Wednesday, April 22, 2009

WEEK 12: Visits While at the UNAM

After returning from our travels during Semana Santa, we once again packed our bags to leave for a week-long seminar in Mexico City. We were hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) – a prestigious Mexican university that holds the largest social work program in Latin America. It was almost shocking to be on a university campus again because we hadn’t been in that kind of environment for so long! In addition to learning about the university and social work program, we were able to visit various sites around Mexico City.

One highlight of our seminar in Mexico City this week was our visit to the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery. During our visit we were able to connect with the social work department at the institute, which helps UNAM social work students complete thesis projects at undergraduate and graduate levels as well as social work internships. During our visit, we learned how health problems are often linked to social issues.

Social Work students at the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Mexico City.

The institute, created in 1964, has remained a leading research and training center in neurological science for 4 decades. The institute is dedicated to research, teaching, diagnosis, and treatment. They care for patients with chronic degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. They also care for neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which constitute a serious public health problem. Brian tumors and other neurosurgical entities are also a growing area of treatment. In addition, the institute is connected with university students from Mexico and abroad for masters and doctoral programs in medicine.

The task of the department of social work at the institute includes assessing the patients’ socio-economic condition to be able to set up a payment schedule. It offers administrative guidance in conjunction with nursing and medical staff to promote patient recovery, well being, and full integration into his or her family unit. When needed, social workers make home visits. When a patient is admitted to the hospital, the social worker is in charge of explaining to the patient and the family the internal guidelines and procedures of the institute.

As one of the social workers explained to us, denial of mental illness is a problem in Mexican culture. Mental illness just isn’t very well recognized, and people with mental illness are viewed as crazy. Therefore, people put a lot of blame on themselves for their illness. The social worker explained that she often helps patients deal with negative feedback from society. She tells them that they’re not crazy, and that their illness is simply an illness like any other.

Another highlight of the week was the opportunity to visit the house where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived. The house is now a museum of Frida’s brilliant artwork. I could have spent an hour looking at each painting because they are all so filled with so much symbolism about her life. I really admire creative forms of self-expression, and it was beautiful to learn about deepest feelings of this female Mexican artist in this way. As we have spent the semester meeting people from all experiences and walks of life, I felt as though I got to meet Frida in some way.
Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954

To finish the week, we took a day to practice the Mexican cultural value of “being” rather than “doing”. In the colonia of Xochimilco, we spent the afternoon riding in a colorful boat along a canal, and were even serenaded by a group of mariachi musicians! It was a great end to a wonderful week in Mexico City.

One of the boats along the canal in Xochimilco

--By Rachel Schwabe-Fry

WEEK 12: Exchange with Mexican University (UNAM)

As students of Social Work from various universities and colleges in the United States, we have started to compare some of the differences and similarities within our educational experiences. Through an exchange with Mexican Social Work students we have continued to explore the differences and similarities in the career of Social Work. We spent the week in Mexico City at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which happens to be the second largest university in the world with the biggest Social Work program in Latin America. It was a privilege to interact with Social Work students and faculty in Mexico.

During our Tour of the University we Passed by the Library

Some of the biggest differences between programs in Mexico from the United States are the curriculum and practicum of the students. Social Work students at the UNAM start into their coursework and programs beginning in their first semester. As we have experienced in the United States, it is more common for a year or two of prerequisites to precede coursework towards a major.

The UNAM program is designed to be completed in nine semesters or four and a half years. Courses for each semester are predetermined and need to be taken in order; students can’t skip around or change their schedule. Students begin their practicum in the fourth semester. Practicum is broken into three areas: community practice, regional, and then a specialization. Two semesters are spent on each area. It is impressive that so much time in the UNAM’s program is dedicated to actual experience in the field of Social Work in addition to thorough coursework.
Fourth semester students from the UNAM presented their community practice work to our group. The goal of this practicum group of students was to work with youth to prevent drug addiction. The students trained the school’s staff, spoke with students, and presented to parents bringing awareness to the issue. This group of 12 students then measured the success of their efforts and critiqued their work. This hand-on experience was a great opportunity for the students to gain knowledge in the field of Social Work and to create applicable programs for communities.
After the presentation from Social Work students, they were interested to learn about our programs and field experience. A group of our students gave examples of internships and volunteer experiences. It was clearly different that our experience is much more individual based than the field practice of students in Mexico, which emphasizes community and group work.

Katie, Katelyn, Devin and Ashley Talking to UNAM Social Work Students about their own Experiences with Internships and Programs in the United States.

Throughout the week we were able to see how our curriculum varies from Social Work in Mexico. I feel that the experience was a great way to gain knowledge of what working with Social Workers not trained in the United States would be like if future research opportunities or job options took our work beyond U.S.

--By Julie Blatz

WEEK 11: A Break During Semana Santa

Finally, Spring Break! A much needed break from school, concrete, and exhaust fumes! During ‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week), practically the whole country goes on vacation. Not only do the schools close, but Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays, with banks, offices, and many industries closing as well.

Many Mexicans hit the beach at this time, so some of us chose to avoid the crowds and visited the beautiful state of Michoacan instead. We stayed in ‘El Pueblo Magico’, Patzcuaro, a small colonial city on the tranquil Lake Patzcuaro, surrounded by mountains and pine forests, less arid than other parts of the country.

Tzararacua Waterfall of Uruapan, Michoacan[1]

Many of the smaller surrounding villages are inhabited by the indigenous Pur├ępecha people, who have retained much of their pre- Spanish conquest traditional culture. While some of their practices are now partly geared toward tourists, many still make their living off of fishing, sustenance farming, and sales of hand-woven and beautifully embroidered clothing. The market stalls are also filled with fantastically crafted pottery, stone and copperware, carved masks and other woodwork, including the famous Paracho acoustic guitars. The level of artisanship is world class.

Fishermen on Lake Patzcuaro[2]

Many Mexicans who don’t vacation at this time instead take part in the elaborate Semana Santa celebrations held in every parish throughout the country. Called ‘Mesoamerican Catholicism’ by anthropologists, Mexicans practice a unique blend of indigenous religions and Catholicism, resulting in beautiful and fascinating celebrations [3]. They dress up and parade their holy statues in nighttime processions, weaving their way through the towns on the shoulders of parishioners by candlelight, and decorate cathedrals and churchyards with thousands of fragrant fresh-cut flowers, holding all night vigils.

Attending the Good Friday celebration in Tzintzuntzan will be one of the most memorable days in my time abroad. Held in the large town churchyard, the elaborate Passion Play is performed amidst an oddly contrasting atmosphere, somber while almost carnival-like at the same time, with picnicking families, vendors selling food, balloons, and crafts, Patzcuaro and Surrounding Countryside [4] and all the while manacled and hooded penitants weave their way through the crowd collecting alms for the church. Meanwhile, hundreds of other worshipers meander their way through the crowded church to the altar, some crawling on their knees to receive a blessing. While the shackled penitants may seem disturbing to some, we’ve learned the importance of avoiding cultural bias by viewing experiences within their own cultural context, not ours, remaining open to the real significance for the individual.

Although surrounded by so much cultural richness and natural beauty, it was at times difficult, knowing that many residents are forced to leave their homes due to economic hardship, partly due to NAFTA. The collapse of the local corn industry soon followed implementation as highly subsidized American imports squeezed out the small scale farmers, whose subsidies were at the same time required be to phased out, crippling their ability to compete in an unfair market [5].

The nearby village of Cheran, Michoacan is what “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” author, Ruben Martinez, refers to as one of the main three ‘sender states’, states with high rates of immigration to the U.S. because families can no longer survive within the local economy. I believe our foreign economic policies have much to do with our current immigration problems, as well as with some of the political and social unrest around the globe. I hope informed citizens will lobby their representatives to wield our nation’s immense influence in ways that truly promote social justice and democracy, not merely our economic interests.

--By Marianne Schmits

[1]Travel "TravelPod: The Web´s Original Travel Blog." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
[2]Corbis Corporation. "Corbis." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
[3]Foster, Lynn. “A Brief History of Mexico”. NY: Checkmark Books, 2004.
[4]Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. "Patzcuaro." Retrieved April 20, 2009 from
Anderson, Sarah & Cavanagh, John with Thea Lee and the Institute for Policy Studies. “ Field Guide to the Global Economy”, The New Press, 2005.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WEEK 10: Mexican Students Come to Cuernavaca

This week at CEMAL we had the chance to host the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) Social Work students from Mexico City. This week gave us all a chance to interact with students who are in the same, or nearly the same, stage in their life and school experience as us. Although five days is a short period of time to get to know people, I feel we all enjoyed the others´ company and walked away with new experiences.

Students Comparing and Contrasting the Challenges and Benefits of Social Work Between Mexico and the United States.
While we CGE students went on with our typical days of classes and internships, the UNAM students had a chance to listen to some of our professors. Both of our groups also had the chance to come together and hear some great speakers during this week.

One of the great speakers that I remember from this week was an Afro-Mexican woman. Her talk was about Afro-Mexicanos, and what it is like growing up as an Afro-Mexicana. She talked with us about what it was like growing up in her family, being a part of school, and her adult life now with her children. This was a very touching story for me, and I enjoyed learning about something I knew very little about.

On Thursday night we had the chance to hear from several speakers on a panel. They spoke to us about sexual diversity and being an activist for sexual diversity in their communities. This was also very interesting for me to listen to because I had heard many speakers on this topic back home in Minnesota, but it was great to hear the differences between Mexico and the United States.
UNAM Students Teaching Us Their School Cheer.

All together this was a great week for our two individual groups to come together and learn from one another. They shared with us their experiences and knowledge of social work, as did we. It was also great to be able to learn something new together from the many speakers.

--By Amber Mullenbach

Thursday, April 2, 2009

WEEK 9: Visit to Tlamacazapa

On Thursday, March 24 all of the social work students gathered to visit the non-profit organization called Atzin (meaning “sacred water” in Nautl) which works with a town in the state of Guerrero called Tlamacazapa. The meeting with the founder and director, Karrie Jones [1], was to prep us for our visit Friday. She first came to Morelos, Cuernavaca, in 1996. She didn’t have any funding, so for many years she was working on very little money.

Within the village there are many people. 60% of the homes are made with corn stalks or cedar branches. The other 40% live in concrete or brick houses. Within the town the women weave baskets. They learn how to weave from a young age. Some of the families sell the palms in bulk to other families within the town to make money. Others buy coke and sell it to others in the town.

People in Tlama believe in having large families; that children are a gift from God. The people are poorer now then they were 15 years ago. They eat only about two times a day and cook with firewood which is detrimental to the forest. The influx of junk food has increased within the last 10 years causing a decrease in health.

Filling a jug with water from one of the wells.

In 2007 a road was put in. The construction of this road ran the wells dry. There are 4 wells in Tlama. Finally, with government funding, a water pump was put in place but shortly after two men from the town took over. “Water went from a free to an economic commodity," said Karrie Jones[2]. During the dry season people were forced to buy water from them, if they could afford it.

The water in the wells drain down from the mountain and are found to have natural lead and arsenic in it. This is causing people to turn black. They have black lines across their stomachs or on their gums. The government thought it was a bacteria and put chlorine into the water supply resulting in deformities.

The group I was in first climbed the hill to get water. There wasn’t a path to walk on. The hill was very steep and keep in mind that these people have no shoes, plastic shoes, or not good shoes in general. At the top of the hill a man pulled water out of the well and we dumped it into the jug. Then each of us took turns carrying the jug down the hill. It was very heavy and the road was very smooth, which made it easy to fall. People from the village have to go down this road every day with water!

Student carrying water down the hill back to a family.

When we returned we took the water to one of the families and there we got to learn how to make palm baskets and tortillas. Afterwards we walked to meet up with the other 5 students. There we talked about our day and did a closing. It was a very exhausting experience but an eye opener to a different culture, way of life, and group of people within Mexico.

[1] Presentation with Karrie Jones, director of Atzin, a non-profit organization working in community development, on March 24. 2009, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Name is a pseudonym to respect privacy of the speaker.

[2] Ibid.

--By Ali Klatt

WEEK 8: Social Work in Mexico

I started working with Ddeser, a network for sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico, (la red por los derechos sexuales y reproductivos en Mexico) in the beginning of March. I began in correlation with other Mexican students starting their internship. Ddeser started just five years ago.

My supervisor, Nadixiel Limor (Nad) is one of the women who started the organization. She is an amazing women’s rights fighter. Every day she is reviewing the latest news on women’s rights issues in Mexico. She works closely with policy makers, looks at laws, and teaches politicians about reproductive rights. She is also a lawyer who helps women who’ve been violated. She may be called at any hour to accompany a woman to the hospital to ensure the lady’s rights are upheld.

I work closely with a young woman named Andrea Avecevedo. We both value women’s rights. We have fought for the freedom of choice although in different contexts. We give prevention talks at a high school in Temixco, Morelos every Wednesday. We teach students how to use condoms and tell them where they can get emergency contraceptive. We debunk myths comparing it to abortion. The most important is that we challenge the youth to think about their future. Teenage pregnancy is a social problem all over the world and thinking about one’s future is another example of prevention.

Andrea demonstrating how to put on a condom.

This week I met Juan Manuel Zaragoza who works with community organizing in San Anton, Cuernavaca. He talked about what it means to do social work in Mexico and participatory action research, where people come to research, participate, and give back to the community.

Zaragoza said, “There are 100,000 people who ask for information [i.e. foreigners]. They go back, turn in their thesis. What happens with all the theses that have been written?”
Many students come here to “learn” but they do not participate and return home to forget about the social problems in Mexico. I will not be the next to leave without giving something back.

I focused on not pushing my US social work values on the people but I was also afraid to make suggestions or share. I talked to my supervisor about it. She told me that I should always speak up when I have ideas. We already have very similar feminist values, and I should not worry.

Me talking to the students about emergency contraception.

One must be here to live in the problem rather than have the “fix it” attitude. In Morelos it is illegal to get an abortion. All involved will be prosecuted.

I can be a resource for women who need to get to Mexico City for abortions. I can work with others to help pregnancy/STD prevention, share expertise without pushing my own agenda, help make a change, and lastly leave something behind to give back to the organization for all that I have learned.

Me telling the Temixco high school students to "Imagine at this moment in your lives that you are pregnant. How will it change your futures?"

*Interested in learning more about Ddeser, check out the website*

--By Katie Walker