09 2 / 2013

09 2 / 2013

De*sert. Des*ert. 

This is my definition now.

Desert- Dry, barren land; extreme. During the day, it steams with fever. Twilight draws out the heat, and it is replaced with relentless chills of the night.

You may see it, take a leisurely hike through the cacti hoping to God you don’t interrupt the afternoon siesta of a diamondback, or even take photographs at a distance.

Imagine with me for a minute having to take a journey across the vast wilderness of desert in search of a better life.

What if that were the only hopeful option?

Tomorrow, the other YAGM volunteers and myself will be traveling to Tucson, Arizona to spend a week on the U.S/Mexico Border. We will be visiting a number of organizations that are devoted to assisting those that have attempted/crossed the border in search of work, family members, or a new chapter in their lives. 

 For those of you who are interested in learning more, here is a sampling of some of the organizations that we will be visiting during this retreat:

The first Café Justo (formerly Just Coffee) cooperative was formed in 2002 by members of the Lily of the Valley Church in Agua Prieta. Their first pound of coffee was roasted, ground, packaged, and sold to market that year. They have since teamed with cooperatives across Mexico eager to pursue a new model, not just for growing coffee, but for roasting, marketing, and selling the beans as well. Doing so has revitalized rural communities and has kept families together. They have been joined by partner congregations across the United States who are striving to make a positive impact on both sides of the border.

Agua Para La Vida (Water for Life) was formed in 2002 by residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, as participants began to leave bottled water (first liters, then gallons) along popular migrant trails on the U.S. side.  About 60% of these bottles were slashed and left along the trains, presumably by vigilante groups.  In 2004, in response to the increasing number of migrant deaths from dehydration in Cochise County, the group discussed placing 55-gallon water barrels along the trails.  Because of concern about vandalism and poisoning, however, the group decided to place the tanks in Mexico, just south of the border.  In 2005 alone, more than 50,000 gallons of water were provided from more than 30 water barrels.  These tanks are paid for and maintained by a number of organizations on both sides of the border, including CRREDA, a Mexican drug and rehab organization with centers across the country, including one in Agua Prieta.

Healing our Borders is an interfaith group based in Douglas, Arizona.  They organized in December of 2000 in response to the growing number of migrant deaths in Cochise County, which has become the most popular entry point for undocumented migrants along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.  Healing Our Borders has four main areas of focus: organizing a weekly prayer vigil, education, humanitarian aid, and advocating for legislative change.  The weekly prayer vigil takes place every Tuesday evening along the Pan American Highway in Douglas, Arizona.  Participants gather to remember and pray for those who have died crossing the border through Cochise County.

No More Deaths is an organization whose mission is to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative: the conviction that people of conscience must work openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.  The goals of No More Deaths, founded in 2004, are to provide water, food, and medical assistance to migrants walking through the Arizona desert; to monitor US operations on the border and work to change US policy to resolve the “war zone” crisis on the border; and to bring the plight of migrants to public attention. These goals are implemented by recruiting aid programs as well as supporting already-existing ones, by interfaith, humanitarian, peaceful, solidarity-building events, and by establishing camps for assistance, outreach and border monitoring. Under the No More Deaths umbrella, participating groups—staffed by volunteers—abide by clear medical and legal protocols and worked in concert to save human lives.  Gene LeFebvre is an active member of No More Deaths in Tucson.  He’s a retired minister, and was very involved in the founding of the Sanctuary Movement, along with the Revs. John Fife and Ken Kennon.  

** All of these descriptions were written by our country coordinator, Andrea. 

Immigration as most of you know, is a very hot topic in the United States right now. The conflict is layered, and both sides are so split, its as if the issue were balancing on a tightrope. I am eager to share this journey with the other YAGM volunteers as we open our hearts and minds to this issue and learn all that we can.  

As I have never spent a significant amount of time in the desert, the definition that I gave above is what I imagine it to be. When I return, I will be writing another post reflecting on my experiences during the week and sharing my new definition.

For now, I am left to guess and to wonder. 

For now, the desert is just a misunderstood wasteland.

A deadly diamond in the rough left to collect hopes withered by the sun. 




13 12 / 2012

The first time I went to a funeral, I was three years old (my mom shared this) and greeting people at the door with my mother for my Grandpa Richard’s funeral. As expected, the atmosphere was a somber sea of black and grey. I of course did not understand the concept, and when the Pastor and his wife walked in, I immediately invited the wife up to my grandpa’s coffin, and soon after, I looked up at her with my little doe eyes, and invited her to touch him. She said no. I never could figure out why ;).

Death in the US is so Taboo. For me and most people, it revolves around grief, remembrance, cold cuts and potato salad. At least in the Midwest. Of course, it is much more than that, but for the most part, its expected or typical I should say, to dwell on the sadness of losing someone.

Every once in a while, there is an emphasis on “a celebration of their life”, which I think is how it should be. But, depending on how you define “celebration”, I suggest you wait until you come to Mexico for Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos). 

Dia de los Muertos takes place on Nov. 1st and 2nd. The first day is dedicated to children and the second is for adults and elders. All throughout Mexico, families and friends get together to celebrate the lives of ones that they have last recently and in the past. They put up huge ofrendas (altars), celebrating the lives of loved ones lost. In the center is usually a scarecrow-like stuffed version of the deceased and there is almost always a photo with the person and a photo shopped Jesus or Angel hand-in-hand; I gotta say, a little weird, but I respect their traditions and enthusiasm. Surrounding them are more photos, favorite trinkets and items from the past, and of course, favorite foods, drink, and vices of the past. You can entice anyone with a little coca-cola, mole poblano, and tequila and the souls of your loved ones’ are no exception. In some places, families wait all night in the cemeteries, at the hopes of meeting in the silence for the briefest of moments. Candles and marigold paths light the way.

On this night, we went Ocotepec, a smaller town outside of Cuernavaca, which is one of the only towns that still participate in traditional Dia de Los Muertos festivities. On Nov. 1st, Families of those who have died in the past year open up their homes to anyone that would like to come by and pay their respects. You stand in line, you view the ofrenda, you munch a bit on tamales or sweet bread, and then you move on to the next house. 

I did not take many pictures, mostly because for me, although it was a very public event, it felt very private to me. At each home, there is always at least one grieving family member sitting nearby the altar. Taking pictures of their memories and capturing their vulnerability on camera didn’t feel right. It also didn’t feel right to me because many of those that had died this year in Ocotepec were young. Some could have been my age— or the same age. I wondered how they died, why. I thought about the fact that many of their deaths could have been due to the drug trade. I thought about the fact that my country is one of the strongest contributors to this violence and that someone’s father, sister, brother, etc. could died as a result of it. 

This is exactly why I chose to simply pay my respects, marvel at the god-awful cherubs, drink a bit of punch, and simply go on my way. Besides, the sad eyes of Edgar’s mother will be etched into the back of my brain forever. 

If you go to Mexico for Day of the Dead, there will probably grim faces and a bit of sadness in the air, but as the Aztecs elders taught, tears will only make the path back to the spirit world slippery and difficult. But, accompanying those emotions will also be sugar skulls, Catrinas (lady skeletons), lots of food and Fiestas.

November 1st. Party. November 2nd. Party.

As it should be.



Ofrenda en Mi Casa


Ofrenda en Mi Escuela, GADI


Also, in case you were wondering, Halloween is quite popular here as well. We chant, “Trick or Treat”, and the little Mexican children sing a song! They have us beat!


13 12 / 2012

13 12 / 2012

12 11 / 2012

Finally, I am going to attach one of the songs that my oldest students are particularly fond of. Every afternoon, without a doubt, Gonzalo stands up in class randomly and says 2 of the 10 English words he knows. “Honey, Honey! Ahhh, Sugar, Sugar!” 

12 11 / 2012

When I look back about five years, there are a lot of things that I have done that I would have never imagined myself doing. Many of them have happened while I have been in Mexico. They include and are not limited to munchin’ chicken feet ( :S), rolling around on the floor with a bunch of sweaty dudes in a martial arts class, and a bus ride with Madam Medusa and her pet Burmese python (never have I had such a friendly seat partner). 

Nor did I expect that I would somehow morph into the Richard Simmons of music class every Tuesday and Thursday of this year. Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t  frolic and my enthusiasm is quite subdued; well, I guess that has always been the case until now. 

For those of you who do not know, I am currently working at GADI, Grupo Activo Down Independiente, a school for children and adults with down syndrome. Our days consist of general studies, painting, dance classes, yoga, lots random dance breaks and bursts of song— pretty sure I could write a musical— and the occasional camping trip, which, will be happening this coming weekend! Not only do I serve as bouncer, peacemaker, and all things damage control, I have been asked to teach music classes during my time here. To go along with the occasional “Down By the Bay” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, I try to mix it up with rythmn,  a little bit of theory, musical chairs, and recorder lessons. Everything takes quite a bit of time, and when their frustrations and mine engulf the room, we clear the air with a bit of Michael Jackson, Pitbull, and the Archies. 

Every morning begins with exercise. We drag the sleep out of everyone through stretches, squats, running in place, and jump rope. At first, we all look like The Muppets warming up for a triathlon, but eventually eyes become brighter and the fozy bear and gonzo complex disappears. 

To finish off our routine, We get our right arm and foot ready and all of the teachers take turns yelling out phrases and as a response, all the students repeat it three times at the top of their lungs.

Si puedo! ( I can!)

Soy inteligente! (I am intelligent!)

Soy independiente! (I am independent!)

Soy fuerte! ( I am strong!)

Soy valioso! (I am brave!)

Todo esta bien! (Everything is alright!)

and so on…

 I will admit that when I first got to GADI, I thought that this pep talk was a little too “Kumbaya-esque” for me. I felt silly. Now, after about three months of spending almost every day with them, I feel just as exhilarated as they do when we chant. There faces are full of confidence, hope, and above all, determination. GADI and these phrases help to free them of the struggles and stereotypes they face all day long. 

 When you throw together a new language, a new culture, a new job, and a new way of learning/teaching, it can get tough. There are plenty of days where I just want to scream, or run, or crawl up into the fetal position. I beat myself up when the concept for the day isn’t sticking with my students. I’ve had to stifle a snort with both hands or pretending to sneeze. Unfortunately sometimes, my great ability to disguise my emotions falters.That is when Gilberto, or Jose Juan, or Max come over to me, arms outstretched, and say, “Todo esta bien. Tu puedes, Catie”. 

That’s when I remember why I am here. 

Well, some of us were having fun with “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”

If I remember correctly, Dance Class involved the Cotton-Eyed Joe on this day.

Yay for exercise! Everyone had their Wheaties and papaya this morning.


Halloween and Dia de los Muertos fusion party!

Our personal interpretation of a famous photo. Recognize it?

Job and I… He proposed for the fifth time, 10 minutes after this was taken.

The teachers. Nuf’ said. 

Happy Halloween! 

22 10 / 2012

Mexico is home to famous artist, Frida Kahlo

Mexico is home to famous artist, Frida Kahlo

22 10 / 2012

22 10 / 2012