“Mi casa es su casa” has become a common phrase in mainstream America, but for Mexican-Americans, it reflects true hospitality and is more than just a saying. That’s just one of the many lessons eight Plymouth State University students learned during a 16-day trip to New Mexico in January.
Comparative Social Services: New Mexico: Mexican Americans, Native Americans and the Dominant U.S. Culture is an experiential course of study that seeks to give students a heightened awareness of how cross-cultural differences affect the delivery of health care, education and social services to people in the cultures studied. Professor of Social Work Scott Meyer explains that the goal is to have students come away with “a better understanding of the forces of oppression and opportunity in our society, and the factors involved in prejudice, racism and ethnocentrism. To put a human face on what the students study theoretically.”
To gain that insight, the students stayed with host families, listened and danced to cultural music, cooked traditional recipes, visited an orphanage and donated diapers, children’s clothing and related items. They also went to the Navajo reservation where they participated in a powwow and visited an elementary school, sang songs with school children in Palomas, Mexico, and attended lectures and toured historical sites of the southwestern landscape.
“Participating in a powwow for tsunami relief and getting to dance in the circle was just one of the ways students got a much richer appreciation of the Navajo culture and their experiences,” says Meyer. Other experiences that helped facilitate cultural understanding included a lecture given by a medical doctor who understands folk healing; evidence of the strong religious background of Mexican-Americans and the role it plays in their everyday lives; and the students being invited to attend a birthday party for one of the host family’s relatives. He says, “It literally was mi casa es su casa.”
For the students themselves—ranging from social work to childhood studies to business majors—each has their own reflection of the experience. Says Marisha Gentile, “I think the interactions with people had the greatest impact on me. I’m an early childhood major, so I love being with children. I especially loved visiting an elementary school in Palomas, Mexico and the Navajo boarding school in Gallup, N.M.
“At the Navajo boarding school I was able to visit a dormitory of girls in first through third grades,” Gentile continues. “These children were so loving, and they taught us some games. What impressed me most was how open and honest the children were in speaking and interacting with us. At the elementary school … the children were asking us a lot of questions. They wanted to hear our national anthem, so we sang the Star Spangled Banner to them and they sang their national anthem to us. In a younger class, the children would sing a song in Spanish and then we would sing it, or a similar song, in English. I loved how interactive these parts of the trip were.”
Psychology major Valerie Levine shared a similar, but different, reflection on the trip. “The one thing that made the biggest impression on me was the day in Palomas, Mexico. We got to visit a school and an orphanage. The people of Mexico have so much pride in what they have and what they are. The children are also very respectful and polite. … they make the best with what is around. It made me realize how good we as Americans have it.”—Michele Barney Hutchins
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