Made in Tikka

by Fatima, Civic Semester Participant

I don’t think anyone knew what to expect for our first organization visit, but when the van pulled over at a small door with women waiting for us with altitude tea and wool spoolies, we knew that we were working with some serious talent. We spent nearly 5 hours speaking with Guadalupe about her craft, seeing the process of natural dye and making pulseras, all while playing with the guinea pigs, the llama, Coco the lamb and the two cats. We learned that this co-op was not just made by women, but for women. It is a way for Lupe to embrace her culture and identity, and an opportunity for her to showcase all that was passed down through her family for generations. She told us her fears about her traditions dying out and the dangers that the new airport being built nearby could bring. But she also told us her aspirations, how she believes that she can give her daughter the life that she couldn’t live and how she is proud to be able to expand what was once a small family-run affair, into a thriving business. Between taking care of her daughter, working on her trade and dealing with the financial hit from Covid, Lupe also managed to teach us how all that is in Tikka was made. Here, the phrase “made with a mother’s hands” takes on a new meaning, as these women put much more than just their love and passion into it, it also carries their pride. So, if you ever happen to see Tsering’s new laptop bag or Yazan’s poncho, or the one he bought for his father, just know, it was made in Tikka.

Originally posted here

Looking Back, Would You Do it Again? Q&A with Civic Semester Alum Claire!

1. What was your Civic Semester experience? As a rising junior, how if at all has Civic Semester impacted your Tufts experience beyond your time in the program?

Absolutely positive! Just the idea that I’m writing about how awesome this program was already excites me. I’m not saying this in an exaggerated way: Tufts Civic Semester was a life-changing experience. I had very little idea about what civic action really entails until I gained hands-on experience in Peru where I had the amazing opportunity to work at a non-profit organization that provides physical therapy services and mental health counseling to disabled patients – an underrepresented and often disregarded group of individuals in the country. Beyond my time in the program, I always find myself engaging in rigorous self-reflection processes about civic action that have become an integral part of my life. As for my future career path, I am looking for opportunities that will allow me to engage in some level of civic work and social activism, likely international non-profit organizations.

2. How did the Civic Semester impact your Tufts education so far? Do you see any impact on your academic path, extracurricular involvements, peer group, or other areas of your life?

Definitely! Fun fact: I was seriously thinking of giving up learning Spanish after four years of studying this language in high school until I was selected as a participant of the Civic Semester program. I created so many meaningful moments in Peru and I would very much love to keep in touch with my friends there by perfecting my Spanish speaking skills. As a result, I have decided to pursue a minor in Spanish! Another fun fact: I think all my Spanish professors are quite familiar with my participation in the Tufts Civic Semester Peru program by now because of the frequency I write about this experience in analytical papers, short stories and poems. Although I plan to pursue a double major in International Relations and Sociology, I have seen myself adopting various aspects of Civic Studies in my interested research areas. Outside of classes, I have been involved with social impact groups in Beijing and New York, but I hope to return to the Tisch College and be more active there in the future!

3. What was it like coming back to campus for the spring semester? What advice would you give to future Civic Semester students about this adjustment?

I had a pretty smooth transition back to the campus. Along with the rest of the Peru cohort, we attended a lot of school activities and applied to a number of on-campus opportunities. It was not difficult making new friends in class because most of the time your fellow classmates didn’t really know each other either 🙂 Clubs are also a great way to get to know new people. Based on my own experience, I would say that actively pursuing an abundance of opportunities (academic and extracurricular) on campus is a great way to reconnect with Tufts. However, it is also important to balance work time with rest time so you are not stressing yourself out during this first semester on campus.

4. Looking back, would you do it again? What overall advice do you have for students considering the program?

Of course – 100%! My family and close friends all know that I can never stop talking about my experience in Peru. I would like to tell future students that it is totally normal to feel uncertain and scared about leaving home and traveling to a new place. I was too. I had so many concerns about going to Peru: Am I able to use Spanish to effectively communicate with the locals? Can I get along with my host family? Will I suffer from high altitude sickness all the time? But everything turned out to be an absolutely rewarding experience. I realized that language is never the only thing in the world that connects you with people who share your interests and passion (I didn’t really understand 1/3 of the things my mentor said to me but we managed to be great friends through our shared love for singing). I also realized that some physical and emotional discomfort from time to time has made me a much stronger and open-minded person than I ever was before. I left my home country to live and study in different countries since I was 14 years old, but none of my abroad experience is comparable to this Civic Semester experience that exposed me to another way of living my life that I had never imagined before.

A Love Letter to Perú

by Abi, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

Dear Perú,

I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I could possibly say that could express what you’ve meant to me over the past three months and I’m drawing a blank. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be here in this situation, I would’ve called you crazy. No one expects to fall in love, whether it’s with a person or a place or a thing, and I’ve done all three in the past three months here in Urubamba. I’ve fallen for you, Perú, head over heels! I love the chaos of the mototaxis in the morning, I love the mountains that surround us in our little urban bubble, I love my Peruvian mama bear Soledad who never fails to make me smile, and I love all the people who I’ve been able to share this experience with. There is nothing short of a miracle that could stop me from loving you, Perú, and all the incredible experiences I’ve had with you. Every day is different with you, and I can never predict the way I’ll feel at the end of a day after work and Spanish class and homework, but I know I’ll go to bed endlessly grateful to be sleeping here in Urubamba with my host family in the next room and my best friends a short walk away.

I don’t know how to bring you home with me quite yet, and I’m tearing up right now just thinking about leaving you. What am I going to do without you next week? I’m going to be lost without pancitos for breakfast and besitos before work, and I don’t know how I’ll handle not hugging Soledad before bed. It’s crazy how fast the time goes by when you’re absolutely enamored with something. I feel like I’ve taken our time together for granted, but I know I’ll forever remember every day I’ve spent here. The smiles of my family are imprinted in my memory along with my afternoon walks to class and our incredible excursions exploring your astounding culture and history. It feels weird to say goodbye like this.

I know they say long distance relationships don’t work, but I believe in us. I know I’ll be able to keep you in my mind all the time, and it’ll be hard to shut me up when I start talking about you! I want everyone to experience the kind of love I have for you, Perú, and I know we’ll meet again someday. I can’t wait for you to meet my parents! They’re going to love you, I just know it. I don’t want to say goodbye because that feels too real, so I’ll just say nos vemos, Perú.

Forever yours,


Marilu, el mundo y la naturaleza

by Isabelle, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

The rain was falling hard outside in messy drops while Marilu took her cutting board off the shelf and a knife from the drawer, setting up onions to be chopped.  While she laid out her materials, I did the same, but with a notebook and an audio recorder on my phone instead of vegetables, both of us ready in our own ways to have a chat.  After a morning spent weeding in the chakra and discussing potential rain-capture irrigation solutions with an American specialist, Marilu and I had been driven inside by the rain, and it seemed like a perfect time to learn her story, in a more holistic and inclusive manner than our snippets of conversation in the previous weeks.  When I asked if she could tell me some stories about Canastas Verdes and her own life, Marilu was excited to share, and, as the incredibly strong and busy woman that I know, she had a lot to say.

Marilu began her story with the birth of organic farming as she knows it in her own life, where years ago, it all started with a sweet potato on the back patio.  Since her childhood, Marilu and her family had cultivated vegetables and herbs on a small scale, and as organically as possible but not with those methods as their focus.  After she had grown into adulthood and began caring for her own family, and her aging father in return, Marilu began to experiment with different methods of gardening, adding new plants and researching the importance of organic produce, but only to consume in the house.  At the time she was a teacher, and as the chakra grew, she began to look for a way to sell the produce.  At this time, more than eight years ago, there was no market in Urubamba for organic vegetables, as most everyone was comfortable with the status quo—produce maintained through the use of pesticides and new-wave farming practices that began in the sixties.  Marilu, on the other hand, was looking to return to the farming practices of her ancestors with respect to the apus to whom she speaks in Quechua, her family’s native tongue.  Organic farming, for her originally, was a way to carry on the now-lost tradition of respect for la tierra and for one’s own body, a departure from the chemical-driven world.  With this in mind, she set out with an iron will to bring organic produce back to Urubamba and to the Sacred Valley, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.  The municipality, and frankly the city, was not open to the changes that she wanted to see, so Marilu began to speak with other women who were farming organically and who wanted to sell their produce, or at least who wanted to try.

In the beginning, this new association was made up of eight women, all with their own chakras who were learning and growing together with their organic produce.  But, as Marilu says ardently, organic farming is hard work—you get your nails dirty and you hardly ever sleep.  For many of the women in this new group, though they were stronger together, this was too much, and little by little they began to return to the popular methods, or at least to working solo.  Marilu, and the five women who make up the association now, pushed on, and once their group was solidified, they began to develop into what they are today—Canastas Verdes.  Throughout this story of growth, Marilu maintained her pride in the fact that Canastas Verdes was her creation, her baby, so-to-speak, all the way from the first organic produce to the name and to her title as President now.  Although the work of the association is incredible—highly involved in the community and done with very little internal or external support—Marilu’s pride comes from her own struggles and how she overcomes them, and, in fact, the ways in which organic vegetables have helped her to do so.

Although I have known her for over two months now, Marilu had never told me all that she was up against while building a program of community health and involvement.  That’s just how strong she is.  But she’s a single mother to a son with autism, who also cares for her ninety-three-year-old father.  She can’t afford a home of her own, and often the cost of caring for her family and running Canastas Verdes is too much, but after years of perseverance, she’s making it all work.  In fact, her son, who is now a young adult, has been her inspiration for continuing with organic produce, because his health has benefitted from the removal of pesticides in his system.  In his younger years, when she couldn’t produce enough for complete meals, her son struggled both neurologically and physically, but since she was able to make an organic diet possible, he has been able to function at a higher level and have fewer complications.  What’s more, Marilu says she has learned patience and compassion through raising her son—as most mothers do, but with greater intensity—and she asserts that he has been her greatest teacher, and these lessons of humanity are ones that she takes directly into her work.  The produce that she grows comes from a love of the earth, of the Pachamama, and a love of family, both for her own and that of Urubamba.

Tears are beginning to stream down Marilu’s cheeks as she discusses all this with me, and they begin to flow harder as she details the lack of action in the world, the ways in which most people sit by and watch it all being destroyed.  Here in the Sacred Valley, fed by glaciers and maintained by very specific climates, Marilu and the people of Urubamba are at great risk as the environment changes rapidly, and she knows this.  The water, the land—everything is being polluted and mistreated, she says.  No one wants to change their ways because they think it’s too hard, but this will take a toll on their lives.  Marilu sees the pollution of her ancestral land, the planet, and of the bodies of her neighbors, consuming pesticides and processed food, diets that can cause cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and many other detriments to health.  She sees that soon there will not be enough water, and therefore not enough food.  She says of the people in poorer countries and regions: “We’re like rats in a lab and we will be the first ones to die,” her eyes read with sadness and anger.  This is the reality that she’s actively working against, but she knows it’s not enough and that Canastas Verdes is running out of time.

We’ve been talking for over a half-hour at this point, and Marilu points out that she should probably start making lunch.  The onion she’d prepared to cut will chatting sits untouched on the cutting board in front of her—forgotten as she answered my questions, delivered with passion and force like the most moving of speeches.  But before I go, she thanks me for taking the time to talk to her, and reiterates all that she struggles against and the hope that she has despite it all.  By the end, we’re both crying and embracing, because the planet is dying and we’re forced to watch it happen.  Marilu is doing all that she can, and I tell her I wish I could do more, both for Canastas Verdes and for the Earth, but she just shakes her head and gives me another hug.  “I really should make lunch,” she says as she wipes tears from her eyes, and I thank her for her time and say nos vemos—see you later—as she finally begins to cut the onion.

After leaving Marilu to cut onions in the kitchen, I walked slowly home in a bit of a stupor.  The rain that had been falling in a torrent just minutes before but the sky was now open and bright.  My feet moved slowly and my mind felt heavy as I wiped tears out of my eyes, trying to hold back the ones threatening to spring forth with each though of Marilu’s words.  In particular “somos como ratas en un laboratorio” stuck out in my mind and the pain that she expressed while saying them.  As I walked along the river that rushes passed the cemetery, such a sentiment felt that much stronger—the power and life of the Earth running parallel with death, a concept that will become much more prevalent if we don’t care for the planet.  When I got home to and empty house, I sat down and tried to process the conversation I’d just had, but I couldn’t do it in my head, so I called my dad and told him all about it.  Thankfully, he let me interrupt his day to recount Marilu’s story because I really had to say it out loud to become more grounded.  Regardless, I was still overcome with a feeling of helplessness—what had I really done to help her and all of Canastas Verdes?  What could I even do in the next few weeks that could be meaningful?  In fact, I felt quite guilty, because I had never spoken to someone in such depth, in this place, about the direct impact on their lives and that of their community from climate change and loss of resources, and I felt like I was leaving too soon.  If I stayed on with Canastas Verdes for a year, could I make more of a difference?  Up until this conversation, I didn’t know the depth of the personal stories behind this project, or the needs of Marilu and all the women, because they hadn’t told me, and what’s worse, I hadn’t really asked.  All of this swirled around in my head even hours and days later, that is until I was able to speak with Marilu again.

Exactly one week later, we got that next chat.  In the time between, I had been fully immersed in nature in the Amazon with my mindset heavily influenced by Marilu’s words.  I spent my time there walking through the jungle with the group and our guide, Robin, taking it all in with heightened appreciation.  Although I have always had a deep love of nature and a passion for its protection, there was just something so powerful about her story, and then Robin’s stories, that validated what I’d always felt and challenged me to think further on my own impact and ideas.  So after all this, I got to go back and hear Marilu’s story again, this time as she told it to Raquel and Mindy, leaving some details out but with all her important points.  It was a great experience for me to be able to experience her telling of her life once more, because it gave me more clarity and a deeper sense of knowing her.  Within this same time, I was also privy to Marilu’s answers to questions relating to how helpful I’d actually been in my role as an intern/volunteer.  After coming away feeling so guilty and useless, though inspired, from our last talk, it was affirming and hope-building to have Marilu say directly that I had done some good, both for her and Canastas Verdes.  Although this need to be validated is somewhat egocentric, this second conversation gave me a push forward, because in the time in between I had felt somewhat lost.  What’s more, I was able to talk to Marilu in-depth for a third time, in the same week, while we answered the questions together for the Dragons’ Community Grant Fund, something I am applying to for Canastas Verdes.  And yet again, Marilu’s eyes lit up with passion, and then watered with tears, while we talked about her work and her struggles, and I was left in awe for a third time in that week over how strong she is and all that she has accomplished.

Looking back on Marilu’s story and message, I realized that there is a lot that I need to change in my own lifestyle, and even more in the lifestyles of my two family’s (here in Peru and back in Maine).  Actually, there needs to be a drastic societal shift, but I think while working towards that, I can also work small, by changing my own ways and looking to educate those around me.  Eating organic, eating healthy, recycling, not wasting—because as Marilu says “La basura no es la basura, la persona con basura es la basura”.  Change must happen, and fast because if not, we’ll have nothing left.  La Amazonia, the glaciers that stand tall over the Sacred Valley, watering the people beneath and feeding into the global rainforest, and all the other life-sustaining and beautiful resources, will be gone sooner than we know.  Here in Peru, the country is slated to be the third most impacted by climate change in the coming years, bringing home Marilu’s fears that much more.  Living in this amazing place, making it my second home, I fear with her, and I can only hope that people begin to wake up, both here and all over the world, because the Earth is dying, crumbling right between our capable yet inactive human hands.

Originally posted here

Farms & Stuff

by Yong Quan, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

Coming from a country where 90% of its food is imported and the agriculture industry is almost non-existent (although there’s a growing movement now!), working in a farm always seemed like the most far-off thing I could do growing up. The hard conditions, the heat of the sun, getting your hands dirty “just to see plants grow” sounded a little mundane and the idea of it felt disconnected from my technologically advanced city back in Singapore.

(Of course, my attitudes towards these things changed during my time in the army; the physicality of hard work is one of my favorite feelings now)

In Peru, however, my first choice for my internship placement was with Eco-Huella (EH), a farm based in Calca. On the first day, Jason and I met up with siblings Julio and Jessica, who would be our bosses for the next 3 months. Though the daily activities of farming were very much a part of Eco-Huella, we also did other things: learning about local specialized plants that cleaned chromium and lead from the river, building greenhouses for higher altitude communities to expand their possible agriculture & food options, learning about different methods of farming & creating composts (e.g. EH uses Bokatchi/Bokashi, a Japanese method, to create their compost), hosting other local initiatives (e.g. Las Verdes from Lima) that came over to cross-share information about sustainability in Peru, welcoming short-term volunteers/students who learnt about the farm’s sustainability model or helped with building it’s walls. Recently even, we were very glad to collaborate with Jessica to evaluate EH’s model of sustainability by drawing up maps and taking stock of the farming equipment we have, to ensure that their resources are used with sustainability in mind, and to keep track of the plants’ growth.

Initially, all these activities seem minute. They are, if you fail to consider the people behind them, and their stories. The Nina siblings believe that sustainability is important, and they are part of Andean Alliance (a US organization that promotes collaboration between farmers and the government to promote their livelihoods), as well as the growing movement against climate change. They also believe that the sharing of ideas is important, and in that endeavour, they are very open about receiving other and providing their own inputs. I was surprised during the first few days of work when Jessi mentioned learning about ‘vertical agriculture’, a common method of growing food in land-scarce Singapore, and how that innovative enterprise is the sort of spirit that EH is trying to build up; with that conversation, I knew that Eco-Huella was the place for me.

But let’s pull back for a moment. How did I end up in farming? Wasn’t I (excuse my pigeonholing) not a farming person? Well, it all started with how Eco-Huella was described to me (as well as Jason’s infectious passion for physical work): EH was a place where they were fighting for social change, against climate change and were a group of very passionate farmers. It was clear from how the instructors mentioned them that the people of EH had a thirst for adventure (and experimenting, which is why I sometimes reference the farm as a laboratory), and a pursuit for change based on collaboration and hard work. While I guess you could find people with these attributes anywhere if you look hard enough, there’s something about unfamiliarity that brings people together in unique ways because unfamiliarity demands initiative and trial & error. As Julio once said: “There are no problems, only opportunities”, and that spirit of courage and innovation is the driving factor for the farm (and our daily ventures under the heat of Calca’s weather).

In my journey, I hope to learn that we are both connected to our food sources and detached in our awareness of them in ways profound and intimate enough that the seriousness of the issues posed by climate change and pollution are both urgent and invisible to us. And while the rest of the world has much area for improvement, I’m hopeful that it’s better off with the minds and hearts behind the people in Eco-Huella.

Originally posted here.