This winter break I spent 3 weeks in Cusco, Peru, participating in a care-giving project offered through UBELONG at the Centro de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (CEDIF). CEDIF offers health and wellness programs for poor children and elderly people that live in the area of Wanchaq. The center provides children with meals, art classes, physical education, and other recreational activities that aid in their development. The center also offers the elderly meals and provides them with a space to come together every day to share stories, exercise, and work on memory games to stimulate their minds.
I chose to engage in this project for several reasons. First, as someone with Guatemalan family, I’ve always been interested in learning about indigenous communities and their space in society. I’m also very much interested in education for young children at an international level. Similarly, I felt that I wanted to do meaningful work this winter break, particularly in South America, a region I’ve never visited before, but hope to work in for some time in the future. The project in Cusco encompassed all three factors and gave me the opportunity to learn about extracurricular education as part of childhood development for poor and sometimes indigenous children in the area.
My experience was great, but definitely not what I expected. Once I arrived at CEDIF, the director communicated to me that there was more need to take care of the elderly, so I volunteered to be with them for one of my three weeks. I was a little ambivalent at first because I wanted to dive right in and play with the kids, but my main purpose was to be of assistance and learn along the way, so I agreed to meet los abuelitos. They turned out to be amazing.
While I once paid little to no attention to senior care, I now understand how important it is to take care of and appreciate this group of people. The senior folks not only taught me a lot about Quechua traditions and religion, Cusqueña culture, love, and patience, but they also shared with me how difficult it can be to navigate and feel wanted in a society that tends to overlook them. This really impacted me, so I decided to work with them for another week. I had so much fun dancing with them (to get them to exercise without them realizing), painting pictures of the surrounding natural beauty, playing memory games, and even discussing American politics compared to those of Peru.
Aside from their discontent with the visible loss of Quechua traditions, they also voiced to me their concern with the rapidly changing nature of the environment. Having grown up Quechua and from poor backgrounds, they shared their stories of running and playing in large fields of flowers and vegetables that they cultivated. They said that now all that was once land has been taken over by roads and small businesses that have been put up to attract tourists.
Something that really stood out to me while I was in Cusco was a protest I saw. I was walking towards the bus stop early in the morning one day to go work with the grandparents when I noticed what I believed was a celebration in the main plaza of the city. I saw people dressed in ornate, vibrant dresses and costumes, singing songs in what I recognized as the Quechua language. I couldn't stay, but I assumed it was just another one of the many religious celebrations people held on the streets to celebrate either Catholic saints or Quechua deities. Later that day, I asked my go-to friend from Cusco what the celebration was about, and he corrected me, stating it was a protest and not a celebration. The indigenous people of a small town in Cusco were speaking out against a Canadian mining company that had been taking over their land for the past months to create a new mining site.
This immediately reminded me of a course I took the previous semester called Comparative Labor Movements in Latin America. One of our lessons dealt with mining and its consequences on labor and indigenous communities. My experience witnessing the protest also resonated with what the grandparents had shared with me. Not only are indigenous communities being dislocated from their homes, but the environment is also changing to satisfy capitalist demands. It is difficult for me to process the circumstances that led to the protest, but I’m happy I was able to connect what I learned in the classroom to a real life experience. I hope to continue learning about the mining industry in Latin America and the initiatives being taken to support indigenous communities.
In the end, I was able to work with kids for at least a week, and I helped the kitchen staff every day in making and serving food for the kids and the elderly; I met other volunteers from all over the world with similar goals and interests of learning and making the world a better place; and I had a couple of afternoons and weekends to explore Cusco and meet some of the friendliest people. I had a wonderful experience, and I thank International Programs for supporting me through the International Travel Grant.