Monday, January 31, 2011

Theatrical performance of Palenque Rojo

History consists of conquering empires and mythical beings, of beauty, betrayal, life and death. To see is to understand and history can only continue if its story is told.

This evening Caila and I decided to treat ourselves to the historical performance of Palenque Rojo. The performance was done in Mayan language and consisted of some of the most beautiful costumes I had ever seen. Traditional headdresses, body paint, dance, rituals, drumming and inscents created an ancient Mayan atmosphere.

Archeologists and historians worked together to recreate the story of Palenque Rojo. The performance captures the extraordinary tale of Mayan Ruler Kan Joy Chitam II, son of the Great Ruler Pakal II and brother of Kam Balam II. The famous and majestic city of Palenque was given its splendorous linage through the tales of these historic and powerful leaders.

The story is told of a time when there were two great city-states that embraced within the extraordinary lands of the Maya, they were Palenque and Tonina. These two cities were in constant competition to control the commercial route from the Gulf of Mexico to the heart of Peten, now known as Guatemalea.

Kan Joy Chitam was one of the most brilliant leaders in Palenque history and in the summer of 711 AD, in an attempt to take control, Tonina attacks Palenque and kidnaps Ruler Kan Joy Chitam. One of the most miraculous things about this story, is the attack was planned by a women, the Ruler Kawil who had been newly widowed, dressed in the military robes of her husband and commanded the attention of her people.

In time Kan Joy Chitam escapes from his imprisonment and returns to Palenque, where even today, how he escaped is unknown. Kan Joy Chitam recognized his old age and with great honour, placed his nephew in the throne and confronted his destiny. Setting an example of wisdom, compassion and humility, he retired and offered his life to the gods in a ritual of self-sacrifice.

It is said that after his death, Kan Joy Chitam transformed into a star within the heavens where he is to reign in the cosmos for eternity.

This performance may have been one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen. The theater was small and set to appear as a jungle from the moment you enter. With clothe wines, shadows and mist surrounding you, you feel as though you have entered the jungle and are among the ancient Mayan people. With the beat of the drum you grow anxious to see what is next and the beauty of the costume and tranquility in the movement makes you feel as though time has stopped.

Within the next few weeks Loyalist College ISW students will be traveling to Palenque to visit the ancient ruins of Palenque, some of Mexico’s largest and most visited ruins in the country. I am looking forward to walking the same grounds as these powerful people and being able to learn more about the history of the Mayan people.

Cathedral in San Cristobal

Every time I return to Mexico I am reminded of how large of a role religion plays in cultural society.

The other day we traveled outside of San Cristobal to a city called San Juan Chamula. San Juan is located about 11 km outside San Cristobal and is widely known for the indigenous peoples’ unique style of worship. The church floors are lined with pine needles and indigenous groups gather around rows of candles on the floors. Elders chant sacred religious meanings while a father and mother bless their newborn child by rubbing a chicken over the youngsters’ body. The chicken is meant to take the illnesses and evil spirits out of the child and hold it within itself. The family would then execute the chicken and give it a religious ceremony to represent the exit of evil and illness.

Today was Sunday and I joined nearly 1,000 other people for the 12 o’clock service at the Cathedral in the center of San Cristobal. Every seat was taken and still people gathered around the outside, some needing to remain standing. The crowd was consisted of indigenous populations, mestizos, foreigners and the odd tourist. There were elders and infants. I was amazed to see the number of people who had come to worship and most likely do every Sunday. I saw a fellow classmate of mine and also ran into Quinten, the American anthropologist from yesterday, and met his wife.

The service was similar to some I have seen in Canada. It was a Catholic service that included offerings and communion. It was incredible to see the man beside me, in his ripped jeans, toothless smile and stained shirt give every last peso in his pocket to the church. The music was outstanding and the aroma of in-scents filled the church and made the air thick.

My favourite part was the greeting; “Paz contigo.” Not having a religious background, the whole idea of it is interesting to me. As complex as it is, and regardless of how it has been used in the past to manipulate and oppress, there is such a strong sense of community.

“Paz contigo,” says the middle-aged woman to my right.

“Paz contigo,” says the young man across from me.

“Paz contigo,” says the man with the ripped jeans, toothless smile and stained shirt to my left.

“Paz contigo,” says the father of the young child who came out of nowhere, all taking the time to touch my hand and exchange a smile.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

'Real Mexico is within the family'

What does it mean to live in poverty, to be poor?

Take a moment to define it.

Does it mean you live in a small house, or on the streets. Does it mean you wear ripped clothes and have a dirt floor with no running water. Does it mean you shine shoes or work in the market.

Or perhaps it means you’ve only got one car instead of two. You can only take one holiday a year instead of three. Perhaps it means you have to wait until things go on sale before you can consume or you have to use coupons to purchase your groceries.

Yesterday ISW students met with American anthropologist and poet Quentin Kirk. Kirk is married to a Mexican woman and has lived in San Cristobal for the past two years, where he has fallen in love with the Mexican culture and published two books out of his new-found passion.

Kirk discussed many things with the group, the history of San Cristobal, the story behind it’s title, Bishop Ruiz and his involvement with the indigenous communities. He discussed the sound of Mexican music and it’s purpose, which is to bring happiness. He spoke of the Mexican passion to dance and how the majority of indigenous populations are shy but genuinely kind and helpful of all others.

He spoke of San Cristobal history of everyone getting along, the mestizos, the indigenous, the foreigners and the hippies. He spoke of the history of the regions leaders and spoke of how long before the culture of industrialization, before the culture of things, there was a culture of celebration. He spoke of the people and how they had adequate food and shelter and how what they wanted was more celebration.

He spoke of how real Mexico is within the families and how cautious all must be when talking about poverty and being poor. He spoke of cultural baggage and how everyone must be careful of the baggage they bring from their own country. He spoke of a study done called ‘The Happy Index’ and of how Mexicans are genuinely happier than people from the north and how they laugh a lot more and have a lot more time for their family.

“The Mexican people have more of what life is suppose to be like, life needs people and people need their families and the children will have more time to play,” Kirk says.

When ISW students sat to discuss some of the things they had learned through their guest speaker, many were profoundly shocked with some of the simple things they had never realized before. About family, northern lifestyle, poverty, being poor. Many had never looked at life through this perspective, as their cultural baggage showed a different meaning of value and poverty.

“I had only ever seen poor as I was raised to,” says Child and Youth Worker student from Loyalist College Debbie Margetson. “I will now be able to see the richness [of the Mexican people] more than I ever had before.”

Many people know the cliché saying of rich in spirit, rich in heart and many people overlook it. Is it because it is so simple that it cannot be true? Or could it be because northerners have so much cultural baggage we are not able to see it?

How do you define true wealth, what does it mean. Is it possible to be spiritually rich and materialistically poor, or vice-versa. Must people be one or the other.

Although many northerners climb the capitalist model and believe title, money, power and materialistic objects signify wealth, there are still many northerners who believe a more socialist movement is taking place, especially within more urban areas of Canada.

Loyalist College ISW student Kailey Ellis Chapman lives on 100 acres of farmland outside of Belleville, Ontario and says that balance of spiritual and capital wealth is present close to home if only you look for it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let children be children

Today we traveled as the locals did in a collectivo, a communal van with the cost shared by all passengers, to a city nearby called San Juan Chamula. San Juan is located about 11km outside of San Cristobal de las Casas and is widely known for the indigenous peoples’ unique style of religious worship.

When we arrived in this city of San Juan it looked different than San Cristobal. The streets weren’t as crowded, the venders not so frequent. The population was made up of almost all indigenous people and there were next to no mestizo Mexicans. There were no local foreigners living there that we saw but there were busloads of northern tourists who showed up in packs, many cameras and flashy things in hand. Things weren’t as clean in San Juan and you could tell there wasn’t nearly as much wealth as there was in the nearby city of San Cristobal.

No matter where we were in San Juan, the market, the Zocalo (town square), the street corner, on a bench or in front of the church, we would be approached by children and asked to buy something . These children were street venders and beggars, much like their parents and rely greatly on tourism as a form of survival.

Children ranging age 5 and up would approach you, carrying their two-year-old sibling on their back and would ask you for un peso or to buy their goods. It can be a heartbreaking thing, to see someone who is so young and could have so many possibilities, stand before you and ask you for something and not know if you can give it to them.

When it comes to street children it’s difficult. You want to support them because you feel for them, but if you do, in many ways you are prolonging this way of life for them, where they must beg. When children are sent out on the streets and come home with money, it is an indication to their parents that this is working and they will be sent out again the next day. Not because their parents want to or believe this is the best place for their children but because this is a way of life and in many cases the only way to guarantee their survival. When children are successful in this, the cycle is perpetuated and many of these children grow up never going to school, never knowing how to read or write, not knowing anything other than begging.

It’s difficult because you feel if you do not give them that peso, you are partly responsible for their circumstance and for their suffering. But if you do, suddenly there are two kids, now three, now ten. Now they are grabbing at you and pulling on each other. People grow angry and now you are smack dab in the middle of conflict, often in a language you don’t understand and sometimes with adults in regards to their children whom you have been engaging with. It can very quickly and unexpectedly escalate and become a very negative and dangerous situation.

In the end, wither you do or do not is personal choice and it is always a difficult decision. It is an extremely sensitive and complex topic and there is no right or wrong answer. I have realized as much as you cannot fix situations like this with money, pity does not help either. These children and their families they do not want, nor deserve, our pity. They deserve our respect and our acknowledgment. Instead of feeling bad because they are begging and we are unable to help, think about what the real problem is, not with the individual, but with the societal system that is meant to protect and support the people. Think of how this has happened, why it is so common and what can and is being done about it.

It’s an interesting contrast, children from the north and from the south. They play completely different roles in society and yet at the end of a day, a child is always still a child. We feel bad for and pity these young people who must work the streets, with no shoes in their dirty clothes, but they are doing it for survival in order to provide the essentials, because this is their way of life.

We must not be so hypocritical to think that this is something that only happens in Mexico, this is happening around the world in every country, including Canada and the United States. We may not have 5 and 10 year olds begging strangers on the streets for money, but instead we have them begging their parents and grandparents in the aisles of the grocery store. We have children who throw tantrums because they can’t have that third doll or because they didn’t get exactly what they wanted for Christmas or for their birthday. People say to children all the time, “stop acting like a dog, don’t beg.” Yet this need for more continues to grow and children continue to be unsatisfied with what they have and the need for more extends. Many Northerners don’t know how to express our love and appreciation without materialistic things, we feel if we do not purchase the biggest and best we are not expressing our value and love for one another.

We have grown cold.

We may not have children begging on the streets for survival, but we have them begging in the toy store for items of luxury, isn’t this worse?

Let children be children

Today we traveled as the locals did in a collectivo, a communal van with the cost shared by all passengers, to a city nearby called San Juan Chamula. San Juan is located about 11km outside of San Cristobal de las Casas and is widely known for the indigenous peoples’ unique style of religious worship.

When we arrived in this city of San Juan it looked different than San Cristobal. The streets weren’t as crowded, the venders not so frequent. The population was made up of almost all indigenous people and there were next to no mestizo Mexicans. There were no local foreigners living there that we saw but there were busloads of northern tourists who showed up in packs, many cameras and flashy things in hand. Things weren’t as clean in San Juan and you could tell there wasn’t nearly as much wealth as there was in the nearby city of San Cristobal.

No matter where we were in San Juan, the market, the Zocalo (town square), the street corner, on a bench or in front of the church, we would be approached by children and asked to buy something . These children were street venders and beggars, much like their parents and rely greatly on tourism as a form of survival.

Children ranging age 5 and up would approach you, carrying their two-year-old sibling on their back and would ask you for un peso or to buy their goods. It can be a heartbreaking thing, to see someone who is so young and could have so many possibilities, stand before you and ask you for something and not know if you can give it to them.

When it comes to street children it’s difficult. You want to support them because you feel for them, but if you do, in many ways you are prolonging this way of life for them, where they must beg. When children are sent out on the streets and come home with money, it is an indication to their parents that this is working and they will be sent out again the next day. Not because their parents want to or believe this is the best place for their children but because this is a way of life and in many cases the only way to guarantee their survival. When children are successful in this, the cycle is perpetuated and many of these children grow up never going to school, never knowing how to read or write, not knowing anything other than begging.

It’s difficult because you feel if you do not give them that peso, you are partly responsible for their circumstance and for their suffering. But if you do, suddenly there are two kids, now three, now ten. Now they are grabbing at you and pulling on each other. People grow angry and now you are smack dab in the middle of conflict, often in a language you don’t understand and sometimes with adults in regards to their children whom you have been engaging with. It can very quickly and unexpectedly escalate and become a very negative and dangerous situation.

In the end, wither you do or do not is personal choice and it is always a difficult decision. It is an extremely sensitive and complex topic and there is no right or wrong answer. I have realized as much as you cannot fix situations like this with money, pity does not help either. These children and their families they do not want, nor deserve, our pity. They deserve our respect and our acknowledgment. Instead of feeling bad because they are begging and we are unable to help, think about what the real problem is, not with the individual, but with the societal system that is meant to protect and support the people. Think of how this has happened, why it is so common and what can and is being done about it.

It’s an interesting contrast, children from the north and from the south. They play completely different roles in society and yet at the end of a day, a child is always still a child. We feel bad for and pity these young people who must work the streets, with no shoes in their dirty clothes, but they are doing it for survival in order to provide the essentials, because this is their way of life.

We must not be so hypocritical to think that this is something that only happens in Mexico, this is happening around the world in every country, including Canada and the United States. We may not have 5 and 10 year olds begging strangers on the streets for money, but instead we have them begging their parents and grandparents in the aisles of the grocery store. We have children who throw tantrums because they can’t have that third doll or because they didn’t get exactly what they wanted for Christmas or for their birthday. People say to children all the time, “stop acting like a dog, don’t beg.” Yet this need for more continues to grow and children continue to be unsatisfied with what they have and the need for more extends. Many Northerners don’t know how to express our love and appreciation without materialistic things, we feel if we do not purchase the biggest and best we are not expressing our value and love for one another.

We have grown cold.

We may not have children begging on the streets for survival, but we have them begging in the toy store for items of luxury, isn’t this worse?

A mixture of cultural tradition and colonization

Beautiful colours, traditional dress, modern music and pierced lips. Hand made tortillas beside packaged brand named items. A piece of the past mixed with the present. The integration of traditional culture and colonialism.

As Loyalist College International Support Worker students spent the second day of their five-week experiential learning venture exploring the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, they were told to be cautious, blend in and pay attention to detail. As with any new culture it is important to take sufficient time to observe and absorb the culture and what is going on around you. Pay attention to small detail and notice differences and similarities within the culture itself.

Students were divided into small groups of three, given a basis map and a check-list of locations and off they went. Students ventured slowly, took their time and engaged with locals to gain a deeper insight and understanding of the dynamics and complexity of the Mexican culture.

During the students debrief many important issues were discussed. Students recognized more than the obvious cultural differences such as food, dress, architecture and road rules. They noted the different colours of dress within the different indigenous groups, recognized the differences in the roles played by children in the South compared to the North, the level of religious value and influence within the culture and signs of imperial capitalism with a traditional twist.

“The thing that gets me is the amount of recognition for the Virgin of Guadalupe,” says Caila Widdifield, graduate of the developmental service worker program at Loyalist College and current ISW student in Chiapas, Mexico. “It is incredible how much respect they have when only one person witnessed this miracle, yet the vast of the culture is based on this. Doesn’t matter what generation you are or who you are, mestizo or indigenous, old or young. [The Virgin of Guadalupe] has influenced a lot of people and it isn’t just one area, it is across Mexico.”

As referenced by ISW professor Kate Rogers, many people believe Mexico is very much a Catholic nation, however, if you ask most Mexican’s they would say their country is very much Guadelupian. Jesus Christ is still very much a part of the Mexican culture and honoured within active religions but is focused on the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus’ is credited based on the fact that people believe him to be the son of this marvelous women saint.

Within the student debrief, the idea of ‘Guadelupianism’ was explored as an example of cultural tradition mixed with colonialism. The people of Mexico were conquered by the Spanish and deemed a Catholic nation but were still able to identify with something unique that they believed in and held true value towards.

The Virign of Guadalupe was a dark skin women who called herself the reincarnation of Virgin Mary. Guadaupe said we are all people of God and she had come for the poor people. Many believe the whole idea of the Virgin of Guadalupe was a scam for the Bishop and Mexican leaders to regain power as the Catholic church was failing. Either way, neither have been proved and for many, it no longer matters.

“When you think about the destruction left behind from colonialism; it robbed indigenous people of their identity and when Guadalupe came forward… [it was] a reclamation of the identity of the Mexican people that colonialism had stripped them of,” says Heather Barker, current ISW student with years of experience working in harm reduction and community development in the Belleville and Brampton communities. “This is a way of finding joy and identity within colonialism and it is in a sense, allowing them to take their power back.”

As ISW students continue their learning journey over the next five weeks they will be exploring different aspects of Mexican culture and will be exposed to the true complexities of the cultures existence. As they have already learned the answers to many questions are complex and a culture cannot be fully understood in a day, a week, a month or sometimes even a lifetime. The idea is to open your mind to new ideas and the possibility of things that are different and to gain new insight and viewpoints to international issues.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Finally here - ISW students make it to Chiapas, Mexico

Today we arrived at our final destination; San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. After more than 24 hours in travel transit, I can confidently speak on behalf of the group when I say we are extremely glad to be here!

People say there is opportunity to learn in everything you do, I believe this is true. Since Monday evening at 11:00pm when we left Belleville, Ontario for our five-week adventure I feel all ISW students and Quest Internacional participants have partaken in essential learning experiences and personal growth. Some things may not seem as important as others but all are essential to competent staff in the field of international work.

For example; safe travel. This included some things that may seem more obvious, such as researching of destination, proper packing, proper health requirements and vaccinations, travel documentation and life style commitments and obligations such as who will look after my cat and I must remember to pay my rent in advance. Once on the road we learned about safe and adequate travel; stay together, be respectful of others, always keep an eye on your bag and never leave it unattended, do not act inappropriately suspicious unless you are looking for delay, be flexible, be patient, be prepared. It's interesting but often I feel it is a lot of these little things that are important when travelling in large groups. Everyone is on their own journey and have different levels of travel experience and different styles of everything; learning to cooperate, be patient, kind and work as a team are difficult things to overcome, especially when tensions are up and sleep levels are down, but are also essential to a successful group learning experience.

Although there have been minor bumps in the road all members of the ISW class as well as members of Quest Internacional have done a phenomenal job of all the things listed above. I am impressed with the levels of maturity, responsibility and understanding of others and am proud to be part of this group. I look forward to tomorrow and am excited to fall asleep. Yes, it is only 11:16pm and I am exhausted.

Hasta pronto y hasta manana!!

Monday, January 24, 2011

No more sleeps in my own bed, now I sit and wait - ISW students do Mexico

My bag is packed, the heat is down and my apartment is beginning to grow cold which means it must soon be time to go. Tonight at 11:00pm I will be joining 16 friends, and fellow classmates in the International Support Worker program as we head to the Toronto airport and straight on towards Chiapas, Mexico, where we will be staying for the next 5 weeks as part of our post-graduate program.

Similar to last year when I traveled to Mexico with Quest Internacional, there's the anticipated, anticipation and slight nausea of nervousness as the butterflies in my stomach begin to dance. I have been excited and preparing for this journey for over a year when I decided to enroll in the program and yet, I am speechless.

If there is one thing I have learned as a student in the ISW program and as a participant in Quest, is that all things are unpredictable. As much as we can prepare ourselves, all circumstances have a beat of beat of their own and all we can do is enjoy the ride. I have been going to Mexico for the past three years as a participant in an international and experiential learning organization. Each year I have returned a new person, not remembering who I was before. Each time I feel as though I have grown, in every aspect of the meaning. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Sometimes it is interesting to think back and remember myself as an even younger girl than I am now. It's funny how in five weeks sometimes everything can change, and sometimes nothing happens at all.

One thing I know for sure, is I haven't a clue what to expect. I am excited, anxious, nervous, rambunctious, gitty, grateful and honoured. I am already so thankful for everything this experience will bring, and we haven't even got on the plane.


Join us on our journey and participate in our adventure: www.ideals.nu

For more information on the International Support Worker (ISW) Program Click Here


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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Countdown to Chiapas!

With only six days left till departure, Loyalist College International Support Worker students and staff are busy at work preparing for their travels.

As part of the preparations, students have spent many hours discussing topics such as safe travel, cultural awareness and health and safety. Within these topics, discussions include subjects on health concerns, immunizations, customs and immigration, ground travel, language barrier, food and water and culture shock, among others.

Students also spent time meeting with a representative of the Canadian International Development Agency, where they were able to gain insight on development from within a governmental agency. Students will soon visit impoverished villages within Chiapas Mexico, some of which would be similar to villages of whom receive funding from CIDA in other countries. By having unique learning opportunities such as this, students are able to gain experience in hands on practice, theory and critical analysis, for example the cycle of development from a northern agency to a southern village.

Check out the writing, reflections, photos and stories of International Support Worker students while they venture through Southern Mexico for 5 weeks. Check out their host website at http://www.ideals.nu/