Over the last five weeks we have been working with a local NGO that focuses on providing educational and emotional support for children (aged three to eighteen) and their families who work on the streets of Oaxaca. The agency’s mission is to promote the healthy development of children, adolescents and their families through an educational program that fosters critical awareness and active disposition for social change. In order to reach their goals, the agency is split into three phases: Outreach, Intensive Services, and Commitment and Termination. As volunteers, we work in the Intensive Services phase in the Centro Comunitario (community center) by providing educational support in the classrooms and through developing and implementing workshops for children and their mothers. Our workshops focused on self esteem building and identifying personal, family, community and cultural strengths through group activities, art projects, and group discussion.
A Day in the Life
As volunteers, we walked through these doors each day of our service learning. We would meet on the corner near the public hospital, fuzzy from sleep and the colorful stimulus that is Oaxaca. Sometimes a little sick, often excited and never really knowing what the day would hold. The bus ride would set the tone- live music, adrenaline-junky drivers, sickly sweet coffee from Oxxo. We would be transported from the middle class neighborhoods and host families we stayed with to a different part of Oaxaca, one filled with hustle, commerce, market noise, exhaust and more visceral poverty. This is the multiplicity of this nuanced and rich place, where history is delicately superimposed on the fabric of daily life. We are the only white people here. The tourism that is so present along the cobblestoned streets of Oaxaca center is absent.
We enter, ¨Buenos dias¨,¨Saludos¨,¨¿Como estas?,¨greeting the students and their parents, who are dropping their children off at the community center, heading to a long day of work. We often feel self conscious, and do an awkward shuffle of finding keys, feeling a bit in the way and a lot like we don’t belong- which we don’t. It has been a struggle to define our role with the over-extended organization. And even more challenging to figure out how to engage with these amazing and resilient children in a way that aligns with our Social Work ethics. How to provide services on such a short term basis, in a language and culture not our own? How to see beyond their inky eyes and adorable demeanor, and to hold space not just for their childhood, but also awareness of the many challenges and traumas they have faced?
¨We lost one of our students,¨ and this phrase follows us through the halls. It is present in the speed with which the children eat the meals that are provided; fleshy papayas chunks, fideos swimming in sauce, tortillas as big as their very small faces. We glimpse our students in every working child we see on the streets of Oaxaca- and we see many. Begging while their parents play the accordion, lurking outside the clubs, appearing at our elbows in a restaurant, small hands offering, asking- a flower, a bookmark?
They work hard. They play, but sometimes not enough. After they eat, they go to their classrooms, where they study. Sometimes, the assignments puzzle us, as one bright, incredibly funny and vivacious girl adds 7+7+7+7+7… until she reaches 1,000. Another, who wants to be a military doctor, proudly shows us her notebook, where she has meticulously copied book after book- on one page the history of Benito Juarez, the only indigenous president in Mexico, and on the next a many princessed fable. We draw wombats, minions, fairies and portraits. We make sure teeth get brushed and waterfights escalate minimally. We play soccer, we play jacks. We hope each child feels seen but are achingly aware of our own limitations. We try to help with long division, we learn an itchy new vocabulary of lice and nits. They touch us voraciously- our hands, our hair, grasping us in desperate hugs as we struggle to hold boundaries and to do no harm.
We lead workshops with small groups of children. Some are siblings, some are 17 years old but in the first grade. The common denominator is that they all help each other and turn each activity into an ode to their families. We ask them to write what they are most proud of and they write, ¨Te quiero mamá, eres el mejor mama del mundo. No te voy a dejar de querer¨(I love you Mom, you are the best Mom in the world. I will never stop loving you). We ask them to brainstorm a list of individual, family, community and cultural strengths as we do Flores de Fortalezas (Flowers of Strengths). And these kids, who can barely write, come up with a list that floors us: time together, dancing, cooking, helping your parents, friendship, bravery, strength, creativity, solidarity, self care, teamwork, respect, honesty, shared laughter and convivir.
Convivir, a strong word, meaning: to be together, to be a community, to live together, to feel connected, to work together. Despite all the micro and macro barriers stacked against them, these are the strengths they carry. They are many, and they do not carry them alone. We witness their resilience and try in small quiet moments to promote it. And we catch a dusty bus home.