By Francoise Yohalem
Volunteer Team Leader
When I agreed to lead a team of volunteers to Queretaro, Mexico, I had already traveled extensively to more “exotic” sites south of our border, mostly in Central and South America, and I relied on memories of an earlier trip to Mexico – many years before…. This recent service program experience in Mexico gave me the opportunity to re-connect and fall in love with a country that is so close to us, yet so full of surprises and riches!
Queretaro: a fascinating city of contrasts whose quaint “heart” pulses with the memories of an illustrious past still lingering in the many gorgeous colonial buildings of its historic center. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (neighboring San Miguel de Allende is a Mexican national monument) and many defining moments of Mexico’s history come to life in Queretaro’s restored mansions, monuments, and public landmarks. One can discover them along the pedestrian walkways or around the several squares adorned with fountains, statues, and carpets of flowers.
From our hotel, located right across the street from the City Museum, we were able to safely explore this compact historic center, visit many of the churches, several museums, markets, while mingling with friendly families as they enjoyed the beauty and liveliness of their public places. But Queretaro – which I found very few Americans have ever heard of – is also a fast growing, dynamic, and sophisticated metropolis of 1.5 million habitants. It boasts a new international airport and hundreds of U.S., Canadian, and European companies with modern facilities that stretch into the mountainous Heartland.
Since 1988, Global Volunteers has been teaching conversational English at UTEQ (Universidad Technologica de Queretaro), and our host there is well organized, appreciative of the volunteers’ contribution, and intent on facilitating better communications and understanding between our two cultures. English as a second language is an important subject at the University, and students who become bilingual speakers will find better jobs. Our students appreciated the opportunity, the only one they have during their time of study there, to practice the English language with native speakers.
Depending on the student’s level, we were able to engage in many interesting conversations, that turned out to be quite an eye-opener to us. Most of the recent polemic we have been exposed to at home about Mexican/US relations, has focused on poor Mexicans desperate to make it across our borders or hiding from the authorities, and how to deal with this problem. Yet, the students we interacted with (and we were told that the majority came from very poor families), were quite confident in the future of their own country and their own contribution to it. When asked where they would like to travel to, they spoke of exotic places such as Egypt… not Texas or Southern California. Most of them felt confident that they would find employment in this rapidly growing area.
In Queretaro, the contrast between the pride of the past and the pull of the future is everywhere present, yet the Mexicans we interacted with seemed to have found a comfortable balance. We definitively felt a strong sense of responsibility to the family and a commitment for the young to help their elders. Catholicism is a grounding religion for most, and the town’s beautiful churches are often filled with worshippers, yet there are many very progressive social initiatives that “push the envelope.”
We saw plays and dance performances sponsored by the city or state that were quite “unorthodox” and experimental, and exhibits that would have been censored in a City Museum here. We were impressed by the sophistication of Queretaro’s cultural scene, the variety of venues that offered high quality events – many free of charge! Our team took great advantage of this.
On a typical day, after the afternoon rest following our teaching schedule, when not eating at our hotel, we enjoyed delicious Mexican cuisine at a new restaurant, then attended a show or a concert at a nearby venue. We also could choose to watch a group of young people working on a spontaneous mural or make music, as part of a preventive state-sponsored program for “youth at risk” Or we could join local people in the main square (we especially loved the children in their pretty clothes) to enjoy Latin music, and watch elegant couples perform the traditional “Danzon.” Most of the time we were the only non-Mexicans in the crowd, but everyone was gracious and welcoming.
This year, Global Volunteers will be sending its 100th team to Mexico. We would love to have you join us!