I started my gap year with a lot of doubts and likely would not have done it if not for the people around me, who pushed me to try something new. I remember feeling tremendous anxiety and also some frustration about having to push college back. However as soon as I began City Year, I stopped thinking twice. City Year, while rewarding, has been incredibly challenging. Despite several weeks of “basic training” I had little to no training about how to work in a classroom environment. Everything I learned was on the job. I didn’t know how to foster a relationship with students or my partner teacher. I was able to push through and make a challenging experience rewarding, by shifting how I looked at my life. I learned to focus entirely on the present, rather than waiting for the weekend or constantly imagining what my freshman year at Tufts would look like. This past year became like a bubble for me, I felt free to explore who I was outside the confines of an academic environment. City Year consumed me so much that there were long periods where my freshman year of college seemed as distant as it did when I first started high school.
I want to make it very clear that City Year occupying my time was not by any means a bad thing. If anything it was a great thing. As someone who is always second-guessing himself, it was vital that I enter an environment where I had to develop leadership skills on the spot. The class I supported was hectic, for lack of a better word, and my partner teacher needed someone who could be reliable and attentive. As an untrained teacher’s assistant I didn’t always make the best decisions; in fact, I know I made a lot of poor decisions. However, I’m glad I’ve learned that I can fix my mistakes when I was 19. Those mistakes were important. Without them, my relationships with my students never would have changed, and I would still be on my first lesson of Do the Math with my small group.
It’s jarring to know that this period of my life is winding to a close. As I said earlier, my freshman year of college has seemed distant, but suddenly it seems closer than ever. City Year has taken up most of my free time, and I’m excited to see what my life will be like now that I’m moving on. I have a lot of new knowledge and experience to use. But it is also going to be challenging adjusting back to a more normal teenage life. I’ve spent almost a year with total independence, living in a city all by myself and having an adult working lifestyle. On some levels, I worry about how this experience will impact college for me, but mostly I am very excited for the future.
In my life, there are few times that questions have truly stumped me and left me scrambling to formulate a clear response. The majority of these instances are linked to any question asked by TSA that turn me into a clammy, stuttering mess for absolutely no reason. Although, I suppose all the “random” security checks really did a number. However, the questions that I am referring to specifically have to do with questions pertaining to language, culture, and identity. I did not give myself the space to think about these aspects of my being and, as a result, had to rush words out of my mouth. Well, at least that was the case. My time in Hyderabad gave me the time to reflect on the questions that I never had clear answers to and also the added vocabulary to add to my repertoire.
बोलो – Bolo (Speak)
My first month I was reasonably quiet; living with new people, in a new environment, and in a new country warrants the occasional uncomfortable silence. However, there were times that I wish I would have spoken up. My host family at the beginning were under the impression that I was Mexican, i.e from Mexico. I figured it had to do with my description on my profile and clarified that I was Mexican-American. Nevertheless, they continued to introduce me as an international Mexican student who would live with them for the next 8 months. While this was all seemingly harmless, it caused me to notice the inner turmoil of the way I identify. My family could not have known that they had begun a cultural exploration that I would take home. While that is all great, looking back I would have wanted to tell myself: “बोलो”. Speak for yourself. But how could I when I didn’t even know my own truth?
चुप – Chup/Choop (Quiet)
began running through my mind that I didn’t have clear answers to: Do I have a
claim to Mexico? Can I call myself Mexican or is that disrespectful, as I have
the privileges of an American citizenship/passport? Would people of Latin
American consider me as Latina as well? What am I- चुप !! I needed time and
space away from my own thoughts to reflect. Thankfully, I had all of Hyderabad
to take up my time, until I was mistaken as Indian. My racial ambiguity had
always been a source of entertainment to see what people would come up with
next; however, at this time my racial ambiguity was a reminder how my outer
self matched my inner confusion around race and identity.
See, prior to arriving in India, I had an encounter with a Latino who had asked me where I came from after hearing me speak Spanish. Quickly becoming flustered, I began with “Well, my parents are from Mexico but I was born here in the states…” to which he responded, “Oh, so you’re not really Mexican”. My identity had just been discredited by what I considered to be a “real” Latino. My Mexican card had just been rejected. That encounter left my world crumbling and had left me in an existential crisis before my year abroad even began.
बस – Bus (Enough/Stop)
There came a point where I recognized how far away from myself I felt after constantly questioning my truth; where I allowed my desire for validation to speak for me instead of claiming myself and my story. It also helped to have a friend to tell me “बस”. Enough. Enough of the questioning. Enough. She said all the things I knew and it was up to me to believe. The perceptions that people hold about me are not a representation of what I actually am. I am not to be put in a box just because the world isn’t equipped to broaden the world of identity. Self-care and self-love require you to hold space for your own truth, even if it isn’t what the world considers to be “true”.
शुक्रिया – Shukriya (Thank you )
All I have to say to my experience is शुक्रिया. I needed this year to fully accept the answers to questions the world made of me and to start seeking questions of my own. I was fully complacent, after being awarded a scholarship to a private school, and thought that the golden ticket in my hand meant I couldn’t question what I saw around me.
I have come to realize now that a part of me was right. I have no real roots and that is okay. My family has roots to Mexico and from those, I am able to learn the wisdom and knowledge they carry. Although my roots to the United States are nonexistent, they begin with my sister and me; as well as every first-generation born person in America that will be the roots for their descendants.
Before this year I couldn’t question the intersections of race and identity or the nuances of going through this world as a literal and figurative world traveler as I couldn’t see it. My experience in both American and Mexican cultures equipped me with tools to make a wonderful year living with a wonderful family. I was able to regain my trust in my sense of self and now will not become panicked by questions regarding my identity, language, or culture. While my exposure to language and culture expanded so did my appreciation for all India has to offer the world.
you for a year where I was able to question my surroundings and also myself.
Thank you for the diversity that India has to offer.
Since coming to Brazil and working at R3 Animal , I am constantly confronted with the challenging irony that is my relationship to animals and the environment. As much as I am fascinated by wildlife (it was the first “encyclopedic passion” that I had) and fostered a great love for nature and environmental protection, the very method that I live my life states otherwise. Back in my life in the United States, I live in a house that is much larger than my family of three need (high water and electricity usage), utilize an enormous amount of single-use plastics (which take centuries to at least partially degrade), and want to engage in worldwide travel (contributing to the already large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to air-travel). It only adds another layer of complexity to add the fact I consume meat, including a good amount of red meat, one of the biggest contributors to global warming and land development. I chose Florianopolis Brazil in part to work with this remarkable organization that is deeply committed in the conservation of native wildlife, yet the way of life I have brought with me, especially what I eat, contributes to the contrary.
The very Brazilian society that I have become immersed in sends mixed messages. Even though the biodiversity and beauty of the land is a source of national pride, there lacks a consciousness and motivation to protect it. Brazil is the land of the Amazon (the world’s lungs, producing 20% of its oxygen), the Pantanal (the largest wetlands in the world), and the Mata Atlantica/Atlantic Forest ecosystem (the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the world), to name a few. Yet it is the land where it is most dangerous to be an environmentalist, especially in the frontier regions to the west, where logger barons, agricultural developers, and rogue mining companies take advantage of weak law enforcement and currently, a government that is friendly to construction rather than conservation. I have conversed with many Brazilians (not only those in Florianopolis and the South where I live, but also in the Southeast and Northeast regions from my travels) and a good many of them mentioned that Brazil should exploit more natural resources to increase national wealth. In times of economic strife and financial ruin, the environment and its protections are often the first to go. Factor in limited government spending on environmental initiatives/projects, a dysfunctional national parks system, and lack of education and awareness among the populace, and the demise of Brazil’s natural integrity looms close by.
In addition, Brazil is a land of carnivores; the diet and many classic recipes are dependent on meat. Churrasco, the Brazilian barbecue, is fundamental to social gatherings, where cutting boards of picanha (grilled sirloin cap) and linguiça (Portuguese-style pork sausage) are passed around. There are even churrasco flavored chips sold in supermarkets, which are very popular. Beef is the preferred meat of choice (in addition to being the most environmentally taxing), going to/in everything from steak, burgers (which have taken their own radical spin in Brazil), to being ground in pastel (the Brazilian-version of empanadas). Even many snacks, salgadinhos, contain meat, with among the most popular being mini-pastel (containing ground beef), coxinha (a fritter filled with shredded chicken), and misto-quente (literally a pressed ham and cheese sandwich). Although the vegetarian and vegan movements have been gaining traction in the country, for many Brazilians, a meal is not a meal without meat.
I have grown up eating meat and I love its flavor; it is something personal that is hard to give up. As I travel and learn about cultures around the world, food plays an integral role in what connects us together, crossing borders and generations. Specially here in Brazil, meat plays a crucial role in not only diet but also in social bonding. Yet, given the unique apprenticeship that I have, as well as my personal desire to be a aware and sustainable traveler, I am constantly confronted by one central question: where is the line between engaging with a nation’s culture and refusing to engage in it on the basis of moral grounds and the welfare of our planet? Culture is supposed to be perpetuated and esteemed through generations, yet what happens if the culture is literally too environmentally unsustainable to continue at our current trajectory? I am a lover of humanity and its culture, yet I am passionate about doing my part in protecting this one planet we have. For me, it is only when I came to Brazil that these two sides have been at odds, the lines clearly blurred. The personal debate is ongoing, one I’ll take back to the United States and my continued journey. I write this to hold myself accountable to whatever roads I choose to take and the lifestyle choices I will make in this personal and complicated impasse.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was not in a great mood when Señorita Charrito, a woman who cooks and cleans at my work, approached me. I was waiting for the kids to finish eating so we could continue with the many hours left in our day, and I was less than enthused. But a less than enthused facial expression would never phase Charrito. She grabbed my bag that I had tucked under my arm and began rummaging through it – something she likes to do when she’s bored. As she was pulling items out and messing around with them – my headphones, chap stick, a headband – she came across a loose tampon.
She stopped, examined it for a minute, and then asked me what it was. Not knowing the word for tampon (which I now know is just tampón), I attempted to describe in Spanish what a tampon is used for. It was more graphic than I would have wanted because the most helpful words I knew how to say were “hole” and “blood”. Once she understood what I was saying, she unwrapped the tampon and proceeded to examine and play with it. It wasn’t long before we were joined by one of the educators, Veronica, and several of the kids. Suddenly I was giving a full lesson, placing the tampon in a glass of water to show how it expands. Charrito and Veronica were fascinated. They told me they had heard of a tampon but had never seen one before. While I laughed to myself at the thought of a tampon lesson in this environment, Charrito and Veronica were marveling at the idea of this modern approach to women’s hygiene. They had a million questions: does it hurt, how long does it last, does it ever fall out or get stuck? When the kids finished eating and it was time to move on to our afternoon workshops, Charrito and Veronica handed back the wet tampon and the empty applicator as if they were returning a diamond necklace I had leant to them, and they thanked me for teaching them about it.
The next day when I arrived home for lunch with my host family, I was ecstatic to hear we were having tacos. Juanita, my host family’s house keeper, joined us for lunch as she always does on the days she works. I finished my soup before everyone else and thus moved on to making my taco. But as I began piling on the beans and guac and cheese, I noticed Juanita was watching very intensely from her seat beside me. I didn’t think too much of it and continued creating my perfect taco, but it was hard not to notice the look of total confusion mixed with a tinge of fear in Juanita’s eyes.
When they all finished their soup, my host mom and host sister began putting together their own tacos, but Juanita sat quietly at the table with her hands in her lap, again watching closely. Finally, my host sister looked up at Juanita and asked “Quieres que te ayude?” (do you want me to help you?). She nodded, and my host sister walked her through step by step how to put together a taco. As it turns out, Juanita had never had a taco – it’s not as common to eat foreign cuisine in Ecuador as it is in America. Her face lit up with her first bite. She couldn’t believe how good it tasted. Just like Charrito and Veronica with the tampon, she had a million questions about where and how tacos are eaten and how much they cost. We enjoyed the rest of the meal discussing our favorite taco ingredients.
Tampons and tacos: two mundane things in my life. And suddenly they’re entirely different for me. I never would have looked at a tampon as a treasure and tacos as strange or difficult to assemble. Yes, I’ve been educated on the disparities of feminine hygiene around the globe, but education is different than experiencing it first-hand. And yes, I know that in many countries it’s not as common to eat the traditional food of other countries especially for less wealthy families, but it’s still shocking to see that a taco can be a foreign concept. Signing up for my gap year, I was eager to experience a whole new perspective on the world, but for the past 6 or 7 months I haven’t revisited this idea much. And though I’m sure when I get home I’ll realize all the ways in which my view of the world has changed, for now I’m left with a new perspective on tacos and tampons.
This year, so many things did not go as planned. 10 months ago, I might have looked at this sentence and thought, Oh no! But today, I write this with a pleasant feeling. This year, I planned on teaching. Instead, I was schooled. Over. And over. And over again.
My students taught me from day one to never underestimate their brilliant capacity. Everyday, they surprise me with how quickly they grasp new ideas and complete their work – or don’t by cleverly avoiding work. They teach me to be patient, that greatness takes time. My students remind me that every child needs a role model. My students teach me that there is no such thing as a good kid or a bad kid; they teach me that it is all in what I choose to do and say. My students remind me to be sensitive of the emotions around me. They teach me to love and to laugh. They remind me to celebrate small victories, and they motivate me to never lose sight of my larger goals. I’ve learned that every student is special, and every child deserves a chance.
My team teaches me to trust. They show me that I can cry, laugh, and scream in a safe space. They teach me that trust goes both ways. They teach me to have open and honest conversations. My team teaches me that a support system catches me when I fall, and also provides a resistance that bounces me back up. They cheer me on as I step outside my comfort zone, and give me the space to trip and fall on my own. They teach me that people will care for me in surprising ways, and that acts of kindness are no burden for people who care. My team teaches me what it feels like to have people in my life who truly matter, and that maintaining my relationships with my teammates might just be the biggest takeaway I get from City Year.
My partner teachers exude with passion for our students. They come back to the classroom everyday in the face of an unsupportive administration and uncooperative behaviors, an act of true perseverance and love. They teach me how to advocate for others, and that to be a teacher in a Title I school means to give and be the voice for our children. They push me to remain consistent, ultimately in the best interest of our students. They remind me to be my best, to self-care, and to ask them for help when I need it. They teach me to do it all with excellence, for the kids.
As I’ve been approaching my last month here in Ecuador, something that’s constantly been on my mind has been gratitude and how I can thank the people who have played a role in making my gap year as positive as it has been. When I think about the people who I am thankful for here, my mind immediately jumps to my incredible host family. My family here has been a massive part of my time here and before I leave, I certainly plan on showing them how thankful I am for them. One of the ways which I planned on doing so was to write them a note which they could hold on to. Of course, that letter would be in Spanish— and despite the fact that my Spanish has immensely improved this year, I do feel like I can express myself much better in English. That being said, I wanted to write my host family a letter in English, and despite the fact that they wouldn’t read it, it would be a lot more honest and expressive than that which I will write in Spanish.
To the Galans:
The only proper way to start this letter is to say thank you. To thank each of you for being so kind and loving to me this past year.When I first saw the family description that was listed for the Galan family, I was honestly a little worried. I saw that your family was described as being an elderly couple who lived a quiet life outside of the city. And of course, I was excited to get to meet you guys, but it’s just not necessarily what I was expecting. I grew up with two brothers in a loud house. I was used to sharing a room with my little brother and doing everything together. The prospect of living with a much quieter family would be a new experience for me.
I’m sure that you guys could understand my surprise once you had brought me home and I met all nine of you plus your three dogs. I was ecstatic.
When I first got here, I must have been much more boring than I am now. My Spanish was pretty poor which definitely affected how much fun I was with you guys. I remember sitting through our Sunday night dinners being completely lost. I remember taking car rides with Mary and just nodding to the stories that she told me— although I couldn’t understand exactly what you were saying, I really appreciated you making the effort to try to include me.
And perhaps because of that, I feel like part of this letter should come with an apology. Even now, I still feel sorry that despite my hardest efforts, I simply cannot communicate with you guys in a way where we all completely understand each other perfectly. There will always be little words, pieces of slang, or jokes that I just won’t get. When I’m not paying total attention to you when you’re speaking I struggle to follow what you guys say. And that’s incredibly frustrating, even though I’ve been here for a year, I feel like if I spoke Spanish perfectly, we would all be so much closer. My inability to speak Spanish fluently inevitably comes with a level of insincerity on my part. There were times— especially when I first got here— that my Spanish would not allow me to keep up a conversation with any of you. But rather than sit in silence, you would tell me stories or try to fill the space with some speaking that I wouldn’t really understand.And I would just smile and do my best to play it off as if I understood what you were saying. And of course this was just a lie, but in my position, it’s so much better to at least pretend to know what’s going on rather than just sitting at the dinner table noticeably clueless. Ultimately, I’m sorry for not being able to understand you guys in the ways that I wish I could.
But it’s honestly incredible to me how far we’ve come since September. Time has flown. I was just driving home from Amauta with you guys. We were just in Gualaceo having fights with the bubble toys or in Turi spinning upside down in a massive swing. Now Angie is pregnant and having her baby shower next week, Paúl has his own tattoo studio, and despite my constant jokes that I can’t speak Spanish, I actually speak the language pretty well.
I’m just so grateful for you guys welcoming me as much as you did. You made me into your family when you didn’t have to— it would have been so much easier for you to just brush me aside as being an exchange student who was just staying in the house for a year. But instead of that, you made me into an uncle, a brother, and a son. I wasn’t just the gringo living on the 3rd floor, I was the family that you had living upstairs. Welcoming me into your family like that was a choice that each of you made, and I will forever feel grateful for the acceptance that you extended to me.
It’s impossible to sum up this incredible year into a letter, but the laughter and memories are something that you don’t need a piece of paper to remember. Rather, the letter is to thank you all for the packed lunches, late night drives, and spontaneous empanada trips. Words will never be able to describe the gratefulness that I feel towards you all. Please keep in touch, come visit, and let me know if I can ever do anything for you to repay the love and compassion that you have all shown me.