“We left early, very early, from Philadelphia and arrived in San Diego where the Los Ninos people picked us up.”
This is how Shannon Gore, a social work graduate student, described the beginning of an excursion into Mexican culture called Project Mexico.
Gore shared this trip with 15 other students during holiday break. The group of 16 people spent 10 days working with Mexican people and seeing life through the eyes of those who dream to see life past the border gates.
Los Ninos is a volunteer aid program based in California that helps the citizens of Mexico in a variety of ways.
The group of 16 is “the magic number for Los Ninos,” because it is the most manageable amount of people and it allows for the most efficient work to be done for Los Ninos, said Jason Riley, Temple’s assistant director of community relations.
He said it provides not only a chance for the students to enrich the areas they visit but also to enrich themselves with Mexican culture.
“Los Ninos was started by a group of college kids who were concerned with the state of things in Mexico,” Riley said. Although the main purpose may appear to be the public service the volunteers offer, according to Riley “the cultural enrichment definitely becomes more prominent.”
During the trip, the students were split into groups for homestays and lived with a Mexican family for four days.
“In Mexicali, we were split into groups, mine had three … but one group had nine,” Gore said. Students did service work during the time of the homestay.
“We would get up at 7 a.m., have lunch at 1 p.m., do some cultural or educational thing and then get back to our home by 6 p.m., sometimes later,” Gore said. “I felt really welcome. By the second day it really felt like home, just that my mom was speaking Spanish.”
Next the students stayed at Casa del Migrante, where they shared meals, work and stories with migrant workers and deported Mexicans. Casa del Migrante is a home for the recently deported men and for those awaiting illegal entry into the United States.
“I met one man who had just been deported the night before after living in California for the last 25 years,” Riley said.
The lessons learned from the stay taught the students much more than the hardship in Mexico.
“I think the minimum wage there is 50 cents a day, and when you can make like $6 an hour [in America] you have no choice,” Gore said.
Gore said she was concerned with the role of Mexicans in American outsourcing.
“I really can’t see why someone could be mad at the Mexican people … [those who lose their jobs] have to consider how capitalism works,” Gore said. “It’s the companies and the economy, not the Mexican people, who take the jobs away.”
From Casa del Migrante the students went to a Mexican orphanage to continue their work and round out the trip.
“When we arrived there [the kids] ran out and gave us all hugs,” Gore said. Later on during the day the students made sandwiches with the children and helped construct a soccer field.
“We set up an irrigation system so the kids could play on green grass instead of sand, which can get into their lungs and cause disease,” Riley said.
The students were also given the opportunity to look through the bars that divided the two countries. Gore paraphrased the words of the local head of Los Ninos when she said, “The Governator [Arnold Schwarzenegger] is in favor of building a wall to protect California from Mexico, but he wasn’t born in the United States anyway.”
Gore was torn about what was the most moving part of the experience, but was able to narrow it down to her border crossing experience.
“It was almost surreal, how much power you have with an American passport,” Gore said.
She said she was also very moved by the role of women in Mexican society.
“They were very warm, very motherly, but they were also very strong,” Gore said. “They are so proud of what they are doing.”
Tom Hinkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.