Travel as a concept of humanitarianism is getting the most out of seeing the world and meeting people. People who are in their true element and facing everyday life.

I grew up in a border town in southeast California. My family and I had strong connections with Mexico, since most of our family lived there. Traveling across the border was a regular occurrence for me. Every Friday after school I would get ready to spend the weekend somewhere in Mexicali. I have many memories of my father teaching us by example of how to help people who were not as privileged as we were. And by privileged, I don’t mean economically, it was more that we had immigrated to a country where we had so many more opportunities growing up. People do with opportunities what they want. For us, it was the epitome of my parents’ sacrifices to have these privileges of an education, healthcare, employment opportunities, but most of all was to live in a place where we could immerse ourselves and be bilingual.

Not only would we travel to Mexico every weekend, but we would spend most of our summers there as well. My grandmother lived surrounded by poverty. Ramshackle houses, slum kids, and dirt roads. I used to hate going there as a child, because there was nothing to do. No television, no cinemas, no McDonald’s. The only source of fun if you were a kid was playing games on the street. I remember playing Jai alai and Changai with the neighborhood kids. These were games that had a long and rich history in the formation of the city of Mexicali. Changai, or more appropriately, Shanghai, was a game that the Chinese have played for centuries. It ended up in the streets of Mexicali because of the migration of the Chinese during the construction of the railroads. Chinese immigrants play a huge role in Mexicali’s history. In fact my great-great-grandmother was Chinese. Something I didn’t care about growing up. This game, Changai was a poor man’s baseball. You dug a hole in the ground. You got two sticks, one longer than the other one. You would place the shorter stick sideways on top of the hole, and with the longer one, you would fling up the shorter stick and hit it like a bat with all your might, sending the stick flying through the air. The other player would then run and catch the stick and try and tag you with it before you touched first base. At first base you had another hole and did the same to run back to home. It was all the rage.

Interestingly to me, none of my classmates knew about Changai, because they didn’t have family or they wouldn’t visit the places I would in Mexico.  They would also not talk about the same poverty that I had experienced. The same games. Chinese jump rope, tops, jacks using beans, and many more. This made me a bit more aware of the world than my peers. Growing up I had so many uncomfortable experiences involving poverty, and illiteracy, that I know it changed my perspective of the world.

Another thing we did every summer when I was about 12, was that the cousins in my father’s side of the family and I, all took turns taking care of my grandparents who lived in that slum. It was the most wretched time for me, being used to air conditioning and cable. My parents left me there with my grandmother who had dementia, and my grandfather who was 104, for two weeks with no food or clothing. I had to cook for myself and for them. I had to wash my clothes and theirs with no washer or dryer around. I had chores throughout the day, and in the late afternoons I would be allowed to go out in the street and play games with the other kids.

I always think about how brave my parents were to leave me completely immersed in this poverty. I don’t know if I would be able to do the same with my own kids. Parents always want a better life for their kids than the one they experienced. Yet we don’t expose our kids to real life. I think many Americans are sheltered, and many live their entire life in total seclusion from the realities of life around the world. It is this ignorance  that creates the fear of the unknown, and veils our perspective with a hegemonic ideal.

At the end of the two weeks, I remember my parents would come for me. They would bring so much food with them, not for me or for my grandparents, but for the kids in the neighborhood. This was an occurring act of kindness on my parents behalf. My father, for example, grew many types of vegetables in his huge garden. Rows and rows of zucchini, carrots, green onions, yellow squash, garlic, and many others. He would also grow hybrid fruit trees in his backyard blending different types of oranges, lemon-limes, and avocados. My father was also a hunter, and every day at work, since he worked out in the food fields of Imperial Valley, he would hunt pheasant, roadrunners, doves and other fowl. He would also hunt rabbits and bats. He would then bring these home, skin them, gut them, and freeze them. On our trips to Mexico, he would take all of this food and give it to the poor.

I never thought much of this growing up, except that it was embarrassing for me to talk about it to my classmates. If they knew all of the things I did and saw growing up, they would not understand. They would not understand because to them, life was roller skating, disco dances, tv shows, movies and restaurants. Life did not involve wondering what to eat and how to take care of two ailing grandparents.

I look back now, and I think about how much my parents must have impacted this community. Although we were not rich, by far, my parents found creative ways to give to the poor and to help those in need. Even if it meant sacrificing their own children, while they worked 12 hours a day. I thank my parents now for immersing me in this environment that was so foreign to me. It gave me a broader perspective of people and places, and most interestingly, it made me see my own home differently.

Now as an adult, I am involved with that same community. Because I am a hairstylist, I have donated my services to the women and children of that place. Although it is not changing the world, or even traveling that far, I have managed to change the lives of many people by giving them something we all desire as humans, but sometimes cannot afford. It feels amazing to look at my work when I visit the neighborhood I grew up around. I have a great sense of pride in knowing that I went out of my comfort zone to help others. I thank my parents for painstakingly teaching me about the world out there.


2 thoughts on “Cultivating Culture

  1. Hi Alma.
    This was a very personal post! I enjoyed getting to know some of the parts of your life that you hid from your young classmates at the time. I’m sure you are right, they didn’t understand what you had gone through. I agree with your perspective of American parents. We want so badly for our children to get out there and engage, but then we are terrified and have a hard time letting them get dirty. I’m sure that your experiences changed your life. I love that you talk about how you have gone back as an adult and served the community. Giving someone the gift of feeling better about themselves (by helping them with their hair or other cosmetics) is a wonderful gift and very important. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Alma,

    THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN WAITING TO HEAR! I knew from the first post that you had a story to tell, and I loved hearing about Ireland, but this post really did everything that I think travel writing should. It provided me with the chance to learn about places I haven’t experienced. It is from your perspective, a marginalized voice in some ways. It shows honesty and growth. I feel as if your blog (and many aspects of your life!) have come full-circle, and I’m thrilled that you were able to take me along. Excellent job.



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