Experiencing the culture of Oaxaca

WORTHINGTON -- Seven area residents experienced the culture, language and history of Oaxaca, Mexico, through a Minnesota West Community and Technical College trip last month.

WORTHINGTON -- Seven area residents experienced the culture, language and history of Oaxaca, Mexico, through a Minnesota West Community and Technical College trip last month.

Connecting Cultures Through Language was a 16-day program combining three goals: learning about the Spanish language and Mexican culture, staying with Mexican families and working with the Street Children of Oaxaca, a charity focused on helping children go to school.

"Oaxaca is the second-poorest state (in Mexico)," said Le Lucht, a Spanish instructor at Minnesota West and one of the trip's organizers.

Lucht, Leann Enninga, Steve Harder, Judy Harder, Janelle McKenzie, Joan VandeKamp and Cliff Vrieze all went on the trip.

Street Children of Oaxaca began helping poor children get to school in 1984, by assisting children in obtaining tennis shoes for physical education classes, school uniforms, school shoes and even birth certificates, which many of the poorest children don't have.


Kids enrolled in the program also receive one meal a day, which is in many cases their only meal. Either the child or a family member must commit to community service in order to be enrolled in the program.

Lucht's group assisted at the Street Children headquarters and each of the seven people who headed south brought a single suitcase for the charity. The suitcases were full of clothing, school supplies collected by Minnesota West's Phi Theta Kappa group, children's athletic shoes donated by Center Sports and toothpaste and toothbrushes given by Tim Kelly's dental office.

While the seven participants were at Street Children's building, they worked in the kitchen, in the computer rooms and even read to the kids, many of whom seemed starved for attention, Lucht said.

The travelers also took Spanish lessons at Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, arriving at 8:30 a.m. and working on their language skills until the afternoon.

"Everybody's at a different language level. You take a placement test when you get there," Lucht explained. "By being immersed in the language you pick it up much faster."

Many afternoons, the group toured archaeological sites near Oaxaca. Several different cultural groups, including the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, built cities and monuments in the area, and as new cultures came and took over, they simply built on top of the previously existing cities, roads and platforms, leading to a layering of cultural artifacts clustered together.

Sometimes the differences between the building materials are visible even to the layman. At the Plaza de Tres Cultures in Mexico City, for example, the different sized cobbles in the ground and structures are easy to pick out visually, with their very different shapes and sizes.

One of the other sites the group visited was Mitla -- a series of ancient tombs, overgrown long before the Spaniards arrived to conquer the region. Because the Zapotecs knew about them but the Spaniards didn't, their destruction was averted. Only the locals themselves looted the tombs over the centuries.


"It was kind of creepy," Lucht said of the trip to Mitla. "You felt like you were Indiana Jones, because you had to crawl... and you were actually in those burial chambers."

The group also climbed the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon outside Mexico City, walked kilometers and kilometers, visited Diego Rivera's murals, the National Cathedral and the Basilica of Guadalupe. They saw the Ballet Folklorico perform dances representing each one of Mexico's states, from indigenous dances to the famous hat dance.

They ate traditional Mexican food at traditional Mexican restaurants -- and they also ate at their host families' homes.

Lucht's host family, Maria Elena and Alberto Escobedo, are a retired couple with seven children and many grandchildren of their own. The Escobedos often host students from abroad, some from America but others from Japan, Germany and other countries.

Every morning, Lucht said, she and her host family would talk about what they were going to do for the day, and every morning, Maria Elena cooked breakfasts that included fresh fruit, freshly-squeezed juice, home-made tortillas and fresh-baked bread.

The host families were all different from each other. Some, like the Escobedos, were fairly wealthy and others had more modest means.

All opened their homes and their hearts to the Americans, offering them a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will not soon be forgotten.

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