salvador, without many basic needs and with no formal education. When she was 15, her community began organizing against the eminent danger of being attacked by the Salvadoran army.
By the time Gloria had gotten married and was pregnant with her second child, the army successfully invaded her community and massacred many, forcing her family to flee to the open forest in hiding. Because of her pregnancy, Gloria took refuge in a nearby community.
One day, soldiers knocked on her door. They accused Gloria and her two infant children of being “guerrilla warriors” for the revolution, and took her captive. After a week, Gloria and her children were freed. Soon after, Gloria was reunited with her family and they started the process and paperwork of getting visas to Mexico.
In 1981, the army massacred many people, three of Gloria’s siblings and her mother among them. Also in 1981, Gloria and her family, now with three children, received their paperwork and fled to Mexico to begin their life there. Gloria was 20 years old at the time.
Gloria’s story, while heartbreaking, is not uncommon. While her migration to Mexico was more than 30 years ago, her story paralleled many other personal narratives we heard and is just as relevant in the current crisis of displacement in the world.
Also while we were at Casa de los Amigos, we heard a presentation about monarch butterflies, which each year migrate across thousands of miles.
The migration of the monarch butterfly is a natural phenomenon. We were helped to understand that the migration of humans is just as natural, and mobility is a human right.
By crossing borders and sharing time with people of another culture, I was able to gain a stronger connection to the world.
The stories we heard were challenging to our perspectives on life as we know it. We struggled with the privilege of being able to leave after a visit – to go back to our spacious guesthouse and, later on, return home to Bethel College.
The trip was an eye-opening experience, one that has led me to question the effects of my actions and how I can use my voice to stand with people facing injustices.
Rebecca Schrag is a sophomore from Newton. Other students in the 2017 Bethel interterm class Social Development/Social Justice: Mexico, led by Ada Schmidt-Tieszen, professor of social work, were Erik Arias, Salina, Alexis Borg, Poway, California, Mitchell Dutcher, Flower Mound, Texas, DrewAnne Gatlin, Broadus, Montana, Cayla Lawless, Burlingame, Abby Phillips, Maple Hill, Kendra Samuels, Girard, Meredith Stone, Clovis, California, and Alexis Wilson, Wamego.