Oaxaca has the charm of being a city with a rich connection to its past. You can taste pre-Hispanic dishes such as fried grasshoppers, mole, and stone soup (a fish soup that uses a heated rock placed inside the soup to boil and cook it). In the markets, you can see indigenous women wearing traditional outfits and balancing baskets of tortillas and trays of beverages on their heads.
However, basic needs such as running water, gas, and garbage collection are unfortunately not available to all. The income disparity is also striking. Children as young as four sell candy, gum, and cigarettes, often past midnight. While volunteering with Solidaridad Internacional Kanda, or SiKanda, a nonprofit involved in the design and implementation of programs that fight poverty and promote human and social rights in Oaxaca, I got to know and collaborate with “recyclers” - the families that live and work in the landfill. The recyclers ranged from ages six to 86 and worked an average of 10 hours a day to earn about 40 pesos (about $2.50).
Prior to going to Oaxaca, I had seen infomercials showing severely malnourished children and street beggars in cities. Through my experience in Oaxaca, I've realized that this does not provide a genuine understanding of the people living in those conditions. The recyclers weren’t looking for pity, but were simply working to try to make a better life for their children. SiKanda was about collaboration. Plans were developed using the recyclers’ input and these projects were implemented with their hard work.
One of my tasks was organizing a fundraising breakfast. The purpose of this breakfast was to raise money to build 12 homes using ecological and affordable construction methods and materials. It was a daunting task to invite business owners, since my Spanish wasn’t perfect and I didn’t have a complete knowledge of how business in Mexico is conducted. Many weeks were spent just trying to contact the different business owners. I was surprised by how suspicious many companies seemed to be. I found out later that this was due to different social issues, such as the social uprising in Oaxaca in 2006 and the general fear of embezzlement and blackmail in Mexico.
After much persistence from all of our team, the breakfast was successful, with even greater attendance than expected. The attendees pledged to fund seven houses. They would provide the materials, so that the recyclers, along with volunteers, could construct sanitary and dignified housing rather than their current dwellings of cardboard and laminate scraps.
Volunteering with SiKanda with the help of the InterExchange Christianson Grant has allowed me to change the direction of my life in ways that I never expected previously. I now feel a strong commitment to the environment and conservation, whereas previously I didn’t always see the direct connection my actions had on the earth. By allowing me to see the effect my actions can have in a pan-national context, this experience has made me a more global citizen.