I suppose it is true what they say, “home is where the heart is,” because certainly mine is split between two places that are “home” to me. I, of course, feel most at home in Albuquerque, where I was raised and still live, where my mom is, and where I have many memories. Yet, as I sat here thinking about the idea of home, it occurred to me, there is another place in which I feel I am at “home.” That place is in Mexico, a town called Torreon in the state of Coahuila. It is there that my proverbial heart lies, there that my heart feels safe and at ease.
Mexico has always held a certain allure for me. I have always, having grown up in New Mexico, loved Mexican food. The older I got, the more I began to love the culture and music of Mexico. I had visited Juarez, Mexico as a young child, and came home dressed in a blue linen dress with hand stitched flowers my mother had bargained for in the Mercado. Oh, how I loved that dress. It came slightly below my knees and the blue was the same shade as my periwinkle crayon, and the flowers were white daisies with yellow centers. Later in my teenage years I travelled to Tijuana during a trip with the YMCA to San Diego. We were staying at a surf camp on the beach and Tijuana was a day trip. We visited shops and bargained, at the food, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Yet, it was not until the summer of 2001, a summer spent travelling abroad, that I was fortunate enough to visit Mexico again. I had spent two weeks in Ireland for a family wedding and vacation. I returned from Ireland, greeted with the news that a space had opened up in the YMCA exchange program, Mano y Mano, Sin Fronteras. Mano y Mano is a cultural exchange program sponsored by the YMCA and intended to teach participants about neighboring countries, their culture, and in essence, about themselves. I had one week separating my return home from my departure to Mexico.
I received my information, packed my bags, and was seen off by friends at the airport. This was to be my very first flight alone, my first trip alone, my first everything. I was beginning to feel frightened. What had I been thinking? I did not even speak the language, I was unsure as to how I would survive this brilliant idea. I would simply have to make due. As it was, I was flying into San Diego for a three day conference to acclimate us to the cultures we would be spending the next two months of our lives in. This particular portion of the program was called “Culture Shock,” and it was. We shared rooms in a Tijuana hotel with another person in the program from the country we were heading towards. My roommate was Alejandrina. She was stunning with long dark hair, delicate features on a tall, slender frame, and big brown eyes. Her English was perhaps only slightly better than my Spanish. Somehow, we managed to communicate though. I found this remarkable. We did not speak the same language, and yet, through our desire to get to know each other we found a way. During the three day culture shock, we played games to force us into meeting new people (there were 33 participants from Brazil, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) and how to communicate more effectively. We sat through presentations explaining what we could expect from our countries and things we should be aware of. We were given the information about our host families and workplaces. We visited the border of the United States and Mexico. We saw the great desperation in the faces of the Mexican nationals who were discovered in the tire wells of big trucks, in the glove compartments, and in other oddly intriguing places. It was desperation, not criminality, which drove them to such extremes to find a better life. It was heart wrenching to see. It was at that moment that I felt the first pangs of understanding of what they were feeling. It was the first time I had felt compassion for these people, who simply yearned for a life better than they were living.
On the final day of the Culture Shock experience, we packed our things, said Adios, to our roommates and were taken to the airports. My flight was leaving from Tijuana. I came to learn that everyone in the program, except two participants, wouldbe travelling in pairs or even in threes as the case allowed. As one would expect, as this is a thrilling tale of my life, I was one of the two participants designated to travel alone. This, I figured, was not too surprising as my life typically dictates that I will run into obstacles. Nevertheless, I moved forward, my new friends told me what to listen for (as my plane was, of course, leaving last, and if you recall, I spoke little to no Spanish) when my flight time drew near. Two by two I watched my newest safety nets pile onto airplanes and settled myself in for a little reading and an alarm on my watch for thirty minutes before my flight so I could focus on listening. As the time for my flight approached, I listened intently. Soon, it was time for my flight to be boarding; I had still heard nothing that resembled what I should be listening for. My flight time came and went; fear was rising in my chest. I had missed it, I was quite sure. Everywhere I could see people boarding, planes, exiting planes, talking rapidly, and going about their days. I summoned every ounce of confidence and nerve I had (as I am an extraordinarily shy person in new and unfamiliar situations) and began asking people if they spoke English. I found not one person who answered ‘yes.’ I was about ten seconds from calling Uriel, the director of the Mano y Mano program, when I heard it, the familiar sound of a man speaking English. He was mid conversation with someone on a cellular phone. I had never felt more relieved in my life. I rushed toward him and awaited the end of his phone call. Taking a deep breath I approached this kind faced stranger and asked, “Pardon me, sir, but do you think you could help me?”
“Certainly, sweetheart,” replied the man. He looked to be around 50 years old. “Why the scared face?”
I fought hard to keep the tears that threatened to spill down my face from doing just that. “I think I must have missed my flight, and I don’t speak Spanish,” I told him my voice now shaking.
The kind stranger put a hand on my back, took my information from my shaky hands and told me, “no worries, Mija, we are on the same flight to Torreon, and it is only delayed.” He smiled at me and there was no hint of judgment as I let slip one or two tears of sheer relief. “You stick with me, Kid, I will get you where you need to go,” he said as he led me to a grouping of chairs near a terminal. I made it to my plane with no further trauma.
As we landed I gathered my belongings, not entirely sure what to expect when I got off the plane. The airport was small, two terminals in fact, and we got on and off the planes outside. I walked across the tarmac and the words of the last participant to come here echoed in my ears. “They forgot I was coming,” she had told me, “ I sat there for two hours waiting for someone to come for me before I paid for a taxi.” My nerves returned and I do not remember breathing before I went inside. The minute I entered the building I could see it, “Bienvedidos, Sarita! Welcome, Sarah!” The sign was huge, handmade, and held by no less than six people from the YMCA. I nearly cried. I got my bags and two of the boys, Arturo and Ricardo, took them from me. Rosabi, the kind woman who ran the YMCA, hugged me fiercely and in broken English told me she would take me to the Y. I had never felt so welcome in my life.
To be continued.