Finding myself in Mexico

By Samantha Guzman

June 5
I have been in Mexico for two days now and still haven’t slept.

Today we met our Mexican companeros or classmates. One thing that has surprised me is how kind-of-great my Spanish is. I’m the “gringa” of my Dominican family. I rarely speak Spanish in front of them.

Most of my cousins are fluent and my grandparents don’t speak English and sometimes the sentences that come out of Dad’s mouth can barely be called English, too. I can understand Spanish almost perfectly, but speaking it has always made me embarrassed. My family shows love through insults. I could hardly get a Spanish word in without a laugh or critique.

For the past several years, I’ve been on this path of self-discovery. I want to better understand my Latina heritage. Our cultures are different in many ways, but I see a lot of myself in these women. I met one young woman who was 20 and owned a little spice stand. She told me her cousin, only a few years older, owned a popular restaurant in town. I admire these women.

I only hope Mexico will make me stronger like them.

Samantha Guzman takes photos of the scenery while walking down a hill in Malinalco. Photo: Morty Ortega

Samantha Guzman takes photos of the scenery while walking down a hill in Malinalco. Photo: Morty Ortega

June 6

There is a large statue in Tenancingo.

People can see it from almost anywhere in the city. It is on a mountaintop. After traveling with my group yesterday, I kept hearing of this place called Cristo Rey.

We took a Taxi to La Plaza, the town center of Tenancingo, and asked how to get to Cristo Rey. Every person we talked to raised their finger and pointed far up toward the sky. “You have to climb up there,” they said in Spanish. Being young, and I think a little foolish, we started walking up the hill. Each time we made it up a small incline, another steeper one awaited us around the corner. Finally, we gave up and hailed a taxi.

At the top we found only one man with his family. He lives there and cleans the statue for 600 pesos a month, hardly enough to provide for his family. I got my camera out and began taking photos. He had an interesting story that in many ways was tragic. We plan to go talk to him again tomorrow.

That’s the thing about journalism; sometimes you find the best stories when you aren’t looking for them.

June 8

By 2 p.m., I was once again on the mountaintop with Don Erasmo.

Yesterday, I played with his granddaughters. They are very smart. Today he watched over him as they ran up and down the hill. At the bottom, were their parents washing clothes.

I followed the girls down. They ran ahead down concrete stairs carved into the mountain and met their parents. I stayed behind and just watched. Soon the younger girl was crying. Her mom didn’t braid her hair the way she liked it. After what seemed like hours, she fell asleep. Her father carried her in his arms into a corner and laid her on a blanket to sleep. She looked liked a little doll in her red dress. I could see in his eyes how much he loved her.

June 10

Don Erasmo went to the doctor so instead we spoke with his son, Geraldo, for two hours.

At one point I asked him if he felt a responsibility to take care of his father. He said it is not a responsibility. He is thankful to have his dad in his life. His dad has done so much for him that he gladly takes cares of him. I feel this same gratitude to my parents. He dreams of one day having a big house where all his children have their own room.

I wonder if my parents had the same dreams for me when I was a child. Until I was 8, my family lived in the Vladeck housing project in lower eastside Manhattan. My brother and I shared bunk beds until he was a teenager. We have come a long way since then. My parents now own a two-story house in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Geraldo speaks of the United States as a far away place he will never see. I wonder if my parents thought the same. Being so far from them somehow I feel closer to the way they must have felt back then.

June 12

Sometimes the best conversations start from things that are simple. Unable to think of anything interesting to say, I remembered the rain from yesterday morning.

I asked Geraldo if he walked all the way down during the pouring rain. He laughed and said no. Yesterday, he was late to work trying to avoid the rain. I told him how I hate the rain. He looked at me thoughtfully. “No the rain is beautiful,” he said. “Sometimes when I get home from work I love to walk up this hill when it is raining.” I looked at him a little confused. He explained to me that the rain cleansed him. It washed away his worries. He told me to remember back as a child when you dance and play outside in the rain.

I thought perhaps the rain back then could have cleansed me of my shame. As a child I felt very different from the people around me. I grew up in a Texas town where the only other Dominican people were my relatives. I felt like no one understood me. I wasn’t Hispanic enough for my family and wasn’t American enough for the white children I went to school with. The next years I would try my hardest to be American. Straightening my wild curly hair every morning and forgetting the Spanish I knew fluently as a child.

In college I found journalism. It was a calling. I could dedicate my life to telling stories of everyday people and making them feel special. I wished at times during my childhood someone could have done that for me.

June 14

Don Erasmo is truly an elusive man.

He answers every question, even simple ones, in a philosophical way. Working on this story, I feel like I am following the typical narrative arc structure in some way. It’s a journey. I am currently at the highest moment of tension. I’m frustrated, confused and worried. The pieces of my story are scattered. I listen to the interview over and over. I have browsed my visuals multiple times. I still can’t figure it out. I am desperate to find my resolution.

June 16

After a three-hour bus ride, I arrived in Teotihuacan. They pyramids were amazing. I was shocked by the size of the city. It is nothing short of incredible.

I am falling in love with my Mexican classmates. We climbed both the Sun and Moon pyramids together. Once we got to the top of the moon pyramid, we took a series of photos of us all together jumping in the air. I’m sure we looked a little crazy to the other people around, but none of us cared. We were having too much fun. I laughed so hard all day my cheeks were sore from smiling. After a late lunch, everyone on the bus passed out. Jumping on top of pyramids can be exhausting.

Sharie, Gloria, Cris, Jason, Samantha and Lenin jump on top of the moon pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Photo: Morty Ortega

Sharie, Gloria, Cris, Jason, Samantha and Lenin jump on top of the moon pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Photo: Morty Ortega

June 17

Flecks of dust through window light slowly drifted down.

It was magical. I had finally made my way inside El Cristo. Don Erasmo was working on fixing plastic pipes that drained rain water from entering the statue. Inside, the Cristo was a maze. Narrow hallways led to secret rooms. Each floor was connected with flimsy handmade wooden ladders. My heart jumped as I climbed, each step made the ladder shake.

Don Erasmo moved quickly. Things inside the Cristo were thrown everywhere, but Don Erasmo had complete control of the chaos.

I was glad to finally see him work. I got to understand what is such a big part of his life. Not to mention the light inside was beautiful. He stayed silent the entire time, he respecting my work and I respecting his. Afterward, his wife helped him wash his hands and I watched as they ate breakfast together. For the first time I felt they had accepted me. It was a breakthrough.

Later I walked down the hill with his wife. She was going to make a loan payment. She told me about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in Villa Guerrero, not far from Tenancingo. Her family struggled, but she said her mother assured her that because they owned a farm, they would never go hungry. Her wrinkled face and gray hair tell me she has experienced much more of life since then. Only 55, she looks much older.

She confessed to me that sometimes she is so stressed she doesn’t want to wake up in the morning. I told her I couldn’t believe that we live in a world where some have so much and others have so little.

She nodded and said: “But other people would love to live the way I do. I know families who eat once a day and have eight children.” She was right. I am surprised everyday with the amount of optimism in the family. How can so many things happen to someone, yet they still have hope?

June 21

Don Erasmo had been sweeping all morning. Now he was standing with his broom in hand and wife by side. I could tell I was walking into an emotional moment. For the past two months, Don Erasmo has not been paid for cleaning the statue. He says that the municipality recently changed its administration and is refusing to pay him for his work. After fighting for so long, the Erasmos received a letter saying they would not be getting any money.

His wife had tears in her eyes. She turned her head away from Karen, one of my Mexican classmates, and me. She didn’t want us to see her cry. “Don’t worry. Don’t be sad,” Don Erasmo said to her. “This doesn’t mean the world is going to end.” He told her to go inside.

“Seeing her cry hurts me right here,” he said placing his hand over his heart. It was the first time he showed affection to her. It in all their sadness I was witnessing a beautiful moment.

An hour later we were saying goodbye. Don Erasmo had told me before about all the journalists who have traveled to the Cristo before. “They come and do stories and nothing happens,” he said. I hoped that after spending nearly three weeks with him, he would think I was different. I got up to shake his hand and thank him once again for letting me into his life. He reached out his hand and wished me a bright future.

It wasn’t much, but I could tell he cared. In his eyes I could see he was sad that we were leaving. For a brief second, I could feel how lonely he was.

The Cristo Rey monument.

The Cristo Rey monument. Photo: Samantha Guzman

June 22

We had all gone to Mateo’s family’s house for dinner. Afterward, we had a spontaneous dance party. Lenin and I switched off in picking songs. We danced to everything from Bachata to Techno-Tango. We were all squished inside Mateo’s living room. Bumping into each other made it even more fun.

The dancing scared off many of the American students. Thorne jokes it is difficult for Americans to dance very close to one another or in a place where the light is very bright. The Mexican students were different. They were always ready to try anything. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t dance they tried anyway. Carlos is a goofball. He never stops smiling. Jahaziel is a little shy and awkward, but always tries. Erika is confident. She loves to dance.

I loved how I knew something about each of my Mexican classmates’ personalities. I loved how uninhibited they were. I loved this sense of freedom I felt when I was around them. I felt like I could do anything, too.

June 24

I can’t believe I am leaving. There were moments when I was sitting in a taxi sharing the front seat with someone else where I felt for a brief second that I lived here. I felt like Mexico was my home. I never thought I could change so much in such a short time. I will miss the freedom of taking a taxi anywhere I want. I will miss buying street tacos. I will miss climbing the hill and seeing Don Erasmo. I will miss my Mexican family. I will miss how I feel here.

Mexico gave me back my confidence. I am a Latina. I survived living in a Spanish-speaking country. More than that: I fell in love with Mexico. I embraced the people and the culture with open arms.

And they did they same for me.

June 25

At our farewell dinner, each student gave a toast about his or her experience in Mexico.

When it was my turn, I got out of my seat, said three words and started crying. As I looked around the table I knew I had made a special connection with every person there. How could I have bonded so quickly with so many people?

“Each of you will always have a special place in my heart. You have all forever changed my life,” I said. Almost everyone got teary-eyed when they spoke. There was so much love in that room.

Hearing some students, Mexican and American, telling me how I have had an impact on their lives made me feel empowered. It made me feel worth. I struggle with feeling that about myself sometimes. It is nice to know that others believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.

June 26

The moment came when we all had to say our last goodbyes. I thought there was no way I could cry. I had cried enough the night before. I was wrong. Tear swelled in my eyes as I embraced every student.

I got in the van and tried to not look to my right. Through the window were the faces of all the amazing people I was leaving behind. I was sitting in the van with Jun when Carlos leaped in and embraced him, tears in his eyes.

“I am going to miss you, Jun,” he said. Carlos is always so happy. Seeing him that way made me break down again.

Jun handed out tissues to us all. As we drove away, everyone in our van was sobbing.

“Why does journalism have to be so awesome?” Jason said. We all laughed. We all knew it was true. I stayed up the entire ride to the airport. I didn’t want to miss a second. I wanted to save what Mexico looked like through my eyes in my mind.

I wanted to save the feeling I had there, forever.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Once I got home later, I tried to explain to my parents how much I had changed. They seemed only concerned about me not missing home. I think they worry I will move back to Mexico soon. They may be right to worry.

I finally got through to my mother in one conversation. “I have never understood who I am. You grew up in a Latin country. You understand your culture. All my life I was either being told how to be Dominican or how to be American,” I said. “Mexico made me understand how to be myself. I got to experience my Hispanic heritage in my own way. I will forever be grateful for that.”

She looked at me at smiled. “You’re right. You needed that.”

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