I arrived in San Miguel Del Valle, a pueblo about 45 minutes away from Oaxaca’s city center, for a day of volunteer service with a local organization named En Vía. Upon arriving I was quickly assigned to a family who lived in the town, and my purpose was to help build a new stove for them alongside a team of volunteers and an engineering student. We arrived at their house in the morning and were immediately welcomed inside. The family had already prepared the materials for building the stove and they seemed excited for us to get started.
Throughout the 5-hour process of building the stove, the family helped us get new supplies when we were short, and they would ask questions along the way about what we were doing. The abuela would join us for major decisions, such as the size of the oven and if she wanted any changes to be made to the design. One of the nietas brought out a pitcher of a flavorful fruit drink she had made just for us.
After hours of mixing concrete, sizing bricks, putting the pieces in place, fixing mistakes, and smoothing out rough edges, the oven was complete. The entire family – los abuelos, hijos y hijas, nietos y nietas – crowded around the oven to use it for the first time. It was the first time all day that I had seen the whole family together, and I began to feel nervous. What if the oven didn’t work? What if we had to go back and fix mistakes that we had made hours before? What if the family is disappointed or unhappy with the final result?
The abuela lit the embers, put them inside the oven, and the family waited for the tortilla pan to warm up. After a few minutes of waiting she put her hand over the tortilla pan and it was working! In this moment, I felt so relieved and happy. I had just helped build something that took a lot of time and energy, but I also had the privilege to be welcomed so warmly into this family and join in their excitement. As we felt the new warmth emanate from the oven, the abuela invited us to stay for la comida. I was so thankful for this sincere invitation, but also a little surprised, since this form of showing gratitude is not something I have experienced in the United States.
They brought us over to a large bucket outside to wash our hands, and then made sure we were comfortable at their dining table. They brought out plates for each of us that were filled with 4-5 tamales each (that’s a lot of tamales!). I was so amazed and grateful that this family had prepared this for us. This experience, and other experiences in Oaxaca, showed me that sharing meals is an important way of showing gratitude, welcoming strangers, and creating friendships. It’s also a way of sharing culture – for example, the abuela proudly told us that her family grew the herbs they used in the tamales. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico and many resources are lacking, yet I experienced an unparalleled generosity and sharing of culture.
This relationship between food, gratitude, and friendship is something I hope to bring to my work in the U.S. Can we encourage different boundaries between practitioners and clients? Can we give and receive food as a way to show gratitude and establish friendships in community mental health settings? Sharing food can be a warm way of exchanging cultural practices and getting to know one another on a more genuine level. Can we also establish the culture of giving and receiving food among practitioners to form stronger bonds between our co-workers?
Giving and receiving food is also a way to show clients in the U.S. that the practitioner-client relationship is bi-directional. Clients have an impact on us as practitioners. Practitioners do not just ‘give’ to clients, they also ‘receive’. Sharing meals and our own culture with our clients has the potential to break down some of the inherent power dynamics in mental health settings, and it is one way of showing clients how grateful we are for the relationship.
Sharing food also provides a genuine opportunity to ask questions about a client’s culture and it can open up a conversation about what is most important to the client. Rather than asking these important questions through structured or semi-structured forms that are given to us by our agencies, sharing a meal can be a way to make new clients feel more comfortable and share information in an organic way. This could be especially useful for clients who have immigrated to the U.S. and who may feel distrustful of practitioners or miss the warm, welcoming spaces of their home country.
In my future work settings, I want to create a more lively space that represents my own culture and important aspects aspects of my background that I would like to share with others. I want to create spaces that encourage sharing and receiving. I want to pay it forward and show my clients gratitude, welcome them warmly, and establish mutual friendships. This is what Oaxacans have given me over the last 6 weeks, and I hope I can continue to grow, share this warmth, and positively change our rigid boundaries with clients when I return to the United States.