This post is from Social Work in a Latin American Context student, Amy Theurer.
Hello all, my name is Amy!
Mexico is a beautiful place with interesting music, museums, and tourist attractions everywhere you look! Nonetheless, it doesn’t take very long for a person to realize that the sidewalks, roads and attractions in Cuernavaca aren’t made with the elderly or people with disabilities in mind. So, I will be writing about this issue that is very close to my heart.
In Cuernavaca especially the sidewalks are very uneven, have frequent random steps, and are usually going up or down a hill. I’ve seen few ramps and all the buses I’ve been on don’t have accessibility for individuals with wheelchairs. The Social Work study abroad program students had a woman named Araceli Vallejo from the Morelos Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF) come and talk to us the other week. I asked a few questions about how the DIF helps individuals with disabilities and she answered by saying that they donate things such as wheelchairs, glasses, and canes. She also said that the DIF does their research to see what the family really can’t pay for and if the DIF can’t help them out with their specific needs, they connect them to other organizations that can. Araceli talked about how there is an organization in Cuernavaca that is really concerned about people with disabilities because Cuernavaca just doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate for their needs, but that things are getting better. Therefore, in some places, ramps are being installed and there is now two buses that have the capacity to pick up individuals in wheelchairs. So, progress is being made.
It would probably be good to mention that, back home, I’m a Personal Care Assistant (PCA) for kids with special needs and here in Mexico my internship is at an organization called Con Nosotros. Con Nosotros helps individuals with cerebral palsy learn to be more independent and find new pathways to movements. This organization doesn’t believe in saying that these people have disabilities, they’re just differently able, but perfectly capable of living productive lives. This organization also believes that society is what disables these individuals and gives them the label of being disabled. After seeing how these kids need to get around, it would be very difficult in Cuernavaca. So, I’m wondering if they really get to go many places. Since they don’t have many options to get around people are missing out on all the beautiful things Mexico has to offer!
As future social workers how could we advocate for clients who need different ways of getting around? Or what changes could we assist in making to help people of the community see that adding ramps, etc. would be beneficial and not a hassle? Answer these questions and share your thoughts with us on Facebook, where this post is linked up for conversation1
The students and I were able to spend a wonderful week in Amatlán de Quetzalcoatl. Through living in homestays, visiting local organizations, listening to the experiences of local people, and participating in natural healing and spiritual ceremonies, we were able to learn more about aspects of rural life in Mexico. The one thing that I purposefully kept in mind through the whole week was the concept of “multiple truths.” That is, I wanted to engage in every experience by not looking for what was “wrong” or “right,” or not judging or thinking which ideas or beliefs were more “logical” through my lens and perspectives. Instead, I hoped to realize that there are many truths, cultures, and beliefs, so that I could truly appreciate someone’s story. I cannot compare someone’s story, culture, and beliefs to mine or discredit them based on my different beliefs. I personally think that, as social workers and future social workers, we need to engage with clients while acknowledging that there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to beliefs, ideas, and actions – just different truths.
The students and I experienced a clash of beliefs when we visited a primary school in Amatlán. One of these experiences was meeting the special needs teacher of the school. She expressed to us that part of her job was debunking the “myths” these children had been culturally and traditionally taught. These “myths” included being healed with a traditional healing ceremony called a “limpia” and the belief in fairies. According to her, people could not be healed with a traditional healing ceremony called a “limpia” and fairies could not exist because one cannot touch them. Her thought was, “what you cannot touch, does not exist.” She went on to state that it is important to debunk these “myths” because if she did not, the children would then need to see a psychiatrist once they got to adulthood. Her statements left me with the following questions and thoughts. When is it – if ever – our role as social workers to debunk someone’s traditions and beliefs? Can you respect someone’s beliefs while not truly thinking that they could be real or work? For example, if a client comes to us with signs of depression, but believes that this depression could be caused from negative energy or bad spirits, and therefore believes that it could be healed with natural or traditional ways of healing, is it my responsibility to believe that their means of healing may result in curing the depression? Or, is it my responsibility as a social worker to go with my western way of thought and schooling and refer them to a mental health provider?
Readers, do you have thoughts on these questions? Please post in the comments on our Facebook page.
This post comes from Brittney Westgard, intern and teacher’s assist for CGEE’s Social Work study abroad program in Mexico.
My own study abroad semester with CGEE in Cuernavaca, Mexico was a life changing experience, so when I was offered opportunity to become the teacher’s assistant for the current Social Work professor, I knew that it was something I could not pass up. I graduated from Augsburg in 2014 with a social work degree. I was excited to take the position as a TA since I have hopes of one day becoming a professor and knew this experience would give me insight. And let’s be honest – who would pass up the chance to spend another semester in Cuernavaca with such an amazing program?
We have a great group of social work students with us this semester! Their diverse experiences, backgrounds, and passions have helped to create an engaging environment where we can all learn and grow. The group is made up of students from St. Cloud University, the University of St. Thomas, and Augsburg College.
I am looking forward to all that this semester holds for both the students and I. I also look forward to having you follow our journey through our weekly blogs based on experiences in Mexico. The blogs will be written by one of our social work students or me. We want this to be an open dialogue so we encourage you to post comments and questions over on our Facebook page – we’ll see you there!
As someone is on the outside looking in, it was jaw dropping to see the amount that the social work students have changed from the first days until the last week of instruction.
The last week of the CGE program was a blend between appreciation for the gifts of Mexico, excitement for the warmth of home, and sadness in leaving the bonds that have been created south of the border. As part of the staff here at CGE, I was most excited to see the social work students´ final projects because the projects demonstrate not only what the students have learned, but what has touched their lives the most through their experience here. I was truly moved to see the way that the students were affected here.
Two of the social work students, Emily and Kayla, performed spoken word pieces that brought everyone to tears. Emily Uecker performed a piece on sexism and women´s empowerment in Mexico that touched on multiple issues that affect women including machismo, cat calling, empowerment through the household, barriers to education, and sexual violence. Emily masterfully used language to give voice to all of the speakers who taught us about gender and sexuality and she also recognized the women that spoke to her everyday at home. Kayla Wolff also performed an impressive spoken word piece about immigration and the perception Americans have on those who move to America from Mexico. Her piece was jam-packed with historical information about US-Mexico relations, personal experiences that have touched her, and gut emotions that she feels in seeing the way Americans treat those from Mexico. Laura Aguas and Amy Amsler similarly gave presentations from the heart, speaking about the range of emotions that they experienced while studying here for months, which they accompanied with art pieces that materialized what they learned. Laura Holdrege and Katie Lovrien created informative PowerPoints about social work in Mexico and the US that will be used to educate social work students in the future. The whole room was left feeling a stir of emotions as we all connected with the student´s words and their experiences.
As a final wrap up activity, all the students conducted their final lab group exercises and enjoyed a goodbye barbeque at the house of Ann, the program director. The group shared what they thought reverse culture shock would be like, giving each other tips about how to handle certain sticky situations. We also wrote down positive things about each other as a group which put a smile on everyone´s face . The students enjoyed their final moments as a group sharing ideas, savoring good food, and even holding a water fight. As someone who interacts with the students in a more administrative sense, to see the intellectual and personal change from the beginning to their final projects was inspiring. I feel honored to have a been a part of the social workers´ journey of learning and I wish them all a life full of new experiences that can allow them to continue to be life-long learners.
-Amaris Montes, CGE Volunteer
A few weeks ago, we received a speaker from the National Institute of Public Health. This institute exists on both a state and federal level in Mexico. Their mission is to provide information to the public so they are able to make better health decisions. To work toward this mission the National Institute of Public Health works in schools, with women and children, as well as doing community work.
One topic Sandra spoke about that was very interesting to me was the complexity of the health care system in Mexico. I was able to see this complexity reflected when we visited Amatlan earlier in the semester. This rural area often does not have doctors on site and patients must travel a long distance during a medical emergency. Also, the doctors that are present in this community may be lacking in culturally competency which is important when working with this community . Another piece of the Mexican health care system that I believe greatly impacts this community is the use of natural medicine. Although alternative and traditional types of medicine are widely used, especially in communities like Amatlan, they are not covered by health insurance.
What I also found interesting was to learn about the different levels of care that impact access to medical services. Many people who work in the informal economy here in México cannot receive medical attention because they lack even the most basic form of medical insurance provided by the government, Seguro Popular. I believe this relates to Amatlan, because there are many people who live off the informal economy there. However, there is health care for individuals who work within the formal sector such as IMSS, ISSS and IEST. This type of insurance gives these individuals better access to health services such as doctors and hospitals.
I have learned many things about the National Institute of Public Health and access to health care throughout this semester. I was able to reflect upon the many issues that affect rural Mexico. Also, I was able to reflect upon the different levels of medical care that are in Mexico, and how this medical care is different for people who work in the informal and informal economy.
Do you believe there are differences between the healthcare provided within rural areas and urban areas in the United States? If so what are they? How do you think they affect people who live in these areas?
Alyssa Biddle (student)
Several weeks ago, the social work students in Cuernavaca visited the Centro de Integracion Juvenil also called the CIJ. This organization was established in the year of 1969 in Mexico City to provide treatment and prevention to young adults who have drug and substance addictions. The organization has served approximately 89,000 people who have suffered from addictions. The CIJ we visited has a team of one doctor, eight medics, five psychologists, and two social workers. We learned a lot more about the role of social workers in Mexico through this visit.
The main responsibility of the social worker is to look at the patient and their environment. Most of the teens CIJ works with live with their families. Contrary to what many of us thought, most clients are voluntary. Social workers at CIJ work a great deal with families to help them support the individual who is receiving services. Although family support is crucial, we were surprised to hear that for safety reasons, social workers do not make home visits. As we have learned, safety is a first priority, but I believe home visits can be extremely beneficial. Termination, a very important stage in the therapy process, is also conducted by the social worker. This process happens when school, work, family are not chaotic and also when the individual has learned how to become self-sufficient.
Social workers also play a key role by developing and implementing a variety of workshops. These are put in place to help the individual with their addictions. Prevention workshops are also an important part of the CIJ. These are held at schools and include topics relating to addiction, violence prevention and developing self-care skills. The social workers´ role is very important to the success seen at CIJ.
The visit to the Centro de Integracion Juvenil was very eye opening and rewarding experience. We found out a lot more about what services are offered in Mexico as well as how individuals are being helped. What similarities and differences do you see between the CIJ and organizations you are familiar with?
Something that I found very interesting was that the organization believes that it is not necessary for an individual that is being served to give up their addiction entirely but rather the vital goal is to lower the dosage of the drug. What are some possible benefits and harms this policy have?
-Simone (social work student)
Not every learning experience happens inside a classroom. Our group has now been in Mexico for over two months, and we have enjoyed countless opportunities to learn from not just our classes, but from a wide range of speakers and visits. We have spoken with social workers in several settings, several representatives of government social welfare programs, and community leaders and organizers from Cuernavaca, Amatlan, and Tlamacazapa. All of these speakers have been our teachers; their unique experiences and insights from the work they have done in their communities helps us, as social work students, to reflect on the many different ways to work toward positive change.
With all of these rich experiences, it has also been very important that we take the time to reflect on what we have been learning. On Wednesday, the social work students, as well as our professor, Hillary, and our TA, Stephanie, went to the Zócalo together. We first split up, finding our own spots around the Zócalo to observe our surroundings and reflect on our experiences by ourselves. Then, we met together to debrief at a café and talk about the various “lenses” through which we see the world, including the lenses of race, class, and gender. We also talked about what lenses we must put on when working with clients – for example, the strength-based perspective, cultural responsiveness, and understanding of how oppression impacts the delivery of services.
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote in Pedogogy of the Oppressed that education has the potential to become “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” This sort of education is necessary for us as future social work professionals so that we are prepared to partner with clients and communities in order to work together toward meaningful and lasting change. I think that an important part of this education is to recognize how our “lenses” impact us. When working with clients, through what other lenses must we look? What lenses do we not even realize we are wearing, and how does this affect how we work with clients?
I admire the resilience and strengths the community of Tlamacazapa, Guerrero, have developed. Despite the fact they do not have resources they need to build a stronger source of income or access to purified water, they have an outstanding determination to provide for their families. The women of the town hold powerful positions because they often take the role of a mother, daughter, domestic worker, and basket weaver. The reason we had the opportunity to visit Tlamacazapa was thanks to Xochitl Ramirez, a leader of Atzin, a non-governmental community development organization. Xochitl was kind enough to provide us with an informational talk about Atzin’s impact on the community and how the community has changed. However, as Xochitl stated, a talk was not sufficient to gain a wider perspective of Tlamacazapa’s situation. When we reached Tlamacazapa, we received a warm welcome from all of the community organizers, who are all women from a wide range of ages. They introduced themselves and their roles in Atzin. Most of the community organizers were part of the kitchen staff, special education program or elementary school preparatory program. I am amazed at the fact Atzin has done a wonderful job encouraging women to become involved at such a young age because these girls serve as role models for their peers and mothers, who can access the adult literacy programs also offered by the organization. Aside from Atzin’s wonderful work in empowering people to transform themselves and others, the willingness of the community to pull through difficulties is astonishing. Residents carry 20-50 liters of water almost daily, from the well to their homes and wait long hours when water is scarce. In a house visit, I encountered a male who had suffered an incident and lost both of his legs. Nevertheless, he began basket weaving to substitute his job of exporting products to larger cities. It is important to acknowledge the impact globalization, poverty and patriarchy has on Tlamacazapa – as long as we put forward the peoples’ effort to regain hope.