Anton Segal Memorial Scholarship Fund
Anton Segal Memorial Traveling Fellowship
Post-Travel Report for Doris Huang '06
I spent two months of the summer of 2004 living in Oaxaca, Mexico on the Anton Segal Memorial Traveling Fellowship. My experience there was a truly unforgettable one, as cliché as that may sound; even though I expected nothing less when I first arrived in Oaxaca, the trip really did exceed my expectations in everything respect. The terms of the Anton Segal Fellowship have been left deliberately broad and open in order to accommodate whatever creative and innovative ideas students may have for a stimulating summer experience.
In Oaxaca I divided my time between two organizations: the Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura (ICC) and the Centro de Esperanza Infantil (CEI). At the ICC I studied Latin-American literature and the (myriad) indigenous cultures of the state of Oaxaca, which is the most ethnically diverse in the Mexican republic. My indigenous cultures teacher was herself descended directly from the mixe tribe of the mountains surrounding the city of Oaxaca, and through her many connections with various pueblo communities, she introduced me to the livelihoods, the beliefs, the music, the art, the food, the history, and the politics of modern-day indigenous Oaxacans. Under her guidance, I attended a traditional quinceañera (a rite of passage celebration for young women on their fifteenth birthday) in a small town as an invited guest; I spent a weekend in the Sierra Norte mountain range where several indigenous villages have pooled their resources to operate an ecotourism project called Pueblos Mancomunados; I explored the crowded, exuberant markets of Oaxaca with their cacophany of indigenous tongues; and I personally interviewed a number of government officials at both the state and municipal levels who oversee indigenous affairs throughout Oaxaca.
Every weekday morning I took what I learned in my studies and applied them as a volunteer at CEI, a safe haven for Oaxacan streetchildren that was founded several years ago by an American couple. These children, the vast majority of whom belong to the triqui tribe, live with their families-they are not orphans-and attend school during the day, but their families are so poor that the adults bring the children out onto the city streets to sell candy, toys, trinkets, and shawls with them to earn extra income. CEI provided a place for these children to escape from the streets in the daytime and simply be kids for awhile-they could use the computers in the computer room, play board games, make arts and crafts, read and write, and meet other children in similar situations, as well as be exposed to volunteers from countries as disparate as the United States, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and France. CEI also administers a sponsorship program that matches up sponsors (primarily Americans) with schoolchildren from kindergarten through college, whereby the sponsors cover the students' school expenses each year. During my time at the center I would often help prepare food in the kitchen, read to the children, translate for the visiting doctor, and assist with administrative duties, but my primary responsibility was to help with the annual re-enrollment process for all 500 children registered for the sponsorship program. This involved meeting with each family individually, guiding them through the process, answering their questions, and helping the children write letters of appreciation to their sponsors in Spanish (and later translating the letters into English as well).
Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca
Oaxaca de Juárez is the capital city of the state of Oaxaca, the second-poorest state in Mexico. Oaxaca is located in the south, not far from the Guatemalan border. The city itself is truly charming and picturesque, with very well preserved Spanish colonial architecture and many parks and green spaces. Despite its economic troubles, Oaxaca is an extraordinarily vibrant city in terms of culture, with a large indigenous population and a constant influx of foreign tourists and students. Oaxaca is famous for its thirty-something Catholic churches, its indigenous handicrafts, its rich regional food, its noisy markets, and its friendly people and laidback atmosphere.
The city of Oaxaca is located in a valley surrounded by the Sierra Juárez and Sierra Norte mountain ranges, both of which offer really breathtaking scenery and which are only a couple hours' drive away. The valley of Oaxaca, known as the Valle Central, is dotted with traditional pueblos as well as some stunning archeological sites (particularly Monte Albán and Mitla) that absolutely should not be missed. The Pacific coast with its string of beach resorts (some now overly commercialized, but others still well hidden) is about a five-hour drive to the west, and the state of Chiapas (famous for the zapatista uprising in 1994) and Guatemala are a several hours' bus ride away to the south. Mexico City can be reached by car in only four hours along a brand-new superhighway connecting Oaxaca to the Mexican capital.
Since it is located so far south, Oaxaca has a fairly tropical climate. The summer months are hot, with temperatures averaging 85o Fahrenheit and a strong sun. Summertime is also the rainy season, however, and virtually every day we could expect a short rainstorm in the late afternoon for fifteen or twenty minutes, with the occasional downpour that would last for the better part of a day.
In terms of traveling to Oaxaca, I managed to find a new Continental flight that flew straight from Houston to Oaxaca, without passing through Mexico City, as is usually the case. I found that that was one of the most valuable discoveries of my entire trip-lines in the Mexico City airport are notoriously long, and passengers on international flights arriving directly in Oaxaca are processed very quickly through the tiny customs office there. Once in the city, I did most of my traveling by foot, although the public buses there run very frequently and are generally safe, as well as very inexpensive.
I lived with a Oaxacan family in a homestay during all eight weeks of my visit. The ICC has records on file for many families in and near the city of Oaxaca who have experience in hosting foreign students. While each household varies significantly, I was amazingly fortunate to be taken in by a wonderful single mother with two daughters who were both studying away from home. Her house was comfortable (I had my own bedroom and bathroom), her cooking was excellent, and downtown Oaxaca was only a ten- to fifteen-minute walk away through a relatively safe neighborhood.
Most of the time I ate at home with my host family, although occasionally I did visit some of the numerous cafes around the city for excellent Mexican coffee (most of it grown right along the Oaxacan coast). Restaurants across the entire budget spectrum were very affordable compared to American prices; my sister and I had a full meal with entrees, beverages, and dessert at an upscale restaurant overlooking the zócalo, or town plaza, for only about two-thirds of the price that we would have paid at a comparable establishment in the States. I was warned to avoid street and market vendors for the most part, but after a couple of weeks I felt acclimatized enough to take the risk, and I found my daring well worth the trouble. There is a visible difference between relatively hygienic food stands and relatively unhygienic ones, and the authentic taste of the food that they sell is unparalleled, not to mention extremely cheap. I would suggest asking native Oaxacans for recommendations about the best places to go; I would also arrive in Mexico both mentally and physically prepared to battle at least a bout or two of diarrehea and stomachache. The sickness usually wears off in 24 to 48 hours, however, and a bottle of Peptol-Bismol goes a long way.
An important piece of advice that a handful of Harvard women who had visited Mexico before me had passed on to me before I left regarded how to deal with machismo. Particularly as a young woman traveling alone, I was especially cautious wherever I went, staying aware of my surroundings and minimizing the time I spent out alone after dark. If you are a woman who plans to live for an extended period of time in Mexico, I would recommend avoiding wearing tank tops, shorts, short skirts, and other revealing clothing, as this merely draws additional unwanted attention. Tourists wear this sort of clothing all the time, but your goal will likely be to look as little like a tourist as possible, plus it's simply safer to dress modestly. Most men who catcall or try to engage you in conversation in the streets will leave you alone if you simply walk past them, and I never ran into any seriously threatening situations. In general women in Mexico are still socially more conservative than women in the US, and it would be wise to follow suit.
People in Oaxaca are so used to both foreigners and ethnic minorities that cultural diversity is not new to them, although they do have a very fixed concept of foreigners (Caucasian Americans) and ethnic minorities (indigenous peoples). I was probably one of only a very small handful of Asians in the entire city, but I found that for the most part the Oaxacans were far more curious about my ethnicity than they were discriminatory in any way. Generally they are unused to seeing blacks, Asians, Southern Asians, and Middle Easterners, but racism is not a serious problem there.