Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Chill Day

By: Reagan Jackson
Zion, Azeb, Jordan, Eyerusalem, and Reagan at El Tajin

It's quiet today, no raucous laughter from the ongoing stream of jokes and shade throwing, nor Spanglish chatter with whomever might be downstairs. For the moment its just me alone in my white stucco room with its long green curtains, light streaming in through the opaque glass of the balcony door. After huffing my way through zumba by the waterfront with David and Gabriel, I dragged myself home through the dense salty air to find everyone else taking advantage of the morning off to sleep in.

Today we will write. Having been here a full week, the youth have selected the focus of the articles they will be putting together and even conducted some preliminary interviews. Now they will craft pitches to be sent to their editor at the Seattle Globalist. Then we'll have lunch together. Paola, one of our instructors is making cheese empanadas. So far the best recipes I've gotten this trip have been from Angelica, another one of our instructors, who makes a blackberry pudding to die for.

After lunch everyone will have language lessons in the afternoon during which time I hope to visit our new friend Karma. Karma, once a student at the language school, has returned to Veracruz to live for the year while she is completing her dissertation through the University of Chicago. Her topic, Afro-Mexicans. She is a black woman from the States and in meeting her I saw the kids' eyes light up. This may be their first trip, but I can tell already that these three have a lot of world to see and meeting Karma seemed to make that idea more tangible to them.

After yesterday's arduous bus trip to Papantla to visit the pyramids of El Tajin we are all exhausted, but content. I am delighted for this brief respite of air conditioning and solitude and in general for the way this adventure is turning out so far. For those of you who know me or have been following my column in the Seattle Globalist, you know that this trip is years in the making. Its been my dream to create a study abroad program for young people of color and these young people have made the reality so much better than I had even imagined. In this short time, though it sounds cliche, we've become a family.

I wasn't sure what it would be like to bring a group of black folks to Veracruz, but its been fascinating. One of the things that sometimes irritates me about traveling while black is the picture taking. In Japan, this was especially an issue. Everyone everywhere always wanted to take my picture. I got my first glimpse of what it must be like to be chased by paparazzi. Here in Veracruz, I get the stares, we all do. There are the old women who want to pat my cheek and tell me how much they like my black skin, the catcalls of "morena"or "negra", and yes the random people who want to take my picture, but Zion, the darkest and tallest of us all, is the one everyone wants to take picture of now. "I feel like a low key Kim Kardashian or something" he confessed yesterday after we were mobbed by an entire family of Mexican tourist who wanted to take pictures of all of us, but then individually with only Zion. Rather than getting irritated, he seemed to enjoy his little photo shoot, and the next and the next.

Eyerusalem has been working on an article about comparative standards of beauty. She's snapped photos of every billboard between the here and the Zocolo and decided she wanted to take pictures of girls and women to compare the ads to the real women of Veracruz. Tables turned. I took the group to the Zocolo for their first experience of danzon, an elegant traditional form of ballroom dancing that the older generation is trying to revive. After a few loops around the square, Eyerusalem took out her camera and began approaching people to take their pictures. There were a few odd looks of confusion, not unlike what I usually feel when asked the same, but most people complied and there were lovely conversations started because it. And usually at the end, the subjects pulled out their own camera phones to take pictures with the group, but it didn't feel quite as objectifying because there was reciprocity and human connection.

Human connection. That's really the key to this whole experiment. Having taken over 200 youth abroad when I think about what moments have been the most transformative, what triumphs have stayed with me and lingered with them, its all about the times when we let our guard down and get to know another. There is something healing about our time together that I'm not yet able to articulate adequately, other than to say that I really needed this.

Last week was our week of excursions and frenetic activity. I walked everyone to the point of exhaustion, but it was worth it. In addition to language lessons, we visited the Veracruz Museum of the City, we traveled to the state capitol Xalapa and met with the Human Right's Commision. We visited the Museum of Anthropology, set on several acres of land and complete with indigenous plant life in addition to Olmec heads and an incredible replica of El Tajin. We visited the ruins of Quiahuitlzan and hiked down to the sparsely populated beach at Villa Rica before climbing up to the Quebraduras. We danced in the Zocolo, made friends with a street dancing clown, and made Jordan's wish come true by visiting the pyramids in Papantla.

This week our pace will be a little calmer. We will be spending a bit more time here in el Puerto. There will be beaches and museums, one last long bus ride to Yanga, but mostly it is a time for deeping in the writing and conducting interviews. Its time to explore the questions we have about this culture and to seek answers in the community.

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