‘I Am Here’ Ewa Sadowska’s report from Mexico
At a meeting of Young Global Leaders in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico in 2012, I met Barbara Arredondo, a journalist active within the local community of Monterrey, her hometown. She became a friend and invited me to take part in ‘I Am Here’ sessions taking place in Mexico City in November 2013 giving me an opportunity to share ‘Barka’s’ experiences with the local youth.
The name ‘I Am Here’ comes from a message about being physically and psychologically present in a given place and time. I am here to learn, create and contribute to furthering the civilisation.
The story of ‘I Am Here’ and that of their initiator Barbara Arredondo proves that positive changes in the environment can be triggered by a single person who due to extraordinary and often traumatic circumstances has to overcome their own fears and limitations to initiate a new chapter in the history of their community or country.
Monterrey is the third largest city in Mexico, found in the north-east part of the country, and fiftieth richest city in the world. For many decades, it had been one of the safest and most prosperous city communities, it has been governed for hundreds of years in a traditional way by entrepreneurial families of craftsmen and manufacturers who run their own businesses and maintain the local economy.
In June 2011, a terrorist attack related to drug cartel activity took place at the Monterrey Casino. Fifty six people were killed. It was only one of a series of similar occurrences all over the country which saw innocent people, families and children lose their lives.
Drug smuggling from Mexico to other Latin American countries and the United Sates is carried out by well organised mafia groups and has been a long standing problem. The drug trade, especially of opium and marijuana, has begun as early as the XIX century when Chinese came to Mexico to work as cheap labour at building sites and factories. Opium smoking is strongly rooted in Chinese culture, which resulted in the emergence of opium houses and poppy plantations run by the immigrants. Mexicans quickly noticed the money-earning potential and took up production of drugs themselves.
Every day, Mexican media buzzes with stories of yet more tragic accidents, new, efficient ways of smuggling, discoveries of labyrinths of underground smuggling tunnels and the rising prices of drugs sold by Mexican farmers, who due to large demand and attractive prices think nothing of farming anything else. It all came to light in 2006 when the then president of Mexico Filip Calderon declared war on drug cartels, announcing it a ‘national challenge’.
Since then, over sixty thousand Mexican citizens lost their lives as a consequence of cartel activity and thousands more died in unexplained circumstances. Places such as Monterrey which until recently were an oasis of peace and security became the focus of drug trade resulting in violence and mafia wars and causing intensified social tensions, fear and shake up social structures.
Barbara Arredondo took on writing about the social problems of Mexico in the context of imminent political changes (presidential elections of 2012) and the possible social transformations with the aim of inspiring hope and encouraging action in times of prevalent fear and suspicion. She realised, however, that even though written word has the ability to raise social awareness, she will not be able to inject unity into the local communities with writing alone. ‘I was experiencing the need for changes first-hand. I was living in fear. I couldn’t sleep for months. I realised that only targeted action will allow me to conquer my fear and help friends to deal with theirs.’ – said Barbara.
She begun to organise workshops for young people and women in Monterrey. The aim was to inspire whole families, including the many wealthy women of Monterey, to act. With greater unity and responsibility in the community, drug mafia will be less likely to find a suitable base. Barbara has succeeded at uniting the whole community to act upon the matter. The first meeting saw three hundred participants with opening speeches by the Dalai Lama and Kofi Annan, who both come to Monterrey following Barbara’s invitation. She succeeded at obtaining funds for later sessions from businesses and individual sponsors.
In November 2013, ‘I Am Here’ workshops were for the first time held in the heart of the Mexican capital. Over two thousand young people participated, including twenty female prisoners, who sat in the upper circle next to their prison guards.
Barbara asked me to tell the youngsters about Barka’s experiences in the context of changes that took place in Poland in 1989. I begun with the history of my family and that of my parents who left secure jobs as psychologists in support agencies to move into a dilapidated building in the countryside in western Poland to live with a group of people who experienced trauma. I spoke about growing up in the community they created and about the people who were coming from everywhere. About characters like Heniu who experienced a twenty-year stint in jail or Andrzej who, for many years, lived in a bunker. I talked about the movement borne out of the pioneering work of ‘Barka’ that eventually became a system of social economy with benefits in the form of local organisations, enterprises and institutions, about the fact that freedom gained at the expense of many lives, is for us Poles, very important, that we want to strengthen it for the common good, that the the spirit of John Paul II is still present in Poland and that it’s him we owe our freedom to.
My speech received a warm ovation. After the meeting, many people came to ask me questions, share their thoughts and express interest in coming to Poland for study visits in partnerships for the sake of Poland’s social economy. I learned that Mexicans love the Polish Pope who’s all five visits to their country attracted more than ten million people each.
A woman who was on her way to see her unjustly jailed father told me she was going to tell him the story I shared, the story of people who rebuild their lives and came out on top after the greatest life upsets. ‘This will prove to my father that change is possible and that one can rise from any fall’.
I also met representatives of civil organisations. Adriana Cortes Jimenez, the director of ‘Fundacion Comunitaria Del Bajio’ (‘Del Bajio Community Foundation’) who works on creating local partnerships in the Mexican region of Bajio, has expressed interest in cooperating with ‘Barka’.
An Iraqui activist, Zainab Saibi, shared a touching story. Her father was Saddam Hussain’s private pilot and she experienced violence from Saddams family first-hand. As a young woman, she escaped to the United States and established ‘Women for Women International’, an organisation helping women who live in regions affected by military conflict and who suffer unimaginable violence. The organisation operates all over the world offering the possibility of education and employment.
Jiwe Morris from the US was brought up by a New Jersey gang, took drugs and spent few years in prison. His life was in ruins. However with the birth of his first daughter and a change of environment he found a reason to break out.
Agapi Stassinopoulous from Greece is an actress who writes books about courage and strengthening of self-worth. She shared the story of her life beginning with childhood, which was affected by learning difficulties and concluding in adulthood which is when, in a surprising fashion, she became not only a famous actress but a symbol of courage and not giving up in face of adversities.
Interest was sparked by Lily Yeh from China, known as the ‘barefoot artist’, who contributed to transforming many local communities with artistic undertakings that involved the entire local partnership including its organisations as well as public and private institutions. In doing so she succeeded at reinstalling unity and a sense of a common goal in disorganised boroughs of Asia and Africa. Lilly too was very interested in ‘Barka’s’ work.
I learned a lot of inspiring stories about the process of maturing into taking responsibility and gaining the courage to act. I believe that many young people who listened were touched and inspired and that this inspiration will translate into taking action within their local environments.
During a TV and radio interview I was asked, amongst other things, about major obstacles encountered by ‘Barka’ in its work and whether Polish models could be employed in the boroughs of Mexico. I answered that the greatest stumbling block is usually our mentality, that Polish models of social economy can work in Mexico and that study visits would be a good start.
My visit to Mexico was a lesson about the intricacies of problems and challenges world over and the great potential in humans waiting to be awaken. I believe that the meeting will result in building a bridge between the Polish and Mexican communities and will help in rebuilding of many areas as we will be able to educate each other, take study visits and benefit from mutual support.