Melanie Lopez-Grewal is a Grants Coordinator for VHF. Following is her reflection on a recent site visit to Oaxaca, Mexico.
“True hospitality is welcoming the stranger on her own terms. This kind of hospitality can only be offered by those who’ve found the center of their lives in their own hearts.” – Henri Nouwen
As I packed my suitcase for Oaxaca, I contemplated these words and what it might mean to actually live them out. I felt that I was off to a good start: inside my suitcase was a 15 pound gift from my neighbor to his family in Miramar, Oaxaca; a family who he hasn’t seen in over a decade. Surely, I thought, as I pathetically dragged my massive suitcase through the airport, I was practicing hospitality.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As I sat on the plane to Mexico City and was safely reading more about hospitality, the person beside me introduced himself. He shared that, at age 5, his father abandoned him. Now 21, his father had contacted him a few months ago on Facebook and he was going to visit him for the first time. Explicit tattoos covered his arms and he boldly shared the pain from his past and his dreams for the future. He challenged me to take the time to truly listen, ask probing questions, and connect with those whose paths I cross. They may not be as much of a stranger as I thought: it turns out he actually works in my neighborhood.
From there, I traveled to the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, which is home to the Ñuu Savi or “People of the Rain.” It is a mountainous, arid region comprising the western half of Oaxaca and small parts of Guerrero and Puebla, and it is home to rich cultural traditions like the “tequio,” whereby people willingly volunteer to benefit the entire community, and “la gueza,” where neighbors participate and cooperate around a need or celebration. Sadly, deforestation, drought and lack of economic opportunity have led to mass migration and the loss of this rich cultural history. Communities often feel like ghost towns, with just the elderly and the young left. As I traveled through this region, visiting with Plant with Purpose, COPPFUMIR and Cedicam, I heard many moving stories of people and projects that were inspiring people to live in harmony and abundantly with their land, reclaim their cultural traditions, and know and serve others more deeply.
Enriqueta illustrates this well. She is from Guadalupe, Miramar, and when I saw her last three years ago she was on the fence about joining the local non-profit in helping with community development projects. It would take a lot of her time and she didn’t feel she had the skills or education to make a difference. She was battling a number of health and family challenges and, for the leadership she had already taken on, was feeling ostracized from those around her. With the ongoing encouragement and willingness of her community to listen to her in her pain, be present to and support her even when it got really hard, she is today playing a lead administration role, something she never thought she could do. Her health challenges continue, but she bares them with the peace of someone who does not fight them alone.
On my way home, I was again reminded of how we are given small moments every day where we can choose to practice hospitality and truly see and value people for who they are and where they are. In front of me in the ticket counter in Mexico City, an elderly, indigenous man was in a wheelchair. The salesman asked him, “Can you walk short distances?” The man replied, I can walk fine. I’m in this wheelchair because I’m illiterate, I can’t read the signs and I don’t know where to go; this way I have someone who will take me.” The man lowered his head, his shame apparent. The ticket man didn’t miss a beat, “So you can walk? You don’t need this service anymore.” As we boarded the plane, I was beside him. I watched him look at his ticket and look at the seat numbers, his confusion evident. He could not read them and people were getting impatient. I looked him in the eye, smiled, read his ticket, and showed him to his seat. Again, it turns out we had the same final destination, a small town in Eastern Washington state.
As my plan landed and we taxied to the gate, I paused and looked around me. Every person had a cell phone, texting, emailing, calling, checking Facebook, all in an attempt to connect with the world around them. I felt like I was in a movie, like Matrix or The Giver, when it becomes evident that the world presented to them is only an illusion of what truly is. Connection, the choice to actively engage with the people around you, can be painful as I was reminded of on this trip. Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply learn my seat mate’s name, celebrate Enriqueta’s achievements, and be proud of myself for helping an elderly man find his seat? Of course, but then I wouldn’t be sitting here still thinking about it. Each of these people, in both their achievements and their struggles, shared a part of their vulnerable selves. Like each and every one of us, they have experienced unspeakable pain and yet also felt indescribable joy. By daring to authentically connect with them, to listen to their stories and share my own, I learned that what seems like such a unique and personal story, is actually a glimpse into the collective story we all share as human beings, whether we live in the United States or in the Mixteca.