Sin Fronteras Chile Project
The Sin Fronteras/Chile Project is a program offered through the Department of Social Work at Monmouth University. It’s theme, Sin Fronteras – without borders – points to the purpose of building relationships which go beyond the familiar. The following reflections are of a number of participants in the Sin Fronteras group.
This year the participants once again traveled to the población, or shantytown, La Pincoya in the northern section of the city of Santiago. La Pincoya is a typical población, with high unemployment and underemployment, tenuous living conditions, poor schools, rampant illness caused by poor nutrition and a damaged environment, and insufficient assistance for those living the ravages of so many years of free market economic exploitation.
The group worked with neighborhood leaders and youth to carry out a summer freedom school and camp, Escuela Popular/Colonia Urbana (Colonia), for children of La Pincoya. The majority of the children who participate in this Colonia have no other summer vacation. This Colonia, then, is their summer vacation. The theme of the camp is “The Rights of the Child” taken from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Within this overall theme, this year we also worked with the children to talk about “El Buen Trato” - treating each other with respect and making sure others treat the children with respect.
Aside from the work in the Colonia, the group also engaged in other activities. These included some tourist activities such as visiting the Andes mountains, the Chilean coast and the Santiago house of Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. Also, group members spent two weeks with families in La Pincoya in order to share the pan de cada día (daily bread) with folks. And, the group also spent some time attending seminars and presentations in order to learn more about Chile.
The first presentation was offered by the President of La Pincoya, Luzmenia Toro S., who is also one of the founding members of La Pincoya. She shared with us the history of the población. Chile is known throughout all of Latin America as the birthplace of tomas de terrenos (land invasions). The situation of people living in poverty, without a home of their own, taking over unused land and establishing squatters settlements, dates back to the 1950’s. The toma of La Pincoya began on 26 October, 1969. Luzmenia was 18 at the time, a leader of the toma, with three children under the age of three. Today, aside from being the President of the población, she is also the head of its health committee, Vice President of the Union Comunal, a member of a number of committees, the Secretary of the Federación Metropolitana de Uniones Comunales (FEMUC), and a member of the Council on Public Health for the Northern Zone of Santiago. She shared her 35+plus years of experience doing “social work” with us, including the dim days of the dictatorship where she was tortured, along with her husband of 37 years and three of her four children.
We also visited the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (AFDD) – the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared – and spoke with Gabriela Zuñiga. She shared with us their ongoing struggle to find out about their loved ones. She also poignantly shared with us the irrational hope that some family members still harbor, even after almost 30 years, of finding their family members alive. She also spoke to us of human rights conditions today in Chile.
Angélica Gimpel S., Ph.D., is a professor of Political Economy. She charted out the recent economic history of Chile, now considered the “economic tiger of Latin America.” However, she pointed out to us what we had already seen with our own eyes – there is no trickle down in Chile. While the macroeconomic indicators may point to economic growth, this has not improved the lives of the people in the poblaciones. Poverty is still widespread, and growing. The educational system is poor, and since it has become privatized, is becoming poorer. The public health sector is completely inadequate, and also in the process of becoming privatized. Finally, after the presentation we were able to engage in a discussion of the relevancy of this for social work practice across systems levels.
We also visited the Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi. This Peace Park was once a clandestine torture center. We were given a tour by two men who are among the few survivors of this torture center. They shared with us their personal experiences as well as the experiences of a nation that is still crying out for justice and healing.
Finally, we visited the General Cemetery in Santiago where we were able to see that as in life, Chileans are also stratified by class in death. There we also saw the monument to the detained and disappeared and those who were assassinated by the Pinochet regime.
The stories that follow attest to the strong sense of community among marginalized Chileans – despite everything the dictatorship did to try to eliminate the bonds of solidarity of the people. Let’s learn from them how to do “social work” in the nuances of our daily lives.
Reflections from the 2005-2006 Sin Fronteras Group
A Reflection on Human Rights - Keeley Wray
While in Chile, we, “the gringos”, were exposed to many cultural, historical, and lasting experiences. The most impacting for me, on a personal level, was the recent history pertaining to the Pinochet regime. My heart lies between feelings of empathy for all people, and what I experienced through the story telling of real people who were subjected to real torture, touched me in a new way. Our trip consisted of first learning the truth about what had happened in Chile about 30 years earlier. We were told of a woman who had three young kids and a brave heart who was one of the most influential leaders in the fight for human rights. After learning her incredible story, we were able to meet, dine with, and enjoy the company of this remarkable woman, who was only a figment of a hero in a history book. While conversing and hearing her remarkable stories demonstrating her family’s bravery, I was overcome with emotion. One story, in particular sticks out in my mind of a time when Pinochet’s soldiers were ordered to ransack and kill any person found in their homes; women, children, babies, everyone. This women’s daughter was found by a soldier on their homes’ roof top carrying her infant son cradled in her arms. The soldier told her that he was supposed to kill anyone inside of the home and since she was on the roof, she was technically outside of the home; her life was spared. It was stories like this that impacted me the most; and to know that I spoke, laughed, and became friends with these incredible individuals is invaluable to me. As a group, we visited an organization for the disappeared and detained. We met with a woman who had lost her husband in this fight for justice. She sits and tells her story year after year to gringos who don’t always understand, just to keep the spirit of strength and hope alive for her husband, and for many of the other disappeared and detained. Our final trip was the most tactile and sensitive part of the experiences; it was the trip to Via Grimaldi, a torture center that was newly renovated into a peace park. Here, we were overcome with the painful truths and harsh realities told by the survivors of torture. These extraordinary individuals openly shared with us their grave stories of the days spent at Via Grimaldi. One particular tour guide had told us his personal story of the time he entered the gates to Grimaldi to the time that he left. His stay encompassed two months of horror. For me to tell his remarkable stories and the battles that he has overcome would do no justice, however I will attempt to give a brief description of what has stayed with me the most. From the time anyone entered the gates to Via Grimaldi to the time they left, blind folds were mandated. There was torture in every aspect of life spent at Grimaldi. The days and nights were spent in a cell box about four feet by four feet encompassing four persons, as an act of torture by standing. With the pain of the daily torture, this alone was a feat to overcome. The detained were only allowed one trip at night and one trip in the morning to use the lavatories, and hardly ever, if ever bathed. Open air and light was a commodity. Torture included electric shock in the most sensitive places of the body, dunking, face first, in chemical substances, rolling over legs with vehicles, deliberate cigarette burns, and much more. Our tour guide had told us a story of a woman who was about seven months pregnant in the cell next to him. He would hear her being tortured and converse with her on occasion. Later he had revealed that this woman was his wife carrying his child. After two months of hell, they were sent to separate less intensive camps and eventually granted mercy to continue their family after two years of not seeing each other. There baby is now 30 years old. This little snap shot of truth hits a place in my heart that evokes much feeling. How could I go back to my home country knowing that America had trained Pinochet’s men in the act of torture 30 years ago and are still currently instilling these practices in the minds of our own soldiers? I have many feelings of hurt, disgust, and anger to deal with currently. I am changed by this experience and the lives that have touched me so deeply without even knowing. Thank you to all of the people who I have met and grown to love. Thank you to all of the people that have taken the time and energy to share their personal stories; this is an experience that will stay irreplaceable.
(The photo below is of Rodrigo del Villar - a survivor of Villa Grimaldi)
Learning in Chile - Kara Noto
I decided to go to Chile for many reasons. Reasons that I was aware of at the time and some reasons that I was going to learn as I traveled….I wanted to see South America, learn more Spanish and see a different way of life. This was all made possible by traveling to Chile and staying in La Pincoya, in a población in the north of Santiago, Chile.
I do not like to make mistakes, though I often feel that I make more than most other people. Traveling to Chile was a test for me. It tested my will power, vulnerability, and put me in totally unexpected situations. I had to decide whether to be myself or put up a barrier. My desire for perfectionism and fear of making mistakes could have prevented me from learning about a new culture or forming relationships. Being that this trip is called “Sin Fronteras” and that I am a relatively social person, I was able to eventually move past my fear of making mistakes and achieving perfectionism. I then let myself stumble (in some cases, literally): while learning new dances, speaking a new language, forgetting where my house was, riding new forms of transportation, and conversing with new people. I stumbled into an incredible learning experience and opportunity.
Before I went to Chile, my greatest apprehension was actually getting on the plane. Once on the plane, the flight attendants began speaking to me in Spanish and all I could think was, “What am I getting myself into?” I had taken five semesters of this language in college, but I was beginning to realize that was a bit irrelevant if I could not communicate. I immediately put up a wall and blushed every time I had to say something.
On the day we went to the beach, I was waiting for the bus with some of the other gringas. One of the young Chilean girls was looking at me with wide eyes and pointing. She said to her cousin, “yo quiero hablar con ella.” I understood Spanish for about the first time on that trip. I was still nervous to talk to someone, even if it was a child. I decided that I needed to get over whatever was holding me back: fear of making mistakes, sounding silly, saying the wrong thing… and simply communicate with this child.
The day at the beach opened a new chapter in my trip. I realized that I had to put myself in situations that I may consider to be uncomfortable to make the most out of things. After talking with the niña Dayana and her cousin Garri, I realized that I could communicate and comprehend in Spanish much better than I initially thought. After that, some days I felt more confident, and other days a little insecure, but I knew regardless of either, I would be okay.
Another time I put myself in an otherwise awkward situation was the day we went to the Andes Mountains. I went in the van with only two other gringas and about nine Chilenos. It was really a great decision because I bonded with people in ways I never thought could happen. We were able to speak the universal language of music, from the theme song to the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, to the Ramones, the Doors, Metallica and of course, reggaeton. I even had to sing some songs out loud by myself to see what all of us in the van knew. I felt like I had an audience, they waited for me to blurt out a new song after one ended. I pushed myself in areas where I am normally mortified or embarrassed, and I had an amazing time.
I learned that making mistakes is -surprise- not a life or death situation. The people I met in Chile embraced my mistakes as well. I have never in my life met a group of people who were so patient and understanding. It made me question and alter my own levels of patience. The children who attended the escuela popular were also incredibly patient. They wanted me to learn more of the language and the culture just as much as the adults. Though I went to Chile to give children an opportunity, they gave me one.
I learned that it was okay to trip while I was dancing, tell someone to “touch it” when I really meant “take it” (in Spanish) or hand someone tape when they asked for scissors. By the end of the trip, I was speaking more in Spanish and forming relationships with extraordinary people. If I let my shyness take over, I would not have known what I was missing.
An enlightened person once said “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” As gringos traveling in South America, we ate the food, embraced the customs, sought knowledge regarding the histories and culture and above all formed relationships with people. We traveled with reverence, respect and the desire to learn. We returned with open-minds and eagerness to share our unique experiences.
Life in La Escuela Popular/Colonia- Nilsa Y. Espinosa
Working in La Escuela Popular/Colonia was an amazing yet humbling experience. Although intense, the time spent with the children and youth was great. To see the number of youth in the community that continued to come day after day gave me the extra push I needed to get through the program. I loved that we were able to come together with Chileans and run a program as a family, where children felt comfortable to play and express themselves. If I said that it was always fun and exciting, I would be lying. There were moments when things became overwhelming; communication at times created a significant barrier and there were also times when cultures clashed. However, the one thing that never became an issue was the overall goal of La Colonia, to create a safe and exciting environment for the children of La Pincoya. Community involvement with La Colonia was also evident. Many times, while walking home from work, we would be confronted by community members and youth to be asked about the program. Overall, this program was a great example of what youth need; a place to play, positive role models, and people who care about them. It was unfortunate that we were limited to a one week time frame. In the future, I hope to see a program for the jovenes of La Pincoya that would last at least three weeks. So much more can be done with more time to be dedicated to the youth. For instance, more time would’ve allowed us to bond with the students of the program and thus given us more of an opportunity to adapt lessons and activities to their personalities. Despite the limited time the program was still a success. Even if for just one week, the youth were able to smile and escape the hardships that they are faced with in their day to day life, and for that I am truly grateful.
La Pincoya - Christine O’Neill
One of the many amazing aspects of our trip to Chile was how different it may have been, were it in any community other than La Pincoya, a población (shantytown) in the outskirts of Santiago de Chile. This is not so much because we would have been working with different people (though this certainly is a factor). Rather, the sum of the experiences of La Pincoya is what makes this trip particularly special. The strength of the community is evident when observing its present, but becomes crystal clear when learning about its past.
La Pincoya has experienced tremendous oppression, being a community built from a land takeover, and being led by community members of communist roots. These factors caused the community to be one of the many targeted and oppressed by Pinochet’s regime. Many of the community members were either directly (by torture and/or disappearance), or indirectly (by the torture/disappearance of friends and family) affected by Pinochet. This included the very families that we became close with, adding an important dimension to the value of this trip.
Despite experiencing oppression, this community is strong and proud. The first day in La Pincoya, we ate lunch on the patio of community leaders with communist flags hanging in their back yard. They refused to hide or deny who they were, an openly talked about politics, regardless of their having been tortured for those beliefs. This was true not only of this family, but with many of the people that we worked with over the course of the week. Even young adults (or older adolescents) were well aware of political issues, both in Chile and abroad (and particularly, in the US), and had strong political beliefs that they were open to discuss.
The strength of the community extends far beyond their political focus. An observation that I made throughout the weeks that we spent in Chile was that I was continuously amazed by how willing the community was to become involved in the summer camp program (colonia urbana/ escuela popular). In the US, you would need to pull teeth (or at very least, offer incentive) to get so many young community members to devote a week of their lives (and all of the time spent planning throughout the year) to such a project. In Chile, they involved themselves willingly (and happily), seemingly for no other reason that knowing it was a good thing to do. And not only did these young people from all over La Pincoya work together, but they worked together well. While I was prepared for tension and disconcert (particularly with a group of people coming from another country, many of whom did not speak Spanish, or didn’t speak it well), there was little at the beginning of the week, and it lessened throughout.
Another remarkable aspect of community that exists in La Pincoya was the welcomeness that was felt by us gringos (North Americans) in all aspects of the community. The first day in La Pincoya, we visited a feria (a street market), had lunch with Rosemary’s Chilean family, and met the group of young people that were involved in the colonia. Within nights of being there, we were celebrating New Year’s, and the next day, we were moved into our homestays. Never did I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because I was from the United States, despite knowing that, were there resentment, it would be justified. We were, as one of the many friends we made this week called us, the “good gringos”.
Leaving La Pincoya was a difficult experience. I’d never before made so many friends in just two weeks. In the short time in La Pincoya, we had celebrated the New Year, our accomplishments during the week of the colonia, and our leaving. These celebrations often meant dancing, chatting, or playing guitar (and singing terrible renditions of North American and Chilean music) out on the patio until early in the morning. We had bonded with our Chilean friends (and each other) in many ways, and I didn’t feel ready to leave. One of the reasons I wish to return next year is to continue to build the international community that has been formed between La Pincoya and participants in Sin Fronteras.
Facing Fears Sin Fronteras - Michelle Cohen
When I received the e-mail about the trip to Chile and the opportunity to help children, I was immediately interested. However, like so many times before, I put it in the back of my mind and convinced myself that I would never be able to make it. My background and culture does not permit me to have relationships with people that are of different ethnicities and cultures. I come from a culturally isolated community that has been the driving force in my life until I discovered social work at Monmouth University. This has given me the most rudimentary feeling of independence and confidence. I found myself opening that e-mail every day for about a week until I decided to go see Rosemary Barbera. All of a sudden, I was sitting in meetings discussing the government, culture, and economy of Chile. Although I was terrified because I did not know a word of Spanish, I have never been away from home without my family, and I have never lived with a family from a different country, I found myself getting more excited each day that got closer to our departure.
My first few days in Chile were extremely difficult and at times unbearable. I missed my family tremendously, I was terrified of dogs, and I thought I was not going to make it through. I constantly compared myself to my American peers and wondered why they did not look as nervous and scared as me. I was immediately jealous of their independence and life experiences. However, I decided to face my fears and make a conscious decision to change my experience. I began interacting with the Americans and slowly interacting with the Chileans. I got over my fear of dogs in five days with the help of my new friends, and I embarrassed myself countless amounts of times attempting to speak Spanish. Those days in the middle of the trip were the most important days of my life because it was the first time that I had made a decision on my own for myself. Everything in my life, up until my decision to go to Chile, had basically been decided for me. Although my family and community have my safety and security as their first priority, my goals and ambitions were consistently overlooked and ignored. I became a somewhat independent, self-sufficient person on this trip. I could not have achieved this level of self-importance if it weren’t for the unconditional support and hospitality of Rosemary and the Chilean culture. Their doors were always open and I felt comfortable and safe in their homes and community. Their appreciation for life and the everyday things that I take for granted for on a daily basis taught me so much. I have learned more on this trip then I have my in my entire life. I wish that was an exaggeration but unfortunately it is true.
Having the opportunity to observe and become a small part of the community in Chile was probably where I learned the most. I was always taught to be cautious of different people and be ware of who I became close to. In Chile, I got the opposite perspective from viewing life and people through their eyes. They not only accepted me as their friend, but they made me feel so at home that I almost forgot the “values” I had been taught. I learned so much about how to treat people and to be accepting of different cultures before judging and rejecting. I needed to meet these people and see how they lived first-hand in order to completely understand what type of person I want to be. I realize now that my past does not have to define who I am today or who I want to be in the future.
Relationships in La Pincoya –Monica Barney
Relationships are an important part of any person’s life, especially friendships. One of the things I love most about my time in Chile is the friendships that I have formed with the people of La Pincoya. These friendships do not end when I come home, but grow over time and absence. One of the reasons for this continued growth is that many of the friendships that have been formed are friendships in solidarity. These friendships of solidarity are based on shared ideas and goals between the Chilenos and me.
Friendships in solidarity encompass a feeling of unity amongst one another’s interests. In the case of my friends in Chile, this interest is related to human rights and the value dignity of all people as human beings to have what they need. This solidarity includes the freedom to voice opinions in opposition to corruption and freedom to work together amongst our differences, to bring about social change. These friendships encompass shared goals of a better and brighter tomorrow where all human beings have the freedom to live with their basic needs met while still having the freedom to enjoy life. This solidarity includes all people and recognizes differences, yet praises similarities and strengths. This solidarity includes learning about other ways of political thought and valuing the importance that these ideologies represent.
Forming friendships in Chile has allowed me to become more aware of myself and other people around me here at home. These friendships have shown me that I have a lot to learn, but also a lot to look forward to. Most importantly, these friendships are teaching me that there are differences between us, but there are also similarities and together these differences and similarities are what define us as friends committed to making life better.
Reflections from previous years
by Greg Goodyear
When I first heard about the Chile Project I wanted to be a part of it. I have always wanted to travel to South America, and learn about its history and culture. Going to Chile seemed like the perfect opportunity. Chile is a country of outstanding natural beauty with many national parks, mountains, glaciers, and hot springs. But I wanted to see more than just that. I wanted to see the everyday activity of the Chileans, and understand their experiences and culture. This trip offered me such a chance. Santiago, the capitol of Chile, is one of the most expansive cities of the world. It is comprised of over 40 separate municipalities. We traveled to a small población or shantytown on the northern outreaches of Santiago called La Pincoya. A shantytown is described as the section of the city where there are many shanties, small shabby dwellings, or ramshackle houses. La Pincoya has a population of about 67,000 persons, most of whom are considered poor.
When we arrived we were taken from the airport by bus. On the way we were able to get a glimpse of different neighborhoods before entering the neighborhood where we would be staying and working. Many of the houses were small in size, and quite a number of them were in unsuitable conditions. We saw a variety of housing styles along the way – most of the residents built their own homes from whatever materials that were available to them. People’s houses, like their lives, seemed to be in a constant state of unsteadiness and instability. Over the years their houses underwent many transformations to accommodate modifications in family size and need. Houses with two stories sometimes stood next to small wooden shacks. The community center where we were staying had only very basic necessities, and this was better than some of the homes where most of the people lived.
After dropping off our luggage – we had more for our 16 day stay than most people owned - we took a stroll through the feria - an open market that is in operation on Wednesdays and Saturdays. People were selling fruits and vegetables, shoes and clothing, and several miscellaneous items. Most people in the poblaciones of Santiago make all their purchases in the feria. Many people also earn their living as feria merchants. The feria is a place where people can come to purchase items they may need for everyday purposes. Aside from the feria , there are a number of small convenience stores in the población. These stores generally occupy the front section of the homes. Most of these small businesses offer fresh bread that is baked three times daily. They also sell beverages and when you purchase soda or beer you need to bring the old glass bottles along. The bottles are recycled and there is a charge if you do not have one to exchange.
One of the first nights we were walking around La Pincoya, we had the opportunity to see a carnival or parade. This expression in the streets impressed me because it was easy to feel a strong bond between the neighbors in the community. I could see complete joy in the eyes of the people when they came together as one to parade up the street in celebration. I thought how difficult some of their lives must have been, but they were so high-spirited and happy. Unity seems to play a large part in their neighborhoods.
The people in La Pincoya were very friendly. I was impressed about how at home I felt in La Pincoya. The people who are involved with the project greeted us with open arms, and had no problems sharing their life experiences and their homes with us. They are often very inquisitive about our lives in the United States, wanting to know about our families, making sure we weren’t too homesick, and asking about our lives in general. They treated us as if we were a long time friend.
One of the most attractive parts of Santiago is the mountains that surround it. To the east there is the cordillera – the Andes mountain range – and to the west there is the cordillera de la costa, a smaller mountain range that runs along the cost. I looked up at the breathtaking views surrounding me, but quickly realized that the view from the eyes of our Chilean hosts may not have been the same. How did they see their community? We had the opportunity to view La Pincoya from a different perspective.
On New Year’s day we traveled to a different section of Santiago near the wealthier communities. These communities had video cameras everywhere and locked gated fences. The street life and neighborliness we had come to appreciate in La Pincoya was nowhere to be found. We were able to see La Pincoya from a distance. Alex, one of the jovenes from La Pincoya, once said “ I cannot appreciate the view from here because there is life on the streets in La Pincoya.” I agree with him because the life that makes up their community was not visible from that distance. The community is not represented by the condition of its buildings, but it is represented by the people who live there. The history of La Pincoya is one of struggle, hard work, and sacrifice. Leaders, such as Alex’ grandmother and grandfather, organized their neighbors and together they approached the authorities so that they could all realize the dream of having a dignified place to live. During the construction of this area the residents worked toward common goals. They helped construct homes for their friends and families. They built common public spaces to be shared by all neighborhood residents. The area where they live has a lot of history, and it represents hard times. It took a collective effort over the years to turn this land into a living community. Unfortunately, after the military coup of 11 September, 1973, much of the gains the residents had made were lost. However, there is still a strong sense of community and common struggle in La Pincoya, especially in comparison to neighborhoods in the U.S.
I am grateful that I had the chance to visit this community, and I have made some friends along the way. It makes leaving and coming home to the U.S. a little more difficult. Someone from one of the previous trips describes this experience as follows:
“Your world will forever be disturbed, but oddly focused all at the same time. The key is not to lose that focus upon your return. Or, at least, to not be afraid to return to that focus if it begins to blur.”
Toward the end of the trip I realized I am no longer just a part of La Pincoya or the Sin Fronteras Chile Project. I realize now that it will forever be a part of me.
No Entiendo, pero sí, Comprendo (I do no understand, but I do comprehend)
By Patricia Peterman
My first step in going to Chile was to take a personal pre-journey of deciding what I wanted to most to learn from the trip. Spanish is the language of Chile. I speak only English. These two facts loomed high in my mind as I listed the pros and cons of going to Chile with others students in the social work school last semester. At first, I thought I would handle it by studying Spanish before the trip. I bought some books and listened to a tape a few times and decided not to go. I thought about all the possible dangers. I pictured myself lost, isolated, appearing stupid and being ineffective in helping the children that we would be working with there. I talked with the professor leading the group. She reassured me that the benefits of going would out-weight the problems. That helped me decide on what it was that I wanted to learn – to learn what it was like to be in a strange land and not understand what was going on around me. I wanted to do this for a couple of reasons. Professionally, I thought it would help me understand the difficulties people from other countries, perhaps my future clients, have when trying to negotiate their way through the social and health systems. Personally, I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to see if I could survive, to cope with feelings of being inadequate because I couldn’t communicate. I wanted to test myself to see what creative ways I would learn to compensate in the situation. I concluded it was a good opportunity, because I could test myself and still have the safety net of being with a group and knowing that some of them did speak Spanish.
I found that the experience of going to Chile not only met my goals but also exceeded them. My feelings ran through the range of emotions. When we arrived in Chile, the enormity of what was happening hit home clearly. I could only talk with the people I came with and I had no idea of what the other people around me were saying. I think I would have been more frightened if I had not been so excited and absorbed in looking around at all the new sights and sounds. I quickly learned how smiles and messages conveyed in body language made me feel welcome.
There are a couple of experiences connected with language that had a big impact on me. At one point I had a minor cut on my foot and needed someone to help me. I was at the home of our host where the woman who was medically trained was going to check my foot. She had to leave for an emergency and so I had to wait for her return. While I waited, her husband sat with me trying to make my feel comfortable. Quite a bit of time went by as we tried to talk with each other. It was a funny sight. We pointed to take-out menus, the CD player and made motions with our hands. I felt sad that I couldn’t understand someone who was trying so hard to be nice to me. I felt frustrated with my own inability to speak Spanish. I also felt a sense of accomplishment every time we managed to make each other understand what we were saying.
Another time we took the children to the zoo. We had the six years olds divided into small groups. I did not have to understand the language to enjoy the interaction between the children and the teenagers who were watching them. I could almost feel the teens’ joys and struggles in trying to keep the children both happy and safe. I had worried about the camp, but I didn’t need to. It’s seems much of the language of children is universal. One child had a smile that could only be called irresistible, great big dimples and a fun-loving personality. He decided he liked my sunglasses. He and I had fun making a game out of sharing the glasses. Words were not important to the game.
The experience of traveling around the city was challenging. The second day we were there I got separated from the group. I was alone, even if I could have spoken Spanish I would not have known how to explain where I needed to go. I remember thinking I should be upset but I wasn’t. I decided if I stayed calm and stayed where I was the group would realize I was missing and come back for me. They did, but what was important was that the event gave me confidence in my ability to survive, which was one of my goals. Over the course of the trip I started to be able to pick things out and developed a level of comfort in walking around the city. I felt a sense of victory about these small accomplishments.In conclusion, the trip helped me in many ways. It takes a lot of work to make yourself understood when you can’t speak the language, but it can be done if both people are willing to try. I am so much more aware that so many things are universal, especially when it comes to people’s needs and feelings. And finally, I think that it is good to challenge yourself. I am glad I did not let my fear of not speak the language keep me from going. I would have missed a great experience.