At 7:00 AM on September 8, I climbed into the back of my host family's pickup truck and headed for the bus that would take the cast and I from Tepic to Culiacan. My host dad was very sad to see me go. He told me that if I ever wanted to return to Mexico, he would gladly open up his home to me and give me a job in his family's business. After being in Mexico for three weeks, my host father in Tepic made me feel like there was a piece of Mexican culture inside of me. Having him offer me a job was a great honor. I felt like an equal member of Mexico's society. The day before I had had some young Mexican men call me a "Blonco" or "Whitey". I was not offended, but I felt a large void between Mexican culture and myself. My host father allowed me to feel the strength of cultural acceptance.
Our cast's trip to Culiacan took 12 hours. Our bus, traveled through beautiful deserts lined with mountains that decorated the horizon. Freight trains sped by like snakes in the distance. The mountains between Tepic and Culiacan are very defined; nothing stands between the desert and the steep sides of each incline. We were frequently stopped by military checkpoints along the highway. Students were sometimes asked to show their passport, but for the most part these checkpoints are used as a way of raising awareness. The transportation of drugs is a large concern in Mexico, but other items such as fruit cannot be taken from city to city and are commonly transported by tourists by mistake. The city of Culiacan has been fighting a war against drugs for many years. The sight of an army vehicle filled with soldiers is not uncommon to see driving by, but the city of Culiacan holds no danger to individuals that did not get involved in the wrong activity.
During my community impact days in Culiacan, I was given the opportunity to visit one of the most incredible places in Mexico. Myself and eight other male cast members signed up to visit a drug rehab center in downtown Culiacan. The center was started on March 21, 1995 by a woman called Mama Ilda. It originated in a small house with an eight member group. It was born by the needs of the people. Originally, it started out as a home for young men that had recently been released from prison. It started to grow as homeless individuals came seeking refuge from the harsh elements of street life. Everyone that has lived at the center since 1995 has voluntarily asked for help and a place to live. The men are required to stay at the facility for six months, but they are given food and a place to sleep. Residents are taught to self reflect and are shown many different trades such as carpentry, cooking and farming. Five days a week every each individual works in the facility's bakery. The gentleman cook breads and pastries that are sold in the local markets. The bakery goods they make are a main source of income for the rehabilitation center.
The facility is filled with laughter and compassion because the residents are allowed to converse and have a good time, but they are encourage to follow the rules of love and respect. I was extremely moved by my visit. I have never witnessed such a strong sense of brotherhood among men of such age differences. I could not figure out why everyone was so closely connected until I spoke to Mama Ilda. She told me that the secret was soccer. Every Saturday, men of all ages get together to play a game that they all took very seriously. Ilda told me that the men's soccer game was their purpose for making it through another week. Rain or shine, Saturday was game day and no one missed it. Some members that become attached to Mama Ilda's center stay for many years and coach other individuals in need. Residents are able to earn college degrees and find apprenticeships with the assistance of teachers who were at one point struggling with drugs as well.
Up With People is a nonreligious organization, but I have never felt closer to God than I did during my visit to Mama Ilda's rehabilitation center. As I sat in a circle of men in a small church, It was as if I could feel the silence of the setting throughout my whole body. The room was very still. The heat of the building seemed to match the warmth of my body and it was as if the barrier of my skin did not separate my soul from the air around me. The men around me sat in silence as Ilda's translator spoke and I felt the strength of a higher power all around me. A translator helped me to speak to some of the men around me and the elements of our conversations allowed me to better understand their culture and leverage our diversity. Whether or not you believe in religion, there is a higher sense of connection that holds all people together regardless of culture. We must all understand our differences, but I feel as if I have traveled to a place that has allowed me to look into the eyes of another without noticing their differences.
Towards the middle of the week, I became very sick and was taken to a clinic/hospital in downtown Culiacan. Blood work indicated that I had somehow caught in intestinal disease called typhus. I had to stay in bed for the next few days, but I was able to make it through our Thursday and Friday night shows and it was worth it. Our cast performed for over 2500 citizens of Culiacan and provided a sign of hope in a city that commonly wages a war against drugs. Before we reached Culiacan I was told that we where going to a city that was extremely hot and sometimes violent, but the city of Culiacan is gorgeous, clean and enjoyable. Let's hope that the city of Hermosillo is a little cooler.