La ultima noche

Last night we met up with my friend Pablo, who started an NGO called Ciclo Reciclaje Residencial.  It was really inspiring to learn about his dedication to improving the poverty and violence in Mexico by working with students on recycling projects, thereby teaching them how to be self-starters.  I realized the uniqueness of the MIT startup culture, where people have the self-confidence in their skills to create new businesses and opportunities.

The mentality of a lot of Mexico is that the government should create jobs and give handouts to people.  Pablo sees that many people with skills to create their own companies, such as environmental engineering and business, don’t realize their potential and as a result, there is major unemployment throughout the country.  By working with the younger generation, Pablo is trying to expand their horizons.

In many towns such as Chiteje, there are three main jobs: construction, growing crops, and illegally immigrating to the US to work in the fields.  By teaching students critical and creative thinking skills and other potential fields of employment, hopefully the new generation can improve the current economic state of Mexico.

We are leaving tomorrow morning, and I will truly miss this country.  I learned so much over the past few weeks and hope to be back again soon.  Adios!!


Fin de Semana – Que Ocupada

Campaigns, family interviews, painting the greenhouse, buying materials and buying and carrying a 10×8 meter piece of plastic. To say this weekend was busy would be an understatement. On Friday we decided to add a community survey part to our own greenhouse and health-oriented evaluation: this meant interviewing as many families as we could outside of the greenhouse owning ones. Our questions were mostly centered on their vegetable-eating habits, if they had enough water and whether they would be interested in classes to learn more about growing vegetables.

Though Paula’s covering most of Saturday, I’ll fill in a little of my own adventures – since Paula and Judy went to Amealco and just caught the beginning of the campaign in Chiteje – and go on to Sunday and Monday as swiftly as I can. Although… we got a lot of walking done those three days, but not as much running (kind of hard in jeans, high elevation, and > eighty degree Fahrenheit weather), so I’m out of practice when it comes to speed… I’ll do the best I can.

Saturday – POV Marcela

Paula and Judy went off to Amealco for Internet and supplies in the morning, after checking to see that Francisco and Carlos (the soldering guy) had started work on the greenhouse at 8am. That morning Emma had told us there was a town meeting at 2 that we should attend, so they planned to come back by then.

I visited Petra’s store first, and wrote down vegetable prices, bread prices, even Coca Cola prices. Then I did my first community interview with the family I had originally (earlier) mistaken for Petra’s. They were so nice and welcoming; they even gave me a full cup of a (pink) banana smoothie. It was AMAZING. I had to stay a bit longer just to finish the glass.

I then went down the hill, past Maria Romalda’s house and to the end of her road, trying to reach the furthest families and work my way up. There were two small girls at the furthest house, but when I asked where their parents were their answer was ‘In Amealco’. Surprised, I continued on, but reached the opposite gate of their house where their dad greeted me. He was there – phew! He talked at length about how he had gone through a drug rehabilitation program and received help from the government to raise his (eight) kids, how there wasn’t enough water because he was growing trees, etc. His story was definitely interesting. I hit two more families next door, one of which had an adult dependent and was also low on water, but the woman I interviewed kept thanking me for coming to visit and listen to them.

It was getting past noon, so I went up and checked on Francisco and Carlos before getting lunch at Emma’s. I did eight more families up near Emma’s house before meeting Judy and Paula for… the event…

That turned out to be a political campaign! For none other than the PAN party! Judy and Paula left before 3 because the actual campaigning (political platforms, ‘platicas’, etc.) were not going to happen soon – the announcer was busy injecting excitement into the crowd with music, campaign songs, and even a CLOWN! They also thought the candidates weren’t there and had only sent their representatives, but I soon found out otherwise. Gil Garcia and Rosendo Anaya, candidates for the municipality of Amealco, were there!

(Pictures of the event will be up soon!)

Their party had been the only ones to talk to our group about getting the government involved in the greenhouse project. But we don’t know THAT much about Mexican politics now (PAN is apparently very conservative, we learned later?) so this isn’t a big political endorsement for them or anything. I was mostly waiting for the free food anyway. Only took two hours of waiting and one hour of talks…

Oh and Petra was there too, she tried to buy me ice cream.

It was too early for me then, but afterwards someone else gave me these almond flavored ice-type one that was OUT OF THIS WORLD. Banana smoothies + tacos with potatos and frijoles + good helados = happy Marcela.


We met Francisco and Carlos at the secondary school bright and early at 8am. They were finishing the soldering, and said we could return at 2pm to start painting the greenhouse. Judy planned to take the next bus to Amealco to do a test required for her research project at MIT before the deadline. Paula, Judy for the time left before the bus arrived, and I continued interviewing families. My first ‘family’ was an elderly man living by himself that in lieu of vegetables wanted to talk about his family, his Episcopalian temple, and his other native language, but he was friendly.

I managed to find three more real families. They seemed interested in the idea of lessons and told me that they were interested in things like help buying seeds. After that last family though, Paula found me and voted that we go back for the morning. She had tried to interview a man who had given her a sermon of how Sunday was the holy day of rest and how it was not right to disturb people on this of all days of the week. We played it safe and spent the rest of the morning translating interviews and working with our data.

Judy returned at about 1:30 and met us at 2 at the secondary school. The soldering was practically finished, but there was still some work for Carlos and Francisco to do. It wasn’t until about 4:30 that Francisco said the greenhouse was ready to paint. Most of the greenhouses from last summer hadn’t been painted, but painting wasn’t just for appearance; it would help keep our metal from rusting prematurely, allowing it to last years longer. We needed to get the primer on that Sunday, so we could get one layer of paint on Monday, and then put the plastic on Tuesday before leaving Wednesday.

As the shortest of our short group, I took the tall ladder where I could paint the metal rods at the very top of the greenhouse. Due to needing to move the ladder and make sure I had reached every spot, the others finished before me. They went ahead to do more interviews, while I wrapped up the painting and Francisco finished up some drilling. We got back at 8pm for a much-needed dinner and some data uploading – we had finished up with 49 non-greenhouse family interviews! – but I for one dropped out not long after my shower after 10pm.


Morning: it was time for getting up bright and early to get our layer of paint on the greenhouse. I happened to be the lucky one that dropped the paint can from my tall ladder, resulting in a ladder and my self being covered in paint. And this was just before catching the bus to Amealco, nicely decorated with white paint from hair to shoe, to finish job applications and buy plastic and wood with Paula. It took me from 12-2 to get my recommender’s letter and send out my application, and then until 4 to order our greenhouse plastic to take with us, and the wood for shelves for the greenhouse for delivery. We were in such a rush that Paula ordered a gordita and left it sitting on the grill to run and pay for the plastic.

The major finish: wrapping the greenhouse with plastic, attaching the plastic and windows, and putting on Velcro to help people close the windows, all with the help of hopefully enough willing students – would begin on Tuesday. Followed up by a nice, relaxing art class!

Mini Reflection – as if this post wasn’t long enough –

I’m finishing this blog post from home in New York City, but have to say that every moment in Mexico was worth it ten times over. The weekend I blogged about was full of activity, stressful and fast at times, but we got to know the community a bit better (and finish our greenhouse!) as a result.

It’s activities like these, and the smiles of the children that helped us; the ones that watched us build from just outside their classrooms; the families that thanked us for coming all the way to their houses and asking for their stories – that renew my faith in our ability to make a difference, even just a start.

The key to any international development project is empowerment: giving people the tools, the opportunities, to improve their own lives, and eventually stepping aside and letting them take the lead. Some challenges are outside of our scope to handle, but we worked every day we were there on what we were equipped to help with – families growing and consuming vegetables, us working with children a little, etc. We’re learning many lessons from our evaluations, as well as our personal experiences. In terms of the personal lessons, I don’t plan to forget a single one.

Parades and Party Politics

On Thursday, we went into Amealco to buy some supplies.  On my way to the store, I ran into a religious parade in the streets!  All roads in the city center essentially closed, and the police lined the main road to protect the crowd.

Religion at MIT pales in comparison to the prevalence of Catholicism and Christianity here; in fact, the main songs throughout the parade were about god, saints, and their protection over Mexico.  Clearly, the separation of church in state, regarded so important in the United States, is less distinct.

The most interesting thing about the parade was the diversity of Mexicans that came together—older women in traditional clothing, men in straw hats, younger mothers carrying their children.  Despite generational gaps, the emphasis on religion and culture was a constant.

Friday was our first day of greenhouse construction with the students!

The next day, a major presidential candidate for the municipality of Amealco, in which Chiteje de Garabato is located, visited the community. The campaign event included clowns, free food and ice cream, and jingles containing the candidates’ names.  The better part of the village came out for the afternoon, typifying democratic politics that actively engage community members.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that the celebratory spirit of the event was masking the major community issues—high unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse—just as did Roman “Bread and Circus.”  While “Gil” promised to improve these community problems during his term, I wondered how much progress would actually be accomplished, and how much power he actually had to transform the community.  At the same time, I am glad that he acknowledges the necessity to tackle these issues and hope that, through joint initiatives between government, NGOs, and community members, that positive changes will occur in Chiteje over the next term.

The Search for Terrimas


Being of Chinese descent means I get a lot of weird looks around here. Whether it’s the inquisitive looks of students running around in Amealco, or the policemen whose gazes stay focused for just a second too long to be casual, it’s pretty clear that they know I’m a foreigner. But, despite the inevitable fact that I’ll never quite ‘fit in’, I’ve still always felt very welcome here in Mexico. The storekeepers never make me feel silly for conjugating verbs wrong, and the bus driver never rushes me while I hold up the line while counting pesos. But yesterday, for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel odd and slightly out of place.

Paula and I were looking for terrimas. These were discarded pieces of wood that we wanted to use to build shelves with for the greenhouse. While we knew these could be purchased in the city, we had no idea where and so had to rely on the residents’ directions.  Every person we asked, looked back at us, raised an eyebrow and said ‘terrimas?’ with a slight hint of laughter in their words. We must have said it wrong. Why would two foreign girls be looking for used pieces of wood?

Well, despite their incredulity, they pointed us to the madereria where we finally found the men who could sell us terrimas. It was no surprise that these store keepers also looked at us sort of funny when we stated what we were looking for. Our case was not made much better after posing for these pictures with hammers. As Paula and I left the store, we couldn’t help but laugh at what must have gone through these people’s heads while we were at the store!

It was around this same time that we decided to come up with a solution for the windows. From the interviews we conducted, it seemed like the general consensus was that the windows either needed to be moved up, or there needed to be a easier way of opening them. Since the former involves altering the structure of the greenhouses, we decided to come up with a better and more secure design for the windows.

We used a bit of extra plastic cut from Emma’s greenhouse and tested the strength of silicon glue and Velcro. Although it sounds silly, I had a lot of fun trying to imitate  nature’s forces (wind) by waving the pieces of plastic with velcro around. But the basic conclusion was that Velcro on plastic should be a viable option for closing the windows. As for keeping the windows open, a simple combination of clothes clips and a rope should be the best solution.

I’m really excited to put our new greenhouse design to use. It solves a lot of the issues we had with the phase 1 greenhouses. I can’t wait to see the final result!

¿’Este’ o ‘sembre’?

After an exercise-filled Sunday, we spent most of our Monday and Tuesday indoors, at internet cafes and at Emma’s house, as a break from exploring the town and to finish the following:

– Ordering materials for our greenhouse Monday morning with Francisco

– Transcribing our twelve video interviews into written Spanish

– Translating the Spanish transcriptions into English

So as not to bore you with all of the routine, or close to ‘desk work’ if you will, I’ll give you a play-by-play, starting Sunday night:

At the end of a day spent walking through ‘milpas’ (fields) with Francisco, after walking up and down a rocky hill four times in search of Petra, one of our greenhouse owners and the wife of a soldadero (someone trained to solder materials), returning early one of those times to try to avoid a rainstorm that lasted five minutes, and finding out around 7pm that the house we had been visiting each time looking for Petra was not Petra’s house, we finally found Petra’s store not far from that house. We interviewed her, and received a tour of her beautiful greenhouse and backyard:

As dusk set, we could see a part of a rainbow descending from the clouds in its magenta glory. Soon the only lights were from houses, soft orange street lamps, and vivid cracks of white from a thunderstorm too far to be heard, but close enough to watch each time it cleaved the dark sky. Our iPhones could not capture the moments of lightning we witnessed, when the background light was too sparse, but trust me when I say it was a trek not to be missed.

I think we all slept pretty well that night, but we did have to rise early and take the 8am bus to Amealco to buy construction materials with our construction expert, Francisco! With our materials, Francisco planning to set our concrete at Friday at 8am, and students available to put the greenhouse together Monday and Tuesday at 8am, it’s all coming together!

After all that, we got a bit of a rest (in the physical sense) the rest of Monday and Tuesday. I don’t want to bore you with the details of transcribing Spanish spoken at 150 words per minute and the art of separating ‘este’s from ‘sembre’s, so I’ll end with a walking tour of Amealco, with pictures taken from my mini excursion on Monday from the bus station to the square, past the square, back to the bus station, and back past the square in search of an open internet cafe:

Los dos Hippolitos

On Saturday morning, we stopped by Don Hippolito’s to conduct a greenhouse interview, but no one was home.  Dona Sofia came by and explained to us that Hippolito had two houses and that he would be at his other house in the late afternoon.

So instead, we decided to sit down with Dona Sofia and learn more about the community. She mentioned that the students wanted to paint and play music, things that aren’t currently taught at school.  Growing up, extracurricular activities were things that my parents encouraged me to get involved in.  I had the privilege of growing up with dance and music,  disciplines that were, in some sense, a given.   Sofia’s emphasis on music and art in Chiteje really showed me the importance of having an outlet for expression—something that a lot of kids here grow up without.

When we stopped by the tienda to get some water, Eduardo had some more Otomi history for us.  He explained Otomi as a mix of Aztec and Mayan cultures.  Similarly to so many cultures today, it was becoming more misplaced and confused through every generation.  Though Eduardo made an active effort to learn Otomi, most of the current generation can neither speak nor understand the language. Here are some words we learned:

Huexolot – bird

Tlaloc – Rain God

Xochitl – flower

Coatlicue – God of the Aztecs

Huitzilopochtli – Warrior God and Protector of the Aztecs

We thanked Eduardo for the Otomi lesson and asked for directions to Hippolito’s house—the house at the third post on the left.  When we got to Hippolito’s, we called out his name, but there was no answer. Since it didn’t seem like anyone was home, we asked others on the street if this was, in fact, Hippolito’s home. Eventually, an old man came outside.  But when we described our greenhouse project, he seemed quite confused. No matter what we said, he just didn’t quite seem to understand what we were asking. We were so confused too. How could this man be the one that was given a greenhouse? Thankfully, due to the aid of his daughter, we were relieved to find out that after all this time, we had the wrong Hippolito.  She kindly pointed us in the direction of  the other Hiopolito’s home, and we continued on our way. But, when we got to Hippolito’s other home, we learned, in fact, that he was at his other house. By this time, we were too tired to be frustrated and instead found the whole situation hysterically funny. Melissa had told us that Don Hippolito would be hard to find, but we didn’t understand just how difficult it would be.

On Sunday morning breakfast was accompanied by ear-bursting Metallica music, a distinct change from the banda music we heard during the week.  Somehow the culture of “nonconformistas” that Eduardo described to us seemed out of place among the rolling hills and cornfields.

Later that morning, we met with Francisco about the greenhouse construction at the school.  We went over our construction plans, and then Francisco offered to show us his crop of cempasúchil, an orange flower used for coloring clothes and food.  Francisco used to grow corn.  When I asked him why he decided to start growing cempasúchil, he mentioned “Es una empresa,” “it’s a business.”  The transformation from corn to cempasúchil symbolizes a shift from tradition to international industrial influences.  The freedom of the fields contrasts the greater influence of the international agricultural business.

I have incredible respect for Francisco’s dedication to improve his life and that of his family.  Not only does he work his fields of cempasúchil, he also has a regular job in construction, tends a greenhouse, and runs a part-time plumbing business!

In the afternoon, the sky erupted into a lightning storm.  While Judy, Marcela, and I decided to work inside for a while, little girls continued to play as if the lightning was nothing out of the ordinary.  Later, the moon rose a deep yellow.  The light show seemed to signify something beautiful and mysterious, yet here, was a normal part of everyday life.

I’m excited to see what tomorrow brings, when we head to Amealco to pick up greenhouse supplies!  Hasta luego!

And then there were three…

Hey there, Melissa here writing from Mexico City!  This morning, I officially left Garabato for what may sadly be the last time…  After a three-hour bus ride from Amealco, during which I underwent great internal debate between catching up on sleep and watching the (Spanish) en-route movie, Space Chimps (SPACE Chimps!), I arrived safely in Mexico City and grabbed a cab to the hostel.  Which I promptly left in order to officially return to civilization (AKA Starbucks) and internet.  And now, updates!

After arriving in Garabato, we developed three project goals:

1) Conducting interviews of greenhouse owners and evaluating the success of the original fourteen greenhouses constructed in summer 2011

2) The construction of a greenhouse at the secondary school

3) Conducting a community analysis by interviewing citizens – for example, the local doctor, mayor, priest, policeman, shopkeepers, students, etc.

After arriving in Chitejé Tuesday, we immediately hit the ground running and interviewed both Francisco and Sofía, who own two of our most successful greenhouses.  Francisco is our unusual case – he redesigned his own greenhouse, making it 4m x 6m instead of the traditional 3m x 6m and increasing the height by about 0.5m.  He is also the only greenhouse owner to grow for profit and has a very impressive variety of flowers filling the interior.  The amount of thought and planning he put into the redesign is evident by the quality of the construction and structural stability of the greenhouse.  Because of the strength of the construction and design as well as his contacts regarding material acquisition, we asked Francisco to consult on the design and implementation of the secondaría greenhouse.

Wednesday we took a bumpy bus ride into Amealco, where we bought fruit and I treated myself to one of my favorite strawberry, guava, banana, and (lots of) chocolate smoothies from the juice man at the market.  The fact that he remembered me from both last summer and January is either a testament to how much I love those smoothies or to just how few foreigners pass through Amealco. (Or perhaps both…)

More importantly, we were able to stop at an Internet café to print off Gaby’s drawings for the updated greenhouse design.  Another bus ride over cobblestone mountain roads later, we returned to Garabato and conducted interviews with Doña Emma and Rosalba.

Thursday, we all sat down to brainstorm and rework the greenhouse design.  We plan to base our model off Gaby’s plans, but to tweak the design to make it both slightly larger with simpler connections.  It sounds relatively simple when we say, “We’re building a greenhouse”; however, it can actually get rather complicated.  For example, here are some lessons learned from the original construction:

  • Buying ½” screws when you actually need ¾” screws results in another trip to Amealco.
  • Realizing that regular screws are almost impossible to put into hardened steel and that there exist self-drilling screws that are sharper results in another trip to Amealco.
  • Buying self-drilling screws and realizing you need a special type of drill bit otherwise the magic self-drilling screws won’t be doing any screwing at all results in another trip to Amealco. For a drill bit.
  • Realizing that screwing steel together is actually ridiculously slow and oh wait, there’s a man in Chitejé who has welding equipment which will actually work better and faster but he needs welding rods so let’s scrap the self-drilling screws and go buy some welding rods… results in another trip to Amealco.  For a box of metal sticks.

In case you lost track, that’s four separate trips into town for a grand total of eight hours of bumpy mountain road because we bought the wrong screws.

Now that you have an idea of what goes into the design, some other things we needed to consider: material cost and transportation, door placement, window design, how to attach the PVC arches to the steel support structure, ways to origami the plastic into the C-channel steel without making the greenhouse look like it’s wearing a lumpy, semi-transparent skirt four sizes too big…

But hey, after all that, we still did pretty good last summer:


And so I have faith that we can do it again, and even better this time!  With the lessons we’ve learned from the past, and Paula, Judy, Marcela, Francisco, Gaby, Rob, students, and teachers all working together to make this project happen, I have no doubt that it will be a success.  I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the next two weeks!

So to Paula, Judy, and Marcela: I’d say good luck, but you don’t need it.  You got this!

Signing off,