Homestay Experience: ‘Field’ Work – A Week in the Mexican Campo

Notes from Cecilia:

The ‘homestay’ has become a staple of intercultural exchange programs. In my family there are many veterans of this kind of experiential learning—my uncles and cousins traveled with AFS, I spent four months in Peru with a lower middle class family, my sister a month in rural Ethiopia and a semester in Morocco.  We easily agree that there is no better way to drop some roots in a place, to start cross-cultural dialogue. And if we’re talking language acquisition, immersion is the way to go.

Community Links recently asked Rachel and me (the current long-term volunteers) to live with families in Tecuanípan for a week, the goals being to better introduce the organization’s principles and plans to the community, to open up the doors of communication, and to build trust. Although both of us had previously lived with families abroad for long periods of time, this homestay was of a slightly different nature— #1. we were there to actively represent Community Links and #2. we were to live with families on the bottom rungs of the ladder to economic stability and financial wealth.

My hosts were a middle-aged couple called Doña Adelfa and Don Franco. Adelfa is a talker, so I was not at a loss for local gossip and ongoing analysis of daily life in Tecuanípan. Don Franco, on the other hand, is a quiet type, but never failed to slip a subtle joke into conversation—so subtlety, in fact, that Doña Adelfa would often repeat his chistes loudly to make sure I understood. The couple also has two sons; one a waiter in New Jersey, the other a door-to-door salesman who lives at home. The family owns a horse, donkey, chickens, rabbits, one large hog, 5 dogs (for protection), and one very talkative cat. Lots of flies around during the day, but everyone works continuously to keep the place clean.

Much of our conversation centered on the differences between the States and Mexico. I found myself at ease answering honestly about my perceptions. Don Franco and Doña Adelfa, although both extremely adept and bright, never studied past elementary school, and so their factual knowledge about the States is minimal. As a result, all of their interest in where I come from came without many preconceptions (not always the case with middle class Mexicans I’ve run into). As such, I felt incredibly comfortable answering questions fueled by pure curiosity, no judgment on either end.

I reciprocated their curiosity, especially with regard to the family’s religious practices. On Sunday, we made the hour-and-a-half trip to Puebla where we attended a service of a kind I was not expecting! Instead of a colonial-style church and Catholic mass, we were seated in a fancy party hall in front of a large movie screen. The entire service was conducted via a recorded projection, and the congregation was completely engaged with the personage on the screen, yelling out answers to his questions. Doña Adelfa explained later that five years ago she had stopped attending church in Tecuanípan and had found this alternative community in Puebla which she felt better followed the teachings of the Bible. One of the most surprising things to me was variety of people I met there;  followers from all socio-economic backgrounds who shared social events in addition to the service. At the luncheon following, I felt thirty pairs of eyes on me after one young man asked: “So what did you think of the service?” I’d gotten the feeling that saying I didn’t attend church regularly wouldn’t go over well, and so I set about explaining how in the States groups of friends don’t necessarily share the same faith, and that it was exciting for me to have been invited into part of a group like theirs which is based on shared religious values.

Back home, Doña Adelfa taught me to make tortillas (you won’t get a marriage proposal in Tecuanípan without this skill). I can tell you one thing, it is way harder than it looks. As I watched Adelfa knead the masa I kept thinking that she would impress all my ceramicist friends. She was a wonderful teacher, and after I became a pro at gorditas (thick tortillas), I started making them thinner, little by little. I will admit to many mishaps and tortillas that stuck to my hand or folded over as I tried to imitate the sweeping motion Adelfa was making to set them on the comal over the fire.

A final anecdote from the week. One day Don Franco, Doña Adelfa, and I mounted the horse and donkey and rode off into the countryside. We trotted through fields of cauliflower and beans, passing enormous trucks and waving to the workers under their sombreros. We rode for the Monte, an enormous deposit of volcanic rock which Don Franco and many others cut for a living. The rock is black, its sheer faces austere. Back at the house I’d seen some of the ancient pottery Don Franco had uncovered there, and nearly everyone I talked to who worked at the Monte had artifacts in their homes, since there was once a town where the Monte now sits which was covered by lava long ago. Don Franco told me he’d even found human skulls which his sons had sold in Cholula. I reflected a bit on how desired these pieces would be by museums, and how holding a 500- year old bowl in a kitchen in Tecuanípan changes one’s relationship with such an object completely.  There, these things are part of a past related to the people and land in every way. Their ancestors died with these possessions, and the volcano at once destroyed their function and preserved their form. For people in Tecuanípan today these objects are a source of pride in their cultural heritage, but also a source of wonder. Doña Adelfa was fond of explaining how the people long ago must have been enormous in order to work with the large grindstones they found. This is the kind of wonder that makes these objects as much a part of the present as part of the past, and represents the ways in which cultural ‘preservation’ can also be about new thought and change.

Such are the ideas I’ve come away with. Community Links is in Tecuanípan first and foremost to support the community, and initiative and action must start with the people. Hopefully the shared experiences Rachel and I had with our host families demonstrated this idea to those we met, and inspired them to think about the change they want to see in their community, and about how we can work to become that change.

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Notes from Rachel:

I’m Rachel. I’m a volunteer from Asheville, North Carolina and I am serving with Community Links for the year. In an effort to become more integrated with the community in which we work, Tecuanipan, the volunteers spent a week living with host families. This is where my passion is:  getting to know the people – understanding their stories, their needs, their hopes, and their offerings. I’m really interested in food and water issues, as well as trying to find community members who might like to connect more profoundly with Community Links. I believe that we need to build a stronger foundation of support with the people of Tecuanipan for our program to be sustainable in the long term. So even though I would be way out of my comfort zone, I was really excited for this experience. Blanca  and Seferino have become a good friend to Ina and to Community Links through our afterschool program, which her kids attended. She has also hosted students in the past, so I knew I would be in good hands.

I woke up yesterday morning and opened the latch to the door (from the inside it’s normal, but from the outside you have to pull a green string to pop the inside latch) and there was already a four year old behind the curtain, waiting to come in. Hola, Maestra! Do you want to see the rabbit? Dad went out to the field and killed it this morning! And sure enough, she moved aside and there was a stiff bunny sitting on the stool. Her oldest son, Ismael, took charge of cutting away the skin while Angelica helped hold the feet so he could cut. I went with Blanca, the mother, to pick up fresh raw milk from her neighbor and then bread from the corner store.

The whole time Blanca chatters away as I watch her work – she is very amicable. Blanca is in her thirties tends not only to daily upkeep of their home but also to her 5 children: Liliana (19), Ismael (16), Angelica (10), Dani (4), Beto (2). I always wondered what a mother who tends the house does, but Blanca hardly has a moment to rest (or to herself for that matter). We walk to the store or to the corn mill to grind corn for tortillas. Blanca’s husband is a construction worker by trade he has no regular schedule and Blanca never knows when to expect him home. They seem to have a healthy relationship, and I get the impression that she doesn’t put up with as much machismo as is typical in this town. Yet, the other day while the husband and his work buddy dined with us the jokes about drinking and being hungover weren’t lost on me.  I am still unfolding the layers of gender roles both in Cholula and in smaller villages such as this one.  How much freedom do the women actually have?  I don’t gather that Blanca would have the same opportunity to go for a few too many beers after a long day of laundry and tortilla-making.

There is an outdoor wood stove for tortillas – the corn cooks down and then is taken almost daily to the mill in town to be ground into dough. Mexican people are known as people of the corn. Almost every dish, drink (more about that later) and certainly every meal involves corn. But this isn’t in the same sense as in the U.S. where we tuck it into nooks and crannies of popsicles and plastic. It’s there in your face and on your plate every time. Eating tortillas so often made me reconsider the corn trade between the United States and Mexico via NAFTA, and how our subsidized corn exports are really straining the piggy banks and very foundations of the lives of people like Blanca and her family. I wish I’d asked more about the cost variations for them – perhaps when I go back to visit next week. Anyway, she flattens little balls of dough into a press and then places them onto the pan over the fire.  The roof is sheet metal held on by cinder blocks and supported by sticks and twine. The interior rock walls are charred with smoke. As Blanca is out in this condition nearly daily to make tortillas, all of that black smoke is going straight into her lungs. Actually, Community Links has found that respiratory problems are a big issue for Mexican women who cook like this, and on our impending project list is to build alternative stoves for some of our neighbors.

The bathroom doubles as a closet, where you pass through a curtain made from a corn or potato sack and twist the light bulb on. The toilet flushes as you pour a new bucket of water into the bowl, and all of the toilet paper goes into the waste basket. The water comes from the town center and is kept in a cistern next to the wash basin, both made of concrete. To wash your hands, you scoop a bowl of water from the cistern and rinse the bowl down the pipe that passes underground when you are through. This is also where we wash the dishes, the laundry, and today, rabbits. Our neighbors trek down the hill every day to fill up their buckets from our cistern and wheelbarrow them back up the hill because the water pressure doesn’t reach them. On one of my visits in town I was brought to the restaurant where Blanca’s mother works. The husband of the owner showed me the well where the farmers pay by the hour for irrigation of the surrounding alfalfa fields. I’ll talk more about this in a bit, but there is a communal aspect of sharing your resources. The owner says he comes here to fill up his garafons (water bottles) from the cisterns when the water is flowing so they don’t have to pay for bottled water.  They call this water “virgin water” for its purity. So all of that pineapple water I drank at the restaurant turned out to be from the well.

Ina just told me after we got back, but there is no sewage system in Tecuanipan (or Mexico City for that matter). There is a drainage pipe that connects all of the sewer waste from the villagers and pumps it directly into one of the river. So everyone in town knows where to get this “virgin water” and where there are small springs of clean water, like at the swimming holes. But the government is tapping in to these small springs. They come in with arguments of imminent domain for highways and such, but really they are attempting to buy up the land near the springs so that they can ship that clean water back into the cities like Puebla, where their constituents are wealthier.  Ugh.

For breakfast we had bread and coffee, and a bit of soup from the previous night. The whole family sits together for breakfast, except for Beto who climbed off of his high chair and went outside to antagonize the dog or probably throw glass into my room. And when I say high chair, I mean small wooden chair stacked on top of the larger wooden chairs that we sit in…

I played duck-duck goose with the girls while Blanca cleaned the rabbit, until Angelica found ten pesos in the dirt. She brought us back to the store to buy cheese popcorn and sugar straws. There is so much junk food available here.  There is a drive for immediate gratification (that I find myself becoming quite accustomed to unfortunately, with all the corn, bakeries and ice cream and candy shops on every block). Apparently the obesity and diabetes rates are higher here than in the United States!

We finished eating and cleaning and changed for mass. After mass we caught up with the parade of people as today was the last Sunday of Carnaval (the celebrations before and during Lent). The band had 2 saxes, 2 trumpets, a bass a snare and a tuba. A small crowd dressed in absurd clothing – masks of all sorts including a gorilla, a Chucky doll, bin Laden and a few dancers with giant sombreros shooting blanks into the air. A whole slew of drunken cross-dressers comprised the majority of the dancers -men in heels, wearing purses and skirts shorter than any decent woman would deign to don in public. They danced all through the streets and into the square from one in the afternoon until nine, at which point they crowned the queen of Carnaval and gave out awards for dancers who had attended all four Sundays. After the awards, we climbed to the second floor of the municipal building to watch the fireworks from as great a distance as possible. They have a mini carriage that rides on a young man’s shoulders and shoots of flares, screamers, spinners and fire crackers as he chases the kids around the quad. The more “brave” ones tried to run with him, but most of the intelligent people (sorry I realize this is a values imposition) stay as far away as they can get. I don’t much care for fireworks anyway, but this took my nerves and apprehensions to a whole new realm of adrenaline rush.

We walked a couple of blocks to Blanca’s mother’s home to get water (mango juice). It was a roofless patio with a one bedroom home upstairs. Like ours, this roof was tin and you could hear the trees scratching the top in the wind. There were bureaus dividing the bedroom and the kitchen, and whatever didn’t fit into those was pegged to the wall. Their cupboard was a bucket on the floor and the kitchen in reality was a very small stove with a couple of pots. There was a good deal of space out in the quad, but most of their belongings were tucked into the shelves and dressers or resting on the table and couch. Her mom wasn’t home but I met her youngest sister Vicki, who was about the same age as Liliana (Blanca’s oldest). We returned to the festivities to look for Blanca’s husband, and it was pleasant to see him join us so late from work and transfer the care of the youngest two to himself.

I am learning a lot from the children here – patience, for one (well…I’m trying). And endurance. Even the youngest kids here stay out partying with their parents until far past 11pm. They also and help take care of their families much more than American kids, who are meant to be kept out from underfoot while the parents work. Angelica, who doesn’t want to attend school, fetches the milk, watches and changes Beto, washes the dishes and clothes and knows the plants and edibles all around her house. I am occasionally reminded that she is only ten when she whines or comes flouncing in to petition me to play.

We’ve spent a good bit of time walking into town these few days and visiting people. On Monday we visited Amelia, the owner of the corner store, who’d just given birth on Saturday. We brought her atole, which is common to give new mothers. It’s base is corn dough (same as the tortillas) boiled into water with cinnamon, sugar and a bit of chocolate. It was really an incredible experience to witness the care of such a newborn: even though there are some cultural variances (hospital care, cribs vs. beds, etc.) the love and excitement is the same. And I’ve never held such new and small person before. Then, while we were there, an enormous windstorm came through, like nothing I’ve ever seen. It only lasted a minute or so, but the dust completely obscured the view of the town. Nearly everything smaller than a lawn chair took flight, including the roof of our outdoor kitchen and wood shed. We had to replace it when we got back. Ina’s husband, Manuel, explained that even though it gets very windy here in the afternoons, gusts like that are perhaps a glimpse of future problems that we have created for ourselves. Deforestation has eliminated the natural barriers that help break up the wind and keep the topsoil intact.

Later we took a walk up to the “campo” – farmland, which is treated like a cooperative. It is called ejido, and I want to give a bit of background because­­ this is actually really interesting. The ejido is typically agrarian land shared by the community. It was a popular practice in the Aztec era and is a very prominent aspect of indigenous culture in Mexico. When the Spaniards came in to say “conform or die,” they abolished the ejido and replaced it with the encomiendas, which was much pretty much indentured servitude with a splash of Catholic education. Ejidos were brought back (on paper at least) by the Mexican Revolution in 1917, but the US via NAFTA and the World Bank has pressured Mexico in recent years to change its constitution so that multinational corporations can more easily purchase the lands that are designated as ejidos.

So this is where we found ourselves on our walk on Monday evening. Most subsistence farmers plant the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Depending on the size of the plot and whether they intend to sell is what determines their farming methods (ie water, chemical use, etc). We grabbed a handful of radishes from a patch as Blanca explained to me that in conjunction with the ejido is the idea of communal sharing. Just like the water at the farmers’ well, take what you need but share what you have. I thought of this as I guarded my soap back into my personal belongings and left the powdered dish detergent for the next kids to wash their hands.

Yesterday we ate sweet breads with sugar-saturated coffee for breakfast. No milk today. Then she offered me some leftover rabbit and I accepted as I’d refused at the last two meals. The day before, breakfast was a rice sandwich, and we had a salad of cactus, tomatoes, radishes and cilantro in the afternoon. And tortillas accompany every meal. I’m really enjoying the food so far, and would even more so if there weren’t so much sugar.  Blanca suggested we visit the restaurant where her mother works on the very outskirts of town near the alfalfa farms. As I was quite full from the bread and bunny, I protested when the owner offered me food, but then yielded to just a small sample. First came the rice and tortillas, which must be tasted with the pickled onions and jalapeños. Then came the beans. Then, no matter how much I skirted the offer, I had to choose pork with mole sauce or chicken soup. Fine. Go big or go home, right? I’m here to learn (but so full). The pork and potatoes were so delicious. Meanwhile, I’m also guzzling piña water from the spicy salsa and being handed spoonfuls of Blanca’s chicken soup to try as well. I was so full they could have laid me on my side and rolled me home, or just left me out in the alfalfa fields to digest.

We spent most of the time gossiping about Blanca’s in-laws. The parents have a lot of domestic violence issues and have left their three children in the care of their grandparents. As the families are very extensive here, (Blanca keeps walking by and saying “this is the brother of my father,” “this is my sister in-law’s godmother,” etc) the whole town knows of and discusses such situations at great lengths. I didn’t entirely understand their answer, though, when I asked,” so does the community do anything about it, or just talk about it?” Petra told me that the whole town is very prone to gossip, and the family is the most important aspect of the community. When her daughter told her she was pregnant at 19, Petra said “thus is life – don’t worry because we’re all here for you.” I do my best to observe without judgment. Yet, as I hear numerous stories like this one, or like “yeah, this is my 3rd kid but I really didn‘t want another,” what conclusions can I draw about population and education? I have never seen so many children in one community. Families extend into the hundreds. The church does not condone contraception or abortion. OK. But what do they have to say about so many children being born out of wedlock, or about the responsibility of population maintenance for the sake of health, economics and the environment?

In the evening, after class, I bailed on my writing and decided to help Angelica with her letters, Dani too, and Ismael with his math homework. I think he gave up and was about to head back to the kitchen when the rain started. Rain on a tin roof is a beautiful sound – both forceful and tranquil at the same time. It increased slowly and crescendoed in hail the size of peanuts, which sounded like the world was crashing down around us. And in a sense, it was: bits of rocks from where the roof meets the walls crumbled into my bags and onto the pillows and blankets under which Angelica was hiding. Having salmonella for four days a few weeks back was certainly not the highlight of my Mexican adventure thus far. But getting sick in a home that’s not your own, in a bathroom that’s outside with no lights and dwindling toilet paper, covered by a tin roof during a hailstorm is a seriously strong contender. But the sun came out, the hail stopped and eventually the world turned right side up.

Wednesday morning’s breakfast of papaya and cinnamon tea and pasta soup helped ease my stomach as well (although last night’s dinner of corn soup and French fries certainly had not). The entire day of was to be dedicated to making tamales. We got the corn leaves from Blanca’s mother-in-law, Dona Rosa, and put them in water to soak. Then we set off once again for the mill, where I met a very friendly woman named Evita. She worked in the Marriot in Knoxville, Tennesse. I’d worked there with AmeriCorps for a year, so we had some common points of reference like the SunSphere (a pretty building downtown). We left the corn meal at the mill to go around the corner and get pork fat (manteca) from this awesome woman named Gabriela. I’d really like to go back and chat with her as she was incredibly pleasant and funny. It’s interesting because Blanca helps “translate” for me by repeating exactly what I say. I thought my accent was ok, but her husband, for example, cannot understand me at all. We searched all over for chicken at three different stores. (By the way, how do giant corporations like Coca-Cola and PalmOlive Soap find stores in towns like Tecuanipan?)  Finally we found some and I offered to pay because I was beginning to realize that tamales are not only a special occasion dish, but very costly. So we got home and poured the fat and water in a huge wash basin and a separate one for the sweet tamales. We cooked the mole sauce and the salsa verde on the stove. Blanca put chicken bits into the center of some of the tamales, cheese and tomatoes into others, and the sauces. The sweet tamales would have sugar, raisins and strawberry Tang. You wrap the dough into the corn husks and then they all get steamed in a big pot (under a pile of corn husks and a plastic bag ::sigh::). At the same time, Blanca made tortillas and fried beans on another small stove. She said she was going to rest, but actually wound up cleaning and folding laundry. I escaped the buzz of cooking and kids and ducked into my room (which doesn’t usually provide that much of a haven because the kids pass through the curtain at will). My room all of a sudden smells like fish, which I guess is better than diaper, which is what it smelled like earlier. But always of young children too, which I find comforting. We tried the tamales and washed them down with this really bizarre sour apple soda. The former were fantastic.

Thursday morning I woke up to my bed quivering. With a flashlight I scoured for the source below, thinking the dog had snuck underneath and was scratching fleas. The silver Christmas ornament attached to the roof was swaying very slightly. But nothing else that I could visually absorb was moving. It only lasted a minute, maybe less. Later I learned that it was indeed an earthquake – albeit a very small one – that had also touched Puebla, Veracruz, and other outskirts of the nation. No accidents or casualties, but what the heck is going on? In one week (4 days, no less) we’ve had a wind storm of abnormally high velocity, a hail storm with unusually large granules, and now an earthquake. I’m looking forward to leaving Tecuanipan before the volcano goes.

For breakfast we had atole with fresh milk, and turkey eggs with jalapenos and onions, and of course, tortillas. They took me to the batán where there are pure springs and a river and  we splashed around for a bit. Well, they did – despite the tadpoles, I was still apprehensive about the water, as it had a foul smell to it like the other contaminated river site. I found glass bottle pieces and rusty metal, so despite their exhuberance I didn’t feel the need to explain myself and simply said no thank you. But they made me a stone bridge that I crossed and we passed by a natural pool where people pay 20 pesos (a little less than $2) to swim and visit the fish. Really quite beautiful. For dinner we ate some bread with more milk and I went to bed, Blanca’s hubby still unheard from.

There is a small rock the size of my fist that rests at the right turn onto Old Fanning Bridge Road on the way home in North Carolina. It’s always there and I always notice it. I was just thinking that this would not be the case in Tecuanipan because I always carry a rock with me to ward off the aggressive dogs. The kids taught me that actually. I had a moment to myself – the family was at a tezmazcal and I just came back from the class at Ina’s. So I sat on the curb watching the sun go down behind the volcano. Smelled like fresh air, which is unusual because there was always this distinct smell of theMexican campo during the day, and a little bit of body odor (that would be me. I missed the “bath day” for the family and today I had class instead of the tezmazcal). I could hear the Cathedral’s bells tolling 7 at the center of town, a few birds, Spanish music, dogs barking and kids playing way off in the distance. There was a rock truck upshifting to climb the narrow path up through the campo, horses and pigs calling out most likely because some small child was terrorizing them, and the huge tom turkey gobbling loudly in our front yard. There was a slight breeze cooling the evening and the entire view from the front door was a subtle pink, darkened slightly by a mass of clouds brokering the sun and the volcano that seemed slightly ambivalent about their intentions. A truck drove by with mattresses tied to its rack and a bullhorn mounted to the windshield frame. That’s common here – perhaps gas is cheaper than renting land to post a store or site. Consequently, you may expect to be woken or startled any time between 7am-12pm by the slurred and inaudible (even for native speakers) announcements and petitions of a man in his pickup. I went inside and fixed myself some beans and tortillas for dinner, accompanied by the flies and the sounds of the turkeys in the front yard. This would be my last evening here – tomorrow we would purchase a few staple food items as a thank you to the families, have a reflection, and return to a neighboring world of indoor plumbing, traffic and machine-made tortillas.


About Community Links International

Community Links is an environmental, service-learning, immersion, volunteer, and international educational organization.
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