Our class was called Health and Human Services. We went to Oaxaca as social work students—to learn from and interact with community members and local service organizations. Our goals were to improve our Spanish-speaking skills, immerse ourselves in another culture, and gain experience that would inform our work with Latino populations in the Bay Area. These objectives, among individual goals, were lofty considering we were in Oaxaca for six weeks. Naively, I did not expect the experience to feel so personal…to engage in more self-reflection than I did during my first year of grad school. To be put in an environment where I was the outsider/the foreigner/the white girl/la gringa/la guerrita, and leave feeling deeply connected to Oaxaca—whether it is a place I belong or not.
Preparing myself was the first step—immunizations. Check. Prescription medications. Check. International travel insurance. Check. Contact lenses. Whoops, I forgot them, sorry eyes. Enough Imodium for an elephant. Check! Among other preparation, staying healthy in Mexico was a top priority on my list. Especially after skimming the stack of safety warnings provided by our department and receiving email updates from Worldcue Alert. [Danger: Chikungunya disease on the rise in Southern Mexico. Take Precaution!] Furthermore we were going to be staying with host families. The last thing I wanted to do was hog up my host family’s bathroom or ask to be taken care of.
Well guess what? We all got sick. Some of us got sick multiple times. I was sick almost every week. The doctor, who worked at the pharmacy next to host family’s house, and I were becoming quite close. Food poisoning, parasites, bacterial infections, Chikungunya, lice, you name it. Someone in our group had it. Our Western, Californian bodies were delicate. On the days I was sick I became irritated. “I’m missing out because I have to rest. Ugh, I don’t want to go to the farmacía again. I’m tired of drinking suero; even the coconut flavored one is getting old.” Lots of negative, pitiful thoughts…reluctant to check my privilege as a mildly ill, white, female, able-bodied American traveler. A non-exhaustive list of resources at my disposal included: travel insurance and a U.S. health plan, enough money to purchase medication in Oaxaca and enough in case of an emergency, knowledge of the Spanish language, a large support network—my host family, everyone in the program, and folks from back home.
What did I see in Oaxaca regarding the community’s access to healthcare? My own observations stick with me more than what I learned during our platicas. I won’t sugarcoat anything. Walking by the bus station and seeing people with physical disabilities begging for money. Women selling bookmarks or gum in the streets while tending to hungry babies and tired toddlers. Learning that previously HIV had not been a health risk in certain indigenous regions of Oaxaca. However, in recent years, men who had left their families to find work in the U.S. were returning HIV positive. Due to stigma and lack of resources their partners are often infected. Although Mexico has a socialized health care system, groups and communities are excluded due to status, geographical location, and other factors.
At the organization where I volunteered many of the center’s youth experience barriers to healthcare. When we had the lice scare, the agency coordinator told us that many of the families could not afford to buy the treatment shampoo. “It’s too expensive.” Not to mention the time and money it takes to treat multiple children in the home, wash clothing by hand, etc. Parents are too busy working just to survive. On one of our last weeks at the agency there was a girl that complained of a toothache. One day she cried. The señora who was volunteering to cook brought her ice to numb the pain. It seemed that was the only remedy. I felt silly trying to teach kids English when it was obvious many of their basic needs were not being met. Who can learn English with an empty tummy or a throbbing toothache? What was I really doing there? I am not attempting to portray everyday life in Oaxaca by sharing these details. Or to suggest that families in the U.S. don’t experience similar circumstances. However, Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. I feel it would be dishonest to negate the disparity and suffering that impacts so many communities there.
AND…there is so much more. By more I mean the elements of a strong, health community that western medicine often forgets. The aspects of health that extend beyond the physical. Beyond what medication you can buy at the farmacía, or what treatment is offered at the nearest IMSS clinic. Oaxaca is rich in plants, food, art, tradition, music, spirituality, and culture. Señora Nati’s knowledge of plant-based treatments—healing through limpias, massages, and sessions in the temescal. When I was sick and my host mother prepared me different teas and boiled fruits. She has also taken care of her elderly uncle since his wife passed away. Instead of purchasing the harsh, lice-killing shampoos, many Oaxacan families use apple vinegar to treat lice. Beyond the diverse healing practices indigenous to Oaxaca, what other interventions practiced within the community?
How would depression be treated in a 70 year old in California? Maybe a combination of antidepressants and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Now take an elderly man in Oaxaca. Perhaps treatment includes going to church, visiting with compañeros at the taqueria, and participating in tai-chi in the park. Maybe both treatments would be just as effective. Which would be less risky? Which would utilize the strengths of his community? When we told the youth at the center we saw the parade of Guelaguetza dancers, their faces lit up. They were excited and proud we had seen a piece of their culture. I remember talking with a man who was a mescal apprentice. He passionately and enthusiastically told me about the process of distillation. I could have listened to him talk for hours. I felt the same during my random chats with artists selling their handmade products in the market. We were invited into several families’ homes to observe their expertise in weaving and textile making. Warmth, community, pride, strength, excellence, generosity, respect for culture, emphasis on family and relationships, magic. This is the Oaxaca I will remember, and hope to return to soon. These aspects among many others represent the wealth, wholeness, health, and energy of the people that live there. Oaxaca gave us a lot. Now we begin the process of reciprocity with our communities back home. The experience isn’t over. Mutual learning continues. Health and human services by the people, for the people.