You will have to forgive my disjointed, fragmented retelling of this experience. It happened four or five years ago, and at the time, I did not yet see travel for the political act that it is. I did not document it. I was just a young black woman—still a girl, in a lot of ways—on a mission with a white friend and his family and his church. I am forever grateful that he invited me to go along, because without that trip, I would still have never been outside of the United States.
Nervous About Traveling
We went to Mexico. It cost me somewhere around $265 dollars to go on the mission—and that was a hardship, but also well worth it. By the time we got in the car to drive down, I had about $35 to $40 dollars in my pocket. It ended up being more than enough to keep me fed and semi-hydrated while I was there.
We set off on the four-hour drive—my friend, his wife, mother, and son, and myself. His son, at the time, was five or six or seven—I can’t remember, but he was young. We shared the back seat together. I’d taken my current notebook with me (I always keep one on me for writing down stories and ideas). I allowed him to draw pictures in it. Then I wrote stories for his pictures and read them to him. We were taken with each other immediately.
I happen to be very good with children. Don’t worry. It’s not a digression. This fact becomes relevant later.
As we approached the border, I felt mildly nervous. My dad and I had joked about what would happen once I left the country. Maybe they wouldn’t let me back in. We were being ridiculous, of course, but I was the first in the household to leave the country, and we weren’t sure what the ramifications of traveling while black would be. I’ll admit that traveling with a white family made me feel safer.
There were no incidents at the border. They let us into Mexico, and later, they let us back out.
Arriving in Mexico
My first glimpses of Mexico were not much different than my last glimpses of Arizona. There were the same stretch of desert, the same cholla and saguaro, and the same shaggy brown mountains.
When we reached Rocky Point is when I began to register difference.
I wish now that I would have taken more pictures, but I did not take any of the city. If you search up Rocky Point, you’ll find beautiful images of resorts, beach fronts, and swimming pools. In my four days in Mexico, I never saw this part of the city. I saw the poverty that surrounded it. Shanties made of plywood, tarp, and whatever else the people could find for shelter. Abandoned buildings. Piles of trash. So many stray dogs. My friend and his family play a game each time they visit Mexico—not the alphabet game, but the count-the-stray-dogs game. One year they got to 56.
We stopped at a shopping mall in the city. The shop owners there were desperate and persistent. I could tell they thought I had money. I spoke enough Spanish to tell them that I didn’t, but I don’t think they believed me. I ended up buying a sombrero that didn’t even fit my head and a little set of blue maracas. I was down to about $26 dollars with four days left.
Base camp was a few miles away from the city. We set up tents, sang praise and worship songs around a campfire, and went to bed.
In the morning we set off for the outskirts of the city, to a neighborhood that was still impoverished but more developed than what I’d seen thus far. Here, some of the homes had cement floors and walls with stucco. We were going to add on to one of those homes, to double its size for the family of six that lived there.
We met the family that lived there—a mother, a grandmother, a son, and two daughters. The husband was away, working on a fishing boat. I was surprised to learn that he and his wife made about $70 a week to support their family. Suddenly, the $26 dollars I had in my pocket didn’t seem so scant.
The youngest daughter, Margarita, was four years old. We became instant friends. I don’t remember how, exactly, but I told you—I’m pretty good with kids, and she wasn’t any different than any other little kid I knew. While the men made plans for the house, I played with her. We sang songs, played with her dolls, skip-hopped. Through all of it, she was very patient with my limited Spanish (honestly, we might have been around the same level). We were just pleased to hang out together.
At some point, it became necessary for me to begin mixing cement. Margarita became my shadow. Each day I came back to her house, she ran up to me as soon as she saw me and followed me wherever I went. In the beginning, I tried to explain to her that we couldn’t hang out while I was mixing cement. I didn’t want her to breathe in the powder or get any of the wet mixture on her skin. I showed her my gloves.
She ran off, leaving me alone for about an hour. She came back with a tiny white pair of guantes of her own and a broad smile. I laughed, and with her mother’s permission, allowed her to ‘help’ me stir the cement. She stood under me, wrapped her tiny little hands around the shovel, and counted with me to veinte again and again as we pushed and pulled.
For her fifth birthday, Margarita wanted to go to Burger King. According to her mother, she’d been talking about it for weeks. I was honored to be able to go to Burger King with the two of them, while everyone back at the house moved furniture and toys into the finished house (a surprise for the mother). I spent some of my last dollars on an ice cream cone and cheeseburger and some of my last hours in Mexico kicking it with one of the coolest four-year-olds I’ve ever met.
All throughout that week, people kept telling me how special I’d made that little girl feel, how she’d remember me for the rest of her life. She might. Who knows? I have memories from when I was four and none of them were as significant as memories of building my own house. More than anything, that was what I wanted her to remember—building her own house. Margarita should be eight or nine years old now. I hope when her fingers brush against the stucco walls of her house, she’ll remember that she helped put it there. I don’t need her to remember the benevolent foreigners who came in as an act of charity. I don’t need her experience of that week to be about me. For my part, I will never forget that beautiful, sweet little girl or her family.
Travel as a Political Act
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I now view travel as a “political act.” These words were given to me by Rick Steves, an American travel writer and activist. At a conference for Global Washington (an association dedicated to promoting international development), Steves describes travel…
“…as a political act. As a way that broadens our perspectives, makes us a better citizen of the planet, [and allows us to] come back and implement new broader global awareness to be better advocates for people outside of our borders.”Steves, Global Washington 2011
He also says that:
“When we travel we humanize each other, get past the propaganda, and understand who we are.”Steves, Global Washington 2011
You can listen to his full speech here.
My trip to Mexico was definitely one of those travel experiences that broadens perspectives. For starters, it didn’t seem to matter there that I was black—not to Margarita, not to her family, not to the shop owners at the mall, and not to anyone else I encountered in the community. I think they just saw me as an American—well, United States American (why do we still not have a word for that?). It didn’t matter that I had less than $40 to my name while I was there, that I was going to go back home and be on the struggle bus until the next payday. I was a wealthy American (you know what I mean.)
Secondly, there were people in Mexico. Not just drug lords from the cartel and criminals and whatever else today’s propaganda might try to have you believe. There were honest, beautiful families there just trying to survive. And, sure, I knew that even before I went to Mexico, but at least in coming back to the U.S., I could bring evidence with me for those who didn’t know it. Steves implores us to “go and come back and share the truth.” When I show people pictures of Margarita and tell them stories of what I saw when I visited her, I will help them understand that the people on the other side of the border are as human as we are. Maybe they will see her face in the faces of the children who show up on our border seeking asylum. Maybe they will recall her story.
As Americans, we—all of us—are in the position to be agents of change. We can change the way people see people from other countries. We can help them challenge misconceptions and distorted beliefs. We can move them to compassion and encourage them to be better global citizens and good neighbors. We can do this by going away and immersing ourselves in different cultures, performing acts of kindness that are immeasurable. Then, we come home and tell the truth.