Gained in Translation: Lessons from a visit to a Mexican orphanage
A few months ago, I traveled with eighteen other Catholic singles to Casa de Elizabeth—an orphanage in Imuris, Mexico, a region in the state of Sonora, about two hours south of Tucson. It is an area marked by small rivers that flow west from the Sierra Madre, where many of the residents sell their wares, like handmade tortillas, in the middle of the roads. There are about one hundred children at Casa de Elizabeth, ranging from infants to teens. Some have lost both parents and have no other relatives. Others have been victims of violence or sexual abuse, or were street children who survived by stealing, dealing drugs or prostitution. Still others have literally been rescued from garbage dumps and cardboard shelters. Considering the depth of the children’s trauma, I was hoping I’d be able to do something good for them and to do it in a tangible, concrete way, like some of my companions who would be replacing a dormitory roof that was in such decay rain was seeping in on the children.
Before I even arrived, I had particular images in mind of what this something good would look like. I was hoping that the days would be filled with activities that had some kind of end result. For example, I was looking forward to going into the classrooms and reading to the children from bilingual books, so that we could practice each other’s language. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I thought this could be a way around the language barrier, enabling us to speak words, if not to each other, than at least with each other. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most popular of saints, is known for saying: Preach the Gospel. When necessary use words. Although preaching the gospel was not the purpose of the mission trip, Francis’ words should have assured me in a general sense that we are, all of us, capable of communicating and receiving love without words. Still, when the opportunity to spend time in the classrooms didn’t materialize, I found myself asking, what next? I’m someone who’s a little uncomfortable with time that’s not accounted for. But during my days at the orphanage, I soon came to realize that the children had an entirely different attitude towards time. This became especially apparent to me one afternoon during an arts and crafts project with the kids.
The room we were using was austere, and served both as cafeteria and activity room. On that particular day, it still smelled of the small bowls of sopas the kids had eaten for lunch. After we finished setting up, certain that each child had what they needed, the kids got started. The activity called for using fine motor skills: stringing ribbon through tiny beads to make necklaces and book marks, for example, and gluing small decorative pieces to felt. Because it called for such precision, I expected that at some point the children would get distracted, bored or impatient. However, as their fingers grew tacky with glue and they tried for a fourth or fifth time to thread a piece of ribbon through a bead smaller than the eye of a needle, it became clear to me they weren’t thinking what next? or I wonder if what’s coming next is better. Instead, they showed great patience with themselves, bowing their heads closer to the table and narrowing their eyes in concentration. At some point, a few of them did need help, but they didn’t get frustrated with themselves. They simply looked at me, said, Necesito ayuda por favor, and even though I didn’t understand, I knew what to do.
Beyond their patience and satisfaction with their work, what I noticed about the kids is that while they wanted to spend as much time as possible with my companions and me, how we spent that time was of little consequence to them. They were happy to kick around a soccer ball or play some basketball or, in the case of the teens, to join us the morning as we gathered to clear brush and trash on a road surrounding the orphanage. Ultimately, the kids weren’t interested in how many projects or games or which projects or games I or any one else did or played with them. They were just interested in spending time with a caring adult who was willing to be with them. They weren’t interested in time the way I am, measuring its meaning by how much I can get done in a given day. While it’s true that some of this reflects cultural differences, culture doesn’t explain it all. They’re children—children tend to live in the moment better than adults do—but they’re also children who have escaped, some by a very thin line, hardship and even ugliness and are still trusting, loving, and fun as well as patient with whatever does or does not come next.
While I certainly did not master the lesson of “being” at Casa de Elizabeth, I suspected the entire time that I was there that giving up my need to be doing all the time was part of my lesson, and that our presence to the kids, and their presence to us, was more important than any concrete project we accomplished. It is for this that I have the children to thank. They may not have been preaching the gospel to me, but they were certainly preaching a gospel, and they did it without speaking a word, at least not one I could translate.
Maria Giura, Ph.D., has written for Spirituality & Health magazine, as well as for television productions on the Hallmark Channel and Telecare TV. She is based in Staten Island, New York.