During a final reflection on the last day of Sin Fronteras, a classmate asked me what emotion had been the most present during my time in Oaxaca. Those six weeks were dynamic and full! I had felt sadness, gratitude, shame, guilt, frustration, pride, and confusion, and exhilaration, all overlaid across a canvas of new smells, bright colors, and cultural differences. Yet, to answer her question, I said “at ease.”
Having learned in one of our classes about the importance of building language around emotions, and some techniques to do so with clients and for ourselves as practitioners, I knew that “at ease” probably wasn’t truly an emotion. But my classmate and I we agreed that we so often focus on negative emotions, and it is good to notice too a lack of anxiety.
I felt comfortable in Oaxaca because I felt a sense of belonging, or pertenencia. Encountering warm, welcoming, and generous Oaxacans – from my host mom to the women with whom I worked to the taxi driver who shared his life story – made me feel at home. I felt appreciated in the small towns where I was working and safe in the city. The Berkeley program gave me a sense of purpose and direction, a real sense of feeling like I was meant to be in Oaxaca, learning and lot and helping at least a little, practicing Spanish, and staying busy doing things that were important. The program also provided me with an incredible sense of community, making it easy to build connections with Oaxacans and with other Social Welfare students. Feeling tranquila day-to-day, and never lonely, allowed me to be observant and open and continuously curious, to stay longer than I otherwise would, to witness and experience more and more, and to venture to further edges of my comfort zone.
While feeling like I belonged in a place not my own, I was simultaneously hearing stories from Oaxacans about reasons they or their family members did or did not move the United States. In contrast to my experience, Mexicans who migrate so often have to entirely sacrifice their sense of community and pertenencia. I can only imagine how such loss, disconnection and loneliness would feel.
Myzael Garcia, a community psychologist and one of my favorite teachers of the summer, taught us that a sense of belonging, common culture, and interrelationship are necessary factors for a sense of community. For Myzael, group work and systems interventions make more sense than individual diagnosis; as he explained, community psychology is a better fit that psychoanalysis in a place as chaotic, diverse and dynamic as Oaxaca. He taught us that community psychology is about creating a sense of belonging and empowerment, and giving a voice to those who do not have a voice.
I will carry this with me into my work. While I expect that in some settings it will fall outside the scope of my job as a social worker, the importance of community and belonging really resonates with me. This coming year, working in a school, I think it will be appropriate to prioritize helping students and parents feel included, understood, and heard. While it seems especially important for families who have immigrated and may have lost a sense of community, everyone can benefit from community-building; middle school can be an isolating place for anyone. I imagine that a Berkeley middle school, like Oaxaca, is a chaotic and diverse place, and can benefit from participatory assessment, systems interventions, and a more macro lens. I hope to think about the school community as a whole and to help empower the students, families and teachers to strengthen it.