Volunteering in Mexico: My Experience Working With Niños Palabra
Last week I ventured out to Oaxaca, Mexico with Niños Palabra to volunteer. Niños Palabra or ‘Word Children’ is an organization started by my boyfriend’s aunt, Luisa Ana. The organization aims to bring music, dance, art and writing workshops to schools around Mexico. This was the second year that Niños Palabra visited Oaxaca and it has quickly become an annual venture. There were six of us who went: Luisa Ana, Arturo (my boyfriend), Karen (Arturo’s sister), Vladi and Apolo (Luisa’s friends) and myself. We spent the week leading a variety of art, dance and literary workshops in small schools throughout the area surrounding Huajuapan. Here is everything I loved about my time volunteering in Mexico with Niños Palabra.
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If you are getting ready to volunteer abroad, please make sure you do so ethically. The only reason I decided to volunteer with this organization is because the woman who runs it is my boyfriends’ aunt, and she has actual ongoing relationships with everyone she works with in Oaxaca. Everyone who volunteered was trained in either writing, linguistics, design and dance (these are the workshops we led). If you want more information on ethical volunteering, please read this article.
Vladi and Apolo are both professional dancers. Vladi is from Ecuador and specializes in multiple genres of dance. Apolo is from northern Mexico and specializes in traditional Mexican dancing. At the schools Vladi led a Contemporary Dance workshop and Apolo led a workshop on Bodily Expression. I had the opportunity to take lessons from both of them at a dance school we visited and it was super fun. As a dancer myself it was an honor to partake in classes from such talented professionals.
Volunteering in Mexico: Design Workshop
Karen is a design student and is a very talented artist. In the schools we visited she encouraged the students to tell stories with illustrations on mobiles that she taught them to construct. She was able to merge art, story and design all into one class encouraging the creativity of her students and allowing them to think outside the box.
Luisa Ana is a multi-disciplinary professional. Not only is she the head of Niños Palabra, she is also a professional dancer, a writer with multiple publications and a musician. She led some workshops at the dance schools we went to in which she got the students to really stretch to music before starting the lessons led by Vladi and Apolo. At the primary and secondary schools we visited she led workshops in which the classes put together a story and then turned the story into a song together. Some of the classes even came up with dances for their songs too. The kids loved Luisa’s classes and were captivated by her singing for them.
Volunteering in Mexico: Art and Writing Workshop
Arturo and I led a workshop together. Arturo is very musically talented but has also studied art and writing. He is currently finishing up his BSc in Computer Science. I have a BA in Anthropology and have studied art and writing as well. Our workshop was on the importance of keeping a journal. Both of us keep journals and find that they help fuel our creativity but also help significantly with our mental health and with observing our environment. With this workshop we wanted to encourage students to creatively observe their environment. Through this we also wanted to encourage them to use their journals when they are sad, excited or nervous so they can either relax, feel better or enjoy whatever it is they are excited about.
Journals Can Consist of So Much More than Writing | Art & Writing Workshop
To encourage creativity we talked about how journals don’t have to only consist of writing. For example, Frida Kahlo, Octavio Paz, Anne Frank and Thomas Edison all kept journals but they were all vastly different from one another. While Frida was painting and sketching in her journal, Octavio Paz was writing poems, Anne Frank was documenting her difficult time in hiding during the Second World War and Thomas Edison was writing formulas.
I showed the students my personal journal and explained that I love writing stories and poems but I also love painting, drawing and collaging. For the activity we got all the students to run outside and collect flowers, leaves, twigs and whatever else they could find to create journal collages. The students loved having the ability to run around outside and their collages were beautiful and unique. Lots of the younger students told me they had never done collages with plants before. Many students made collages of their homes, families and pets. Others made collages about how much they loved futbol (soccer). One boy even made a collage about how much he loved popcorn.
After this we got them to write either a poem or story to go along with their collage. We didn’t really provide rules or guidelines as we wanted to encourage lots of creativity. We only said that the poem, story or even song had to be about the collage they had made. The results were genuine, clever and creative.
Las Mujeres Poetas en El País de las Nubes
Las Mujeres Poetas en El País de las Nubes, or, Women Poets in the Country of Clouds, is a collective of talented female poets in Oaxaca. The reason Niños Palabra chose to visit Oaxaca last week was because that is when Las Mujeres Poetas were having a conference/festival. We got to listen to some wonderfully talented poets throughout our time there. Through this we were able to learn more about life and culture in Oaxaca and make connections with some of the most talented poets I’ve ever met.
Volunteering in Oaxaca: Exploring Mountains and Museums
When we weren’t listening to talented poets or giving workshops we were eating tasty local food and exploring. I am a huge fan of hiking and museum hopping and luckily we got to do both! We went on two wonderful hikes. The first was to La Peña, a mountain in San José Ayuquila. We started early in the morning and almost ran up the mountain as we were pressed for time. I turned into a puddle in the heat but it was well worth the view.
The second hike was more laid back. We went up to Cerro de las Minas in Huajuapan which is home to many beautiful Aztec ruins. It is also apparently home to multiple UFO sightings. I don’t remember the names of all the museums we went to but they were filled with beautiful pieces of art that I will never forget. It was so fun to be able to hike, explore and take in the art, culture and nature Oaxaca has to offer.
Volunteering in Mexico: Indigenous Languages
We got interviewed on the local radio a few times while we were volunteering. The second time was on our last day there and someone asked us what our favourite part of the week was and if we had any suggestions. I explained that my favourite part was making so many friends and being honored to experience Oaxacan hospitality at its’ finest. I also explained that being given the opportunity to meet people and listen to them speak in their mother languages such as Mixteco and Triki was a huge highlight for me.
As someone with a BA in Anthropology and a special interest in Linguistics it really was a dream come true to be able to listen to the languages native to Oaxaca being spoken. These languages are spoken in many households in Oaxaca but children who speak Mixteco and other indigenous languages at home often do not enjoy speaking them at school. Unfortunately among many children (and adults), speaking an indigenous language can make one seem to be in a lower class than their peers.
Thank You Oaxaca
Thank you so much to everyone in Oaxaca for your warm hospitality. Gracias, for sharing your music, poetry, culture, art and language with me. Thanks to everyone who made Oaxaca feel like a second home to me, you are all in my heart forever and I will definitely be back next year!
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