I am overwhelmed by the amazing work that Puente does and even more overwhelmed with gratitude that I was able to meet the people who live and breathe to make Puente function daily…While the physical space of Puente isn’t extravagant, the beauty of Puente that has left me speechless time and again is in the hearts, hands, and souls of the people who serve there.
I have spent several hours in the last month reading the blog I kept on my four-week trip to Pescadero, California in June mostly because I miss the place and the people and partly because a piece of me was left behind there. It was an experience that changed me, and my blog allows me to relive my experiences over and over again. I remember the trip feeling so fast, as though I left soon after I arrived. However, as I read my blog, I did so many things. I met new people, tried new foods, explored new places on my own, volunteered with students, and experienced a different “American” culture. In hindsight, I did a lot in those four weeks.
My goal on the trip was to meet new people to learn their stories and to experience new things myself all in an attempt to increase the number of stories in my arsenal to share with my students. I would say I accomplished this goal in unfathomable ways that I never could have imagined from airport to airport, beginning to end. My mother has always teased me that I have a magnetic face or personality because I always find myself in situations where complete strangers approach me and just start talking; this trip is no exception. No matter where I was, I was exchanging stories with strangers and while my purpose was to mingle with migrant farmworkers, this purpose in no way minimized the unique stories I shared with other individuals on the trip who were no farmworkers or relatives of farmworkers. In my first official blog post of the trip entitled, “People are AMAZING,” I comment on how “I am convinced you can never really be alone in the world any more.” In the spirit of the Innovations class summer project at Noblesville High School, I took this as my cue to look for opportunities everywhere. (#OAEproj). That is exactly what I found!
Despite being in constant conversation with new people and seeing new places and being on the go constantly, I still managed to find such peace and rejuvenation in California. Blogging was a cathartic experience for me, and I absolutely treasurereading my own words as I was living these experiences. I also had time to read—for fun! I spent many hours in the car driving along the coast of California on Highway 1 to and from different farms and camps and events. The landscape was breathtaking! “I also experienced moments of surrealism where the beauty reminded me of some of the landscapes in the Lord of the Rings movies. Neither my words nor my photographs will be able to do justice to the majesty and beauty of the California coast. It literally took my breath away on several occasions as I rounded a tight curve only to find a new landscape full of color beautifully spread out before me. Several times along the drive I stopped at roadside pull-offs to take pictures and breathe in the fresh coastal air.”
I learned so many things on my trip, and words continue to feel insufficient to me as I attempt to describe this experience to others who weren’t there with me, but I have narrowed down my top seven lessons from the trip to help summarize my experiences.
To echo aforementioned sentiments, lesson number one is that people are amazing. It didn’t matter if I was befriending my servers at breakfast or dinner, the owners of the bed and breakfast, other guests at all of my temporary residences, staff and volunteers at Puente, or the farmworkers and their families all of the people I met had such incredible stories to tell. I felt like I was a stranger to no one and no one was a stranger to me. An amazing thing happens when you make yourself vulnerable to another. There is beauty in those human connections; even the ones you know will only be temporary. And then others surprise you and end up lasting longer than one short season.
Lesson number two seems so obvious. However, a resounding depth was added to my understanding of this statement: Marginalized people live in an unjust world. This lesson became most apparent to me as I walked though the halls of the school and homes of the farmworkers’ children. I met the students prior to seeing their homes and schools, and they seemed so similar to my students upon first introduction. However, when I realized the challenges they have to overcome to merely function in the United States, I was blown away. Another experience that added depth to my understanding of this statement was in the current event (current when I was in California) of the police shooting and killing a young girl, not that unlike the situation in Ferguson. However, instead of the girl being a black male, she was a Latina girl with mental illness. As I researched newspaper articles and followed the story while I was there, I realized how unlikely it was that the young girl’s family would receive justice for her death. (Not that any outcome is truly just compensation for the loss of one’s life.) For more on that story, see my blog post, “Justicia Para Yanira.”
Lesson number three is almost laughable as I think about the different cultures of the Midwest and the West Coast: California ain’t like the Midwest. I learned so much about little ways that individual, families, and households can care for the environment and live more eco-friendly lifestyles. From simple things like putting a bucket in your shower to help catch excess water to composting, to biking everywhere, I learned how simple it can be to do our part to care for the environment. Additionally, I became increasingly away of how far behind the Midwest is from places like California, which is a much more environmentally conscious place. I am convinced that 1/3 of the cars in California are Priuses, 1/3 are a different hybrid, and 1/3 are pick-up trucks (for the farmers).
Lesson number four is philosophical at its roots: People are inherently good. While this notion has been debated for centuries, my experiences in California have led me to believe that people are genuinely good at their core even though we sometimes make bad choices. Every single person I met in California was incredible compassionate and giving—even people who seemed to have nothing to give. Everyone, including the migrant farmworkers, gave what they could give. I’ve never been as humbled as I was when one of the farmworker’s daughters offered to buy my lunch or when the men at one farm offered me part of their dinner. I still get emotional thinking about their generosity.
Lesson number five is one of critical geography: that not only are many people in other parts of the United States totally ignorant to the lifestyle of migrant farmworkers living within our own country, so are many people in the neighboring towns in California. On my blog I reflected on the differences between my temporary residence in Palo Alto versus what I was experiencing on the coast in the small town of Pescadero:
First, let’s start with some critical geography. In terms of mileage, the drive from Palo Alto (“over the hill” as it is called by people on the coast) is only about 40 miles to Pescadero. However, due to the primarily two-lane roads that are curvy and winding and climbing up over a “hill” (errrr…we who are from the flatlands refer to these “hills” as mountains), the drive easily can take over an hour. The changes in temperature, population density, and income (though this is beginning to change) as your go from one side of “the hill” to the other are astounding. Regarding temperature, there is a consistent twenty-degree difference as you move from the coast side of “the hill” to the inland side. Rarely have I worn a t-shirt in Pescadero and never have I worn shorts, especially as the sun sets. In terms of population density, obviously the more suburban and urban spaces like Palo Alto, San Mateo, San Jose, and San Francisco are much more densely populated than the rural farmland along the coast. And though there is significant gentrification beginning along the coast, for the most part people with money live in the suburban and urban spaces. What I mean by “gentrification beginning” is that many wealthy people from over “the hill” are beginning to snatch up properties in towns like Pescadero so that they can have weekend get-away homes. There is a small one-bedroom house across the street from Puente in Pescadero. Although the layout is different, it is just about the size of my home in Fountain Square. I asked some of the Puente staff at what price they thought the house was listed. They suspected that house was approximately $750,000. What!?!?! Even in the tiny rural community of Pescadero where the graduating senior class of Pescadero High School this year was all of 23 students houses sell for ¾ million dollars. It is mind blowing, especially considering the nature of the residential housing for the farmworkers merely ten miles or fewer up the road.
Lesson number six is that I am truly a teacher through and through, to the depths of my being. One of my absolute favorite parts of my trip was working with the students at Puente. I primarily worked with the high school youth who were serving as youth workers for Puente over the summer months. In addition to getting to see them in their camp trainings to be camp counselors for younger children and participate in leadership workshops with them, I also had an opportunity to tutor some of the ones who were behind in school, primarily in their language arts classes and social studies classes (the two subjects where ENL students typically struggle the most). This was such a natural position for me because it is similar to what I do everyday in the classroom. However, the Puente staff specifically commented on how quickly the students trusted me despite the fact that I was a native-English-speaking, educated, white woman. The Puente staff noted that it not usually the case that this population of students is so trusting of “people like me” in generally let alone this quickly. For me, this affirmed how teaching is at the core of my being, and it doesn’t matter who my students are. Even though I already knew this it was nice to receive the affirmation when the current social and political climates tend to demonize teachers.
And finally, lesson number seven is that I am a better person now than I ever have been before. This trip opened my eyes to my own personal growth as a human. I realize I am more adventurous than I’ve ever been before. I am more open-minded than ever before, and I’m more experienced than every before. As I reflect on some of the new things I tried like a Latina Zumba class, which took me way out of my comfort zone, Guatemalan food, the San Francisco PRIDE festival, etc., I am amazed because as sad as it is, I know those are not things I would have or could have done ten years ago in my life. For that I am eternally grateful.
As I think about what comes next, I am excited to report that I will be returning to California over the second half of my fall break with a group of students from Noblesville High School. Although that trip has multiple purposes beyond serving Puente and the Pescadero community, I am so excited to share my experiences and memories with a group of my students. Additionally, my experience last summer opened my eyes to how critical it is to take a break from work over the summer months to rejuvenate myself. My hope is to travel back to Pescadero again next summer with my own funds to have a similar experience. My Puente students have also invited me to attend their high school graduation ceremony in June. What a significant event that will be as many of these students had the academic deck stacked against them and still managed to overcome. I cannot wait to celebrate with them, especially Daisy who is one of the students I spent the most time with and wrote about in my blog. She sends me weekly updates on her academic progress, and I continue to send her notes of encouragement to help her push through to the graduation finish line. I cannot wait to return. A piece of my spirit is still in California; and being in California gives my soul an amazing peace unlike any I’ve ever known.