I spent some time in Mexico this weekend, a class trip to Tijuana with friends who serve on the ACTW Advisory Board. I’m exhausted this morning but feeling the rewards of being totally immersed in experiences not fully familiar. I was born in Ohio where my parent’s families have lived for generations. I then lived in South Florida from ages 5-9 and was influenced in memorable ways by both the Caribbean and Cuban cultures. My family headed south after that hitting Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee before I left for Southern California to attend graduate school.
My first semester, I took a course preparing me to work effectively as a counselor across a range of cultures and groups. As part of an assignment, I asked my Venezuelan grandmother, who worked at the University of Toledo as an Office Manager and translator in the School of Education, if our family grew up doing any ingenious dances. She laughed and said, “Honey I grew-up in Ohio”, explaining that there was one Cuban family and one Puerto Rican family in her community. “We were, of course, all friends but there was no sharing of cultural dances.” This begged the question how we ended up in Ohio. My great grandfather came to the states via Ellis Island. He was able to get a job at a factory in the city and when they were ready to open a new one in Toledo, they offered him the chance to manage it.
I moved to California looking forward to connecting to my Hispanic roots. I initiated a break-up with the guy I moved to Cali with who was training to be a Border Patrol Agent; our respective educational pathways strengthening our individual world views and we quickly grew apart. The group home kids I was working with were quick to call me “whetta” which some of the residents took great pride in translating for me, with a “What’s up white girl?” But some of them could see it and they would ask, “What are you?” I learned in graduate school why that question is offensive but I remember feeling a little bit of pride when that question came my way. Perhaps because I’ve only encountered that question a handful of times in my life as opposed to on a regular basis. My difference isn’t as obvious and therefore more privileged. and the kids that asked were genuinely interested.
My friend and our host for the trip grew up in Tijuana. I loved learning and experiencing the culture and many subcultures through her eyes alongside my students. I observed students stand tall and speak with pride to Faculty working in the La Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) Psychology Department. I could see it was meaningful to them as they shared with their peers the question they had asked and the faculty’s responses to them. I enjoyed seeing some of my students bask in the familiarity of language, cuisine, architecture and aesthetic triggering stories of distinction and I felt honored to hear about their hometowns and their family’s unique pathways to and away from specific regions of Mexico.
I appreciated the deeply political conversations, meaningful stories, vulnerable moments and heart felt laughter shared with the friends that helped to make the experience possible for myself and my students. “You are one of us. You are Latina”, my friend said at one point over the weekend. A reassuring reminder that you can’t separate physical features like my height or the passion I portray in my communication through the volume of my voice and use of body language like talking with my hands from those core, deeply embedded parts of my South American Ancestry. “Women where you are from were warriors! You are from the Amazon!” she said proudly. Somehow seeing it reflected back to me, helped me make a little more sense of myself.
I eagerly await future opportunities to see new places, build new friendships and learn more. I look forward to supporting students in their efforts to engage in meaningful travel opportunities that will serve to advance their training as international mental health advocates. There are deep healing truths living within the stories of who we are and the experiences that have shaped us for generations. These narratives celebrate difference while bringing us closer. Learning through doing is transformational. Cuba and South America, just for the record, it isn’t a matter of if but when! Guatemala, hopefully I can catch you on the flip side and Mexico, I hope to be back very soon! Sometimes learning happens tucked in between the scheduled educational activities. Sometimes it is about the process as much as it is about the content; the shared historical stories of the hometowns you visit, the folks that join you on the journey and the insights that come along the way.