Thursday, September 25, 2014

No hay maíz, no hay país

No corn, no country

By Cora Thaxton, Evergreen State College

A full harvest moon was spent in the rural indigenous community of Amatlan, the birthplace of indigenous god Quetzalcoatl. For four days I was welcomed into the home of a wonderful family – the mother Maribel, father Alvaro, and their two sons, Alberto and Antonio, ages 5 and 11. They live in a two-bedroom cement home in a compound with their other family members. Chickens and kittens and perros running around, sweet smelling white flowers framing the house. We ate delicious food prepared by our host mother everyday, and managed to communicate well despite language barriers. It was such an honor to be hosted by such warm and open-hearted people. It’s evident that family is a crucial cultural value here. My Spanish is getting much better ~ I am able to understand the language pretty well, but speaking eloquently it is still a challenge.

Alvaro, my host father, has worked in the US and Canada in agricultural settings with documents. Tomatoes, oranges, tobacco. He worked for racist employers, lived in houses with awful conditions ~ one fridge, no stove, bed bug infestations and 12 men to one house. By the grace of a church group, Alvaro was given help in communication with his bosses, and they helped fix the house he lived in. They also drove him to the hospital when his appendix burst and his employer did nothing about it. The next day, his boss expected him at work. When Alvaro said he could not work, his boss said “well rest for 3 hours and then work for 3 hours, and then rest and then work again.” When he didn’t have money to pay the hospital bills, as he was making barely enough to survive or send home to his family, the hospital said it was fine but then made him sign a contract, in English, that said he would pay the bill. He decided it was time to go home, his heart aching for his family. But his boss would not let him. He bought a bus ticket anyway, with the help of a friend, as he only had $200 to his name and the ticket was $300. He got the name of a lawyer and this man said that the company he worked for had to pay his hospital costs because he had a work visa, and they had to pay the taxes he owed as well. But he had already bought his ticket, and so he went to immigration, gave his receipt, and left with no problem. He went home to his family and to his culture. The reality is – immigration is an extremely problematic system, a form of modern day slavery. So many communities like Amatlan are suffering economically, are being pressured into receiving government programs and losing their land to mega projects like mining or energy.

While in Amatlan, we spoke with radical activists ~ their life’s work preserving the customs and culture of Nahua people. We spoke with curanderos and curanderas, traditional healers, who practice plant and spirit medicine. We spoke with an ecotourism community cooperative, Las Cabañas. They are a wonderful example of creating responsible tourism, keeping money in the community while retaining the values of those who live off this land. Among the radicals, we met Doña Irene, a smiling and strong campesina in her 70’s who embodies the idea of food sovereignty. Despite a monocultural, pesticide and GMO dominated agriculture, she continues to grow the heirloom seeds of her ancestors while maintaining organic farming practices. The corn seed has been in her family for 2,000 years. Her passion for the fields and for the history of her family is itself an act of resistance, her long silver braids falling down her back. Her fields were in the crux of the mountain’s cheek, and her soil the richest I’ve smelt. When she spoke about her life, about her corn, her hands flew in the air, and she would grab the leaves of the stalk that extended far past her to the sun. She retells a story of her childhood ~ when ants would eat the corn, her father said, “It’s okay, the ants are hungry. We can find them something to eat.” So they left ripe, open mangos next to the anthills in the field for them to eat, and lo and behold they no longer bothered the corn. If that isn’t responsible pest management, I don’t know what is! She plants squash underneath her corn as a form of companion planting, common in Nahua traditional methods of farming, and they were in flower at the time. As we left her field, she vanished off into the rows, completely disappearing, and reappearing a minute later with a handful of bright orange blossoms to pound into her masa dough for tortillas. Not many families are growing their own corn today in Amatlan, mostly due to NAFTA and modern globalized agribusiness. It was obvious there was a whole lot of love in her corn, because her tortillas were the most fulfilling, warm tortillas I’ve had yet. I hope to return to Amatlan in November to help her with la cosecha.

We were fortunate enough to participate in an ancient healing tradition called aTemazcal, or sweat lodge. The idea is that you are returning to the womb of mother earth; she holds us, cleans us, and then spits us out. When you exit, you have been cleared of bad energy and it is a new start. When you enter, you ask permission of the great spirits with purification and insense. You ask that the earth clear you of what is no longer useful, but that no one else in the ceremony receives this release. It is common that women do this after childbirth, but there are many variations of the ceremony. It is support to help the mothers hip bones realign, it takes away the cold that happens at the moment of birth, and it is a way of retuning the organs and bones into their place. Inside the earth womb is vapor of sacred plants and heat from stones. They believe that heat is a combination of all the elements. The leader within wafts the vapors with a bundle of sacred plants. We stayed in the womb for about 20 minutes, took a break to drink tea and went back in for another 20 minutes. We were told to honor our families, our ancestors and to ask for a good future. A member of our group is Ojibwe, and he shared a few of his culture’s ceremonial sweat songs and prayers. Just after we emerged from the earth, a strong and roaring thunderstorm, or aguacero, doused the village. It was one of the most profound moments I’ve had here ~ feeling so grateful for the internal emotional, mental and spiritual cleanse and then for the land to have a cleanse as well. Mexico synchronicity at it’s finest ~ thank you. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Singing at the Top of Our Lungs

“The next song is for all of the CEMAL students to do,” he announces, and we all begin looking at one another.  We quickly realize that our director and professor, Ann, has submitted the song in our name, and we’re soon in front of everyone singing “Yellow Submarine.”  I'm not sure if we truly did the song, or the Beatles, justice, but the lyrics were certainly fitting for all of us living in the same house together and all who are involved with the work of CEMAL:

"And our friends are all aboard,

Many more of them live next door..."

CEMAL truly is one large family, and that was evident on Saturday, September 6.

On Saturday, the students, the CEMAL staff, and the professors from the language school enjoyed an afternoon potluck and karaoke get-together.  I had heard that Mexico loves karaoke, and that our office manager, Naty, absolutely loves singing karaoke, but I did not realize how popular it is here.  Naty’s brother arrived early to set up his karaoke equipment (he does it professionally), and I soon saw multiple microphones, a whole computer, and multiple screens for lyrics set up as a stage.

In the past, I have experienced that song and dance transgresses cultural boundaries and brings people together.  Our potluck was no different.  Professors were up singing, our drivers were up singing, the cooks were up singing, the children of our support team were up singing, and the students got up to sing, too.  Whether the song was in English or Spanish, everyone was able to follow along, tap their foot or clap their hands, and in a number of cases, get up and dance.  By the end of the afternoon, the entire group was up dancing to “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.

On Saturday, each of us was able to see a different side of everyone else.  We didn’t have to worry about work, and were able to enjoy time spent with one another.  The students spent the entire morning preparing some of their favorite foods, and our guests showed up with even more.  Whether in English or Spanish, or the language of our palates, we all had an exchange that connected us on a deeper level that before.

Photos from the day:

Rachel honored her Italian heritage, and taught Mitchell how to make pasta from scratch.

Lorreal shared her secret cake topping with the CEMAL family.

The stove top and grill was in high demand.

Cora enjoyed spending time with one of the youngest members of the CEMAL family.

Dance, dance, dance!

Connor sang one of his favorite songs.

The girls did a throwback to the 90's with a Spice Girls song.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The semester has begun!

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View of the Olmec site from afar
The semester is now upon us, and we have finished the first week of classes here in Cuernavaca.  All of us, including myself, are taking a Spanish course which is from 8 AM until 11 AM, Monday through Thursday, at the language school just up the street from Casa CEMAL.  Our minds have been filled with new vocabulary, which forces each of us to practice our Spanish verbs, adjectives, and nouns.  Some students have already had their first quiz, while others will have theirs this second week.  The first (and for some, only) Spanish course will last four more weeks, and then students will enter into their second course that will last the remainder of the semester.  Though it has only been a week, I can already sense the improvement that students have had in their Spanish speaking skills.  Many are asking one another, “how do you say this?,” or, “did I say this right?”  It is nice to see the students in support of one another, and to see their diligence to study, even when learning another language may seem frustrating or difficult.  

We had a few outside trips this week, with one being a meeting with an economic and social empowerment organization, and another a trip to an ancient Olmec site two hours from Cuernavaca.  

The students met at the Cuernavaca office of the organization, Atzin Desarrollo Comunitario, or Atzin Community Development.  Atzin is a very poor community that has been plagued by alcoholism and drug use, and both have led to the perpetuation of poverty as well as widespread domestic violence and sexual assault within the community.  This organization addresses the issues of health, education, the environment, and the empowerment of women in order to facilitate development within the community.  We met with a woman named, Xochitl Ramirez, who gave us great insight into the community, the complex issues that exist within Atzin, and the work that the organization is doing to address those issues.  It soon became evident that development work of this type may seem simple at face value, but quickly becomes very complex and multifaceted.  It is hard to only concentrate on one issue of development, when each issue is interconnected with all others.  This meeting shed light on development efforts that exist in the Cuernavaca area, and the economic disparity that exists here as well.  Additionally, the group saw the role of women within a community, and learned of the oppression that the women of Atzin experience.

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Stone carving of fertility
The other outside trip that students were able to engage in course themes and topics was the Art History course’s trip to Chalcatzingo, which is an ancient Olmec archaeological site.  The site is still home to ruins of the temple, palace, sacrificial altars, and stone carvings that once characterized the Olmec society.  Here, students were able to see the messages that the Olmecs engraved in stone for posterity and to pass on the stories from generation to generation.  Guided by the Art History professor, Carlos, students learned of the organization of the society, with the temple and palace being the most important areas of the community, and the sacrificial altars being locations where the people of the society were able to provide offerings to the gods/goddesses that they worshiped.  The ball court was still in tact, where students were able to learn of its role in conflict resolution for the society.  Additionally, the court was built with channels for rain runoff, which shows the sophisticated engineering abilities that the Olmec had attained.  Through this excursion, students were able to step back in time, and see life as it once was, thousands of years ago in what is today called Mexico.  The storytelling through carvings, and societal organization of their community allowed the students to better understand the history of Mexico in Mesoamerica.  

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The students listening to Art History professor, Carlos

While this week seemed busy, this coming week may just be as busy.  Spanish classes continue and there are a few other outside meetings and excursions to better connect the students to the concepts and theme that they are discussing in their classes.

Hasta pronto!


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A New Addition to the CEMAL Team

Hello All!

Graduation Day With My Family
My name is Dustin Stiffler and as you may have read in Grace’s farewell post, I am the new intern/International Resident Assistant here in Mexico for the Center for Global Education.  I am excited to be here, and to be part of a team that has years of experience in higher education, study abroad, and social justice work.  Grace did a phenomenal job to help me settle in, and to show me the CEMAL ropes.  I’m not sure how I will be able to fill her shoes, but I do know that her legacy will live on for years to come. 

I am a recent graduate from Siena College in Upstate New York.  I received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a minor in Spanish.  During my time at Siena, I also worked extensively on the fair trade movement on campus, where I was able to see the movement grow over the four years I was there.  I was also a staff member of the Sr. Thea Bowman Center for Women, which is another social justice organization that concentrates on women’s empowerment, gender issues, and other social justice issues that include human trafficking, immigration, and conscious consumerism/ethical sourcing.

Fall 2012 in Granada, Nicaragua
During my Fall 2012 semester, I was fortunate to be able to experience the Center for Global Education’s Central America program, which offered me an insight to the realities of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.  I was able to learn about the past histories of each country, and the present situation of each; the program looked at themes such as indigenous cultures, liberation theology, political science, and feminist studies.  It is because of my positive experience on the CGE-Central America program that I fell in love with the CGE educational pedagogy, and Latin America.  I also spent the Spring 2013 semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina where I was able to experience a very unique reality within Latin America, which further instilled a love for Latin America within me.

With my passion for social justice, and my international experience on study abroad programs in Latin America, I am delighted to be able to work with the CEMAL team and the students on the CGE-Mexico program.  It has been just over a week since the students arrived and I can already tell that the seven students that we have this semester are passionate, diligent, and are eager to learn and expose themselves to the realities of Mexico and Cuernavaca. 

Here’s to a great semester and year!


Friday, August 15, 2014

Gracias y adiós

Hierve el Agua, natural pools outside of Oaxaca
After a year here, I am about to say goodbye to CGE Mexico and to Cuernavaca. As in any time of transition, I’m feeling a lot of different emotions. I am excited to see my family again, start a new job in the U.S., and eat some of my favorite foods again, but I will also miss my new favorite foods here and, more importantly, all of the wonderful people I have met and worked with here. From the moment I arrived at CGE a year ago, I felt very welcome. I have enjoyed getting to know the staff and their families, and have been invited to countless birthday parties and other festivities. I have also made some great friends here and have had the opportunity to attend a quinceañera, swim in a natural mineral pool on a mountainside, bike around Mexico City, participate in a Temazcal (a traditional sweat lodge), see two different ballet folklórico performances…I could go on and on about all of the great new experiences I have had here and all that I have learned! By the numbers, I’ve visited five pyramids (and climbed up a mountain to the Tepozteco pyramid four different times), worked with three semester groups and five short-term travel seminars (in addition to meeting the Augsburg president and provost and several visiting professors), translated for over 40 talks, attended probably hundreds of Zumba classes at the great gym down the street, and eaten hundreds of freshly made, piping hot corn tortillas.

Biking with students and staff outside Mexico City

Spring 2014 students and staff at the first-ever staff appreciation dinner

Celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with Fall 2013 students
Before coming here, I had studied in Ecuador and lived in Spain, but my knowledge of Latin America did not include much of Mexico. As a Spanish major in college, I had studied Latin American literature and culture in a broad sense, but I knew more about South American than Central America and Mexico. I had lived in New Mexico for a year and worked with Mexican immigrants, but moving to Mexico and working at CGE has really helped me understand more about Mexico and about my experiences on the border. I have benefited so much from hearing (and translating for) guest speakers on a wide range of topics, from religious movements that have arisen from liberation theology to political activism to immigration stories. Just like our students, I have benefited from CGE’s experiential education model. I have heard directly from people who have been migrant workers in the U.S., and I have visited a migrant shelter in Mexico City that houses many migrants from Guatemala and Honduras. I have stayed with a spunky older woman in the countryside who still cooks over a fire in her small cookhouse. I have visited a local maquiladora that manufactures swimsuits and ships them to the U.S. to be sold. I have learned and experienced so much, and just as I have learned how to translate what our guest speakers have to say from Spanish to English, I will have to think carefully about how to translate my experiences here into terms that my friends and family at home can understand and appreciate. Fortunately, my sister spent the summer in Cuernavaca, and my family spent a week here this summer, so they were able to see where I live and work and meet some of my friends.

with my family in the nearby town of Tepoztlan

I am also pleased to pass on the baton to our new intern, Dustin. A recent graduate of Siena College in New York, Dustin spent a semester in Central America with CGE and also studied for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have enjoyed getting to know him and helping to train him, and I am excited for him and know that he will do a great job!

Gracias, CEMAL! Gracias, México! It’s been great!

-Grace Lundergan, International Residential 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Churches and Community Groups in Cuernavaca

We’re about to say goodbye to our Summer Session II students. (In the summer, we offer two seven-week sessions, but students, including non-traditional college students, can also come for just 3.5 weeks and take an intensive Spanish course during that time.) Nora, Sari, and Marianne have been a great group!

One of our students who has been here for part of Session II is Marianne, who majored in Spanish in college many years ago and currently works outside of Minneapolis as a Lutheran minister. She decided to study in Mexico this summer in order to refresh her Spanish. She took a one-on-one Advanced Composition class, and the professor really tailored the class to her, so her final composition was a sermon that she delivered (in Spanish, of course) at a local Anglican church. She did a great job, and the bilingual minister, Father Greg, seemed really glad to have a guest preacher!

Marianne preaching

Marianne and Father Greg

Another highlight of this week was a visit with all of the students to Luz y Libertad, a base Christian community (a grassroots Christian group) led by four strong women. The name of the group means “Light and Liberty,” and in addition to meeting for weekly Bible studies (influenced by liberation theology), they are active in a local human rights group and offer a variety of classes to women to help them generate their own income. For example, they teach women how to make delicious meals with meat substitutes (such as soy and wheat germ) in order to improve their nutrition and save money. They served us a delicious, freshly made lunch that was almost completely vegetarian. The women of Luz y Libertad also teach women how to make various crafts to sell, and they give self-esteem workshops to help women stand up for themselves, escape from situations of domestic violence, or simply find a world outside of their homes. Our students really appreciated the delicious meal and the chance to hear about all that this group is doing. 

Students talking with the women of Luz y Libertad
Now that it's almost time for our students to return home, we hope that they will return to the U.S. with a new, more nuanced understanding of Mexico and of course, a greater knowledge of Spanish. And we wish them all safe travels! 

-Grace Lundergan

Friday, July 25, 2014

International Business and Global Citizenship

CGE is pleased to announce an addition to our fall program offerings in Mexico - International Business and Global Citizenship.

Over the past five years, we have offered many business courses and, most recently, these business courses were part of a specialized academic track within CGE's Crossing Borders fall study abroad program. Recent enrollment has shown that these courses are some of our most popular, so we decided to strengthen the courses even further - and offer an intentional International Business and Global Citizenship program!

The following business courses are offered in this Mexico study abroad program

  • Accounting Theory & Practice I (Accounting 322)
  • Business Spanish (Spanish 220)
  • Global Business Management: Mexico and Other Emerging Markets (Business 461)
  • International Business (Business 362)
  • International Marketing (Marketing 466)
  • Internship or Independent Research (Business/Marketing 399/499)
  • Vocation and the Meaning of Success (Keystone 490)
As with all CGE programs, experiential learning outside the classroom is a critical component of the International Business and Global Citizenship semester.  Students will tour the facilities of multinational corporations, discuss trade issues with political representatives, meet with business leaders in both Cuernavaca and Mexico City, and explore emerging trends in corporate social responsibility.  Homestays and group living at our study center are both components.

Visit our program page and apply online.  You can also contact Jessica Haas at for more information.