Community service in Mexico truly memorable

Six months ago, I never imagined I would spend half my spring break sleeping in a hammock, eating jalapeño salsa for breakfast, wearing the same clothes every day and sweating under the relentless Mexican sun for nine hours a day. Now, back in Williamstown, with both finals and summer break on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the particulars of my experience in Mexico and where they leave me now. Along with four other Williams students and Rabbi Sigma Coran, I went on American Jewish World Service (AJWS)’s Alternative Spring Break trip to the Mayan village of Yaxunah. My time there taught me different ways of living, believing and handling the beauties and the vagaries of life. It was transformative, beautiful, painful, heartbreaking, breathless, expanding and everything in between. I’m now back in a very different yet comfortable environment, bearing a shifted perspective and a renewed desire to change the world.

A tiny community of 900 people, Yaxunah is located on the eastern-most fringe of the Yucatán Peninsula, surrounded by Mayan ruins and shrubby trees and sheltered by the usually blue sky of summer. The people of the village live in small thatched huts built at varying distances from the main dirt road. From the outside, the huts look quaint. Inside, they are bare of furniture, for the most part, save hammocks for every family member. Everyone speaks Mayan at home, while Spanish is learned in school. Most people support themselves through subsistence farming supplemented by the sale of traditional handicrafts. With the uncertainties of the local economy, it has become much harder for the people of Yaxunah to celebrate their cultural festivals, since the touchstones of those celebrations, the young adults, often have to leave the town to find work. Our AJWS group of 24 students and staff members from Williams, UCLA, and MIT spent five days completing a recycling center for the town. Some of us questioned its immediate usefulness in a place where 35% of children are malnourished, but one look at the empty Pepsi and Coke bottles lining the streets changed our minds.

Our life in Yaxunah, as AJWS volunteers, was marked by actions and thoughts that resonated bone-deep with all of us. After vacating our hammocks at six every morning, we ate tortillas and fresh salsa for breakfast and then trailed down the main road to the worksite. Our job was to uproot the trees in front of the recycling structure, level the surrounding ground, break boulders, weather-treat and paint the building and spread sand from a nearby quarry over the flattened land. We took incredible satisfaction in our scrapes and bruises, a thought that then made us stop and ponder what must be like to have to do this kind of work every day, like the people of Yaxunah. By the time the sky was starting to tinge pink overhead, all the children of the village would be playing in the central square, and they greeted us boisterously in Spanish as we ran onto the sand with them.

Most of the people of Yaxunah had never heard of Judaism, so I found myself explaining it a lot, as best I could, in Spanish. One of the most heart-wrenching moments of the trip came during a family visit, when the father, César, recounted his personal experience of evangelical Christianity and then broadened his remarks to include all religions. “Love is what’s important,” he said, leaning forward in the half-light of the hut, “Love, and communication of feelings and knowledge to others.” For all the incredibly beautiful and simple moments that found me in Mexico, there were complex, painful ones as well, which exposed the struggles beneath the joy the people exude.

A visit to the village’s medical clinic, with its clean white walls and full shelves, left me optimistic – until I visited a woman who has been lying ill in her hammock for 25 years. While I was sitting on a hammock next to her, it started pouring rain outside. The sputtering out of the one electric bulb was followed by a crack of thunder so heavy with violent rain that part of the roof crumbled in. Almost instantaneously with the thunderclap, everyone in the room looked up at the ceiling, with dirt raining down, and laughed into the darkness. The differences among us shuffled into the dusky background, and something golden and iridescent came in their stead.

The difficulty with describing my time in Yaxunah is that nothing is easily definable in only one extreme. I learned a lot about the deep gray that stretches across experiences that once seemed black or white. There’s so much beauty in difficult conditions, yet it’s impossible to ignore the hardship even for all the shining.

As American college students in Mexico, we arrived looking to teach, in whatever sense the word goes with volunteering, and left with the certainty that we have much more to learn. The people of Yaxunah were our teachers, helping us to examine and reaffirm the presence of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or improving the world, in our lives.