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The Lessons of Cuernavaca

Holy Cross students are being transformed among the poverty and the faith of Mexico's neediest families.

By Paul E. Kandarian

Patrick Mahoney ’00, Alexis Lyon ’00, Bishop of Tlapa Don Álejo, Andréa Canavan ’00 and Kim McElaney ’76 The idea behind the Holy Cross Mexico Program is to help students shape their own lives as they experience life in Latin America through the eyes of the poor and in light of the Gospel. The hardest part is forcing themselves not to help those they meet.

The program, which has been in existence since 1987, runs for two weeks each year. By visiting some of the poorest areas of Mexico, Holy Cross students meet, visit and talk with a variety of people, many of them impoverished. Students also encounter natives who work with the poor, such as union organizers and labor leaders. It is not a service program, however, making it unlike other volunteer opportunities at Holy Cross. And what the students learn about others will help them shape the course of their own lives, says Katherine M. (Kim) McElaney '76, director of the Office of College Chaplains.

"Kids don't leave a visit (with a poor family) feeling that they've contributed something. It's not easy to sit with a woman whose husband has left her, whose kids have no shoes, whose kids maybe have tuberculosis," she says, "and not give them money, not reach into their pockets and give what they have. But that's not what the program is about."

McElaney says she tells students, "If we go into a home and try to fix it, it's different than if we go as a guest. That's a huge piece that's important for them to understand."

She explains that students share and learn about local life for a couple of weeks and "through that experience of encountering people and sharing their stories of faith, hope and triumph, ultimately they will take that experience back home and hopefully will use it."

According to McElaney, interest in the program continues to grow. Since its inception, more than 350 students have taken part, with 35 students each year spending two weeks in and around the city of Cuernavaca. Because of its popularity, there is a waiting list to get into the program, which costs $1,400 per student. This past year, because of the demand, students had to complete an application process. As a result of this interest, a second part of the program has been developed called, Año de Solidaridad (Year of Solidarity). Founded this year, Año de Solidaridad features three-to-four students living in community and helping the poor for one year. This year's students are Stephen Ribaudo '01 and Robert Mariani '01.

In the two-week Mexico Program, students stay at a local hotel and travel daily to area villages. Michael MacDonald, secretary to the bishop in Tlapa, Mexico, oversees the arrangements on site.

According to McElaney, a typical day begins with a morning prayer, planned by the students. "It is usually a reflection of an experience they may have had the day before," she says. "In the afternoon they might visit a home where there is a dirt floor, chickens running around, open sewers. The next morning, the students might have a prayer that reflects upon their visit with the children and their mothers."

Students spend the rest of the afternoon in free time at the hotel and later in reflection groups to discuss what they've seen and heard-and felt-that morning, she says. The yearly journals, written by students and published by the program, contain the powerful thoughts and sentiments of youth touched forever by what they have seen and learned about the human condition.

"I was cursing, fuming, and feeling my gut being wrenched by what I was seeing and hearing and experiencing," one student wrote in the 1996 journal. "The people there suffered abuse at the hands of neighbors and at the hands of a nebulous and vast evil that we have forged as a society. . I was floored by the trust these people placed in God to preserve and protect them. But are we here to admire the faith of these people or to learn something about how faith can be turned into empowerment for the suffering people of Mexico?"

Such heartfelt sentiment is common among those participating in the program over the past 14 years, McElaney says.

"But the big questions are 'What does this mean to me as a Christian and a citizen of a first-world country? How will I work to change the system? How will I see my own government? How will I understand the economy?'" she says.

Although the students may not know it when they're experiencing abject poverty, McElaney says, "in most cases they've received much more than they give. There's a certain humility they get that's powerful and leaves a deep impression on them.

"They can't get off the hook," she adds. "I believe any encounter with the poor is going to be transformative."

McElaney believes that such a profound presentation of poverty can make the students feel keenly aware of their own affluence. "It does make them feel guilty," she says. "But we don't remain at that point. We invite the student to consider how they plan to use the gifts that God has given them, asking, 'Can you go back to living the way you had before?'"

In her 14 years as director, McElaney has seen the enormous effect the program has had on participants. Some become immersed in service programs. Some change their majors. And some continue with their major, tweaking or changing it in some way to utilize the lessons they learned in Mexico.

"There was one young woman-a premed student-who decided to do something with her medical degree to change the world," McElaney says. "Another student I know will go into pediatrics, rather than obstetrics-gynecology, where she could make a lot more money. The Mexico Program reoriented her."

She also recalls another former participant who went on to become a successful lawyer in Colorado and now specializes in poverty law. The list goes on and on.

Far from feeling as if they're part of an experiment, local villagers welcome the students into their homes with the good grace of hosts.

"Many of the villagers have never left the village," she says. "Some don't even know they live in Mexico; they only know they live in the village." 

McElaney explains that it's hard for students to answer questions about how they got to Mexico and how much the trip costs, because the airfare is more than most of these people will see in their whole lives. That much money is just not comprehensible to them.

Asked if the villagers understand their contribution to the program, McElaney answers, "Absolutely. And it's been my experience that there's a climate, an ethos of hospitality, that's completely different from the one in America. When we say, 'Stop in sometime,'" she says, "we don't mean it-or we mean it for the day, maybe the weekend. When these people say mi casa es su casa, they really mean it."

McElaney notes that when students visit an impoverished home with several children and perhaps two beds, they're amazed that so many people can live in a space so small; yet the hosts insist on having the students sit wherever they can-borrowing seats from neighbors if necessary-while they stand themselves.
She says that the conversation between the students and the families concern daily life, the children's education and the importance of religion in their lives.

"Then toward the end of the session, we might ask the parents about their hopes, and they'll often tell us they just hope that their children can go to school some day," McElaney says. "Their hopes are so reduced compared to the aspirations of parents in the United States who worry if their children can get into the right school, not just any school."

McElaney says that while the students' experience in Mexico is deeply moving, they worry that the passion they feel will diminish over time.

"When the students return, it's summer and a lot of them express concern that they'll lose the experience when they're working at the Gap or as a camp counselor," she says. "They want to know, 'How will I keep Mexico in my heart forever?' We spend the first few days discussing this, reflecting on Jesus' response to Peter on Mount Tabor-that they must go down the mountain because there's work to do. McElaney poses a similar challenge to the students: "The people of Mexico have been good to share their lives, so what are you going to do with it?"

She notes that the effect of the trip leaves a lasting impression on most students. And according to Kathleen Looney '01 who attended last year, it is a feeling that will never die.

"I had heard from many students at Holy Cross that the program was the best experience the College offers and that it would change you forever," Looney says. "Not even these comments could prepare me for my experience in Cuernavaca. The people I encountered taught me more in two weeks about life, family, values, love and God than I have ever learned in the classroom or read in a book."

While in Mexico, a teacher told Looney's group that when they returned home, they should be a model of what they had seen and learned.

"I think of this almost every day," Looney says. "To try and be a model of the generosity and compassionate nature of the people I met there. It was as if I could see God everywhere in Mexico, in the community, in the land, in the families, in the people's smiles and in their obvious love and dedication to each other. I have never been able to see God more clearly than when I was in Mexico."

That reaction doesn't surprise McElaney; in fact, it delights her. "I've heard from many of the students," she says, "that this is the most transformative experience of their entire Holy Cross career."

This enthusiastic response has given rise to the Year of Solidarity program. "As an increasing number of students seek out this experience and want to help," McElaney explains, "we thought it would be wonderful if Holy Cross had its own postgrad program."

Graduates who participate in the Year of Solidarity live in a poor community and may work with human rights organizations, or at a local orphanage for girls. They may also do office and pastoral work in the bishop's office, or teach at a school for special needs. She explains that additional job placements are expected as the program develops.

"It is expensive," McElaney notes. "The cost of the Mexico Program is borne by the students and also through fund raisers such as our meal auctions. The Year of Solidarity will cost much more."

But in the end, it is impossible to put a monetary value on the transformative power of this experience or on the change in consciousness the students undergo. 

For more information about the programs, alumni are encouraged to contact Kim McElaney at (508) 793-2349 or at kmcelane@holycross.edu

Paul Kandarian is a free-lance journalist from Taunton, Mass.


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