La Vida Loca: Roz Purcell's visit to Mexico with World Vision
Photos by David Conachy
Roz Purcell travels to see how World Vision is helping young teenagers break the cycle of poverty and crime.
I'd been to Mexico before.
In 2010 and 2011, I travelled to the home of tequila and tortillas for modelling work. The first time was soon after the 2010 Miss Universe pageant - I had a magazine shoot there, and a few months later, I did a fashion show in Cancun.
It was all glam and glitz and nice hotels. I saw one side of the country during those visits but, perhaps naively, I remained blissfully unaware of the vast underbelly of poverty, crime and disaffected young people that is the other, darker side of Mexico.
In November, I returned to Mexico for the third time, but this time I had a new purpose, and a few more years of life-experience under my belt.
I'd worked with World Vision before, and having been to Mexico, I was interested to see exactly what it was doing on the ground there - the non-profit NGO is involved in promoting child equality, educating children on their rights and on gender equality.
As a young female, I wanted to help play a part in getting those positive messages out there.
When our plane came in to land, the first thing I noticed was the vast size of Mexico City, which is home to almost 22 million people - it seemed never-ending, stretching as far as the eye could see, until it merged with the far-off horizon.
As we drove down the familiar city streets, I noticed my favourite shopping and food spots, and it seemed that not much had changed since my last visit, four years previously. Mexico City, on the surface, seemed very much a typical Latin American metropolis, heavily influenced by its big sister, the United States, with branches of McDonald's, Burger King and TGI Friday's on every corner.
So, on the surface, it was hard to understand why Mexicans might need World Vision's help. Over the next few days, however, I was disabused of any doubts I might have had, as I got first-hand experience of just how much the youth of Mexico require support and security to give them hope for their future.
Mexico has a huge problem with gangs.
When I'd visited previously, I was never really allowed to walk around by myself - obviously, there are some main areas where its completely fine and safe to do so, but I always knew there was a dangerous element.
So many young kids in Mexico feel that joining a gang is their only way out, and they see it as such an easy way to make money.
Whether that's just by being a spy, or keeping a lookout to warn of police coming - there are so many ways they can get involved in gang-related activity that, on a superficial level, don't appear to involve any crime, as such.
The most disturbing thing I was told when it came to gangs was that the average lifespan of someone once they join a gang is 37 days. The challenge is trying to get it through to the kids that joining a gang is not, in fact, a way out.
Our first stop on our flying visit was to Tulpetlac, a semi-urban location made up of immigrants from the southern Mexican states (Mexico's official name is the United Mexican States, of which there are 31; and it is a federal republic, with a population of 120 million people).
My initial reaction driving up to this suburb was awe at the colours of the multitude of houses that scaled the surrounding hills, but, in a practical sense, I was at a loss as to how we were going to ever find our way back on this meandering mess of winding roads!
The town has clearly suffered from a lack of building laws, or poor enforcement, with those who seek refuge and hope in the city ending up in substandard accommodation that can lack basic facilities, because they are willing to live anywhere.
A lot of the parents in places like Tulpetlac are working 24/7 to try to survive, so they're not really ever there for their kids. They find it hard to look after themselves, so having kids to look after, too . . . they're just not able.
In Mexico, over 50pc of the population lives below the poverty line. If a family has a stall or a workshop, the parents feel that the kids should be working there - they see that as more beneficial than the kids getting an education. A lot of children told me that their parents are never around and they are left idle to go on the streets; they fend for themselves.
Their childhood is, in effect, stolen from them.
World Vision has been working in Tulpetlac for 10 years. I visited a primary school where they help re-educate the teachers, who, in turn, educate the children and their parents on the importance of children's rights.
They focus on programmes in the area of preventing violence, whether that's in the home or on the streets; and have specific male programmes on expressing gender equality toward females - peers, daughters, siblings.
The work World Vision is doing here goes far deeper than just giving supplies - it is re-educating a nation, spreading equality and empowering the younger generations.
Over-populated, under-resourced and run by gangs: I slowly began to unfold the hidden cracks that Mexico had kept from me. With poor infrastructure, poverty, unreliable water and electricity, transport and violence, the ones suffering the most here are clearly the youth.
These young people are not left with much hope, nor support from their families. Many join gangs. In most cases, they are absent from education - particularly females, as education is still regarded as of lesser importance for this sex.
Next, I went to a middle school in rural Mexico, where I was met by a group of young teenagers. Out of all my experiences in Mexico, this made the biggest impact on me - it gave me a first-hand connection with the work World Vision has done so far, and was utterly inspiring.
Teens of 13 and 14 were telling me their stories and they were very honest, saying, "We don't have any support from our families; our families don't really see the need for us to have an education, and that's just something that's been passed down from generation to generation".
It was hard for me to grasp because in Ireland, it's in our mentality, our tradition, that you do whatever you can for your children. Once you have a child, you live for them. It's just very different in Mexico. I asked why the kids' parents don't support them in getting an education, but the thing is, those kids' parents weren't supported by their parents. It's a cycle that's been perpetuated down through the generations, so World Vision is trying to break that cycle.
The kids were very well-spoken. They told me, "Oh, we know what we're missing. We don't have that support." A lot of them said they were going through puberty. "We have to go through all these changes by ourselves, and then at the end of the day, go home from school, and there's no support. For us, there's minimal opportunity, but we need to be the generation that has to change that," they said.
They were so positive. I was sitting there while they were saying all this, and I was so inspired by them. They said, "We want to be the generation to change things and break the cycle. We want to bring up our children fully knowing their rights and having opportunities. We feel that we have to leave our communities and go to the cities or go to America to work, but we shouldn't have to feel that way."
They spoke about what they would like to become in the future - now, I'm not talking about space cadets or actors, these kids all had a clear focus; they aspired to be chefs, web developers, teachers, physios. They told me that how they remain positive is through the support they have from each other, their peers. They have learned that they must be the ones to end the inequality and want to be able to offer their children the support, opportunity and hope that every child has a right to enjoy.
The females of the group were the clear leaders in the conversation, and I was taken aback by the little group of empowering women that sat next to me. They yearned for success, they hungered for change, they were educated on their rights and they weren't going to let anything stop them.
Rural Mexico doesn't have much in the way of opportunities. A lot of the children, if you ask them, "What are you going to do after you finish school?", they say, "Move into the city". The cities are just manic and very congested.
World Vision's aim is to give opportunities to kids so that they stay in their rural communities and build them up. People are migrating into the cities in large numbers, and that's where a lot of the country's huge problems are coming from.
I was really keen to go and visit some of the farms.
Before my visit with World Vision, I was in college - I'm studying nutritional therapy - and we were researching diets of the world. The Mexican diet came up, and I remember thinking, "I've been to Mexico and had the most amazing fresh, gorgeous food", but it turns out that the country has one of the world's worst diets, because the people are just so influenced by America.
Mexico is completely overrun by big corporate brands. Even in deepest rural Mexico, where there's hardly a mobile phone to be found, there will be a shop selling all this processed food - really well-known American brands.
You just go, "What the hell?" That's what poor people are eating, because it's accessible and cheap. They see the processed American food as a form of prosperity; they think that if they have it, they are doing well. I met some little kids there, and when I saw some of the stuff they were eating, I wanted to say, "Stop, put it down!" but the thing is, that food might be the only thing they got to eat that day.
World Vision has tried to re-educate people on the importance of being self-sufficient and being able to produce good-quality, organic food for themselves and their family, and how that can benefit their health. World Vision helps to set up things like vegetable gardens and herb gardens and simple things like chicken coops - a lot of people in rural areas would have chickens, but they were constantly getting killed (getting run over by traffic or savaged by dogs), so a simple thing like giving them wiring to form a chicken coop has made a huge difference.
It brought the saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" to life for me. I could also see that the people who produce their own food were much healthier than those who don't farm. It's all simple stuff World Vision is doing, but the difference that it has made is enormous!
There was one man I met, he was a maize farmer, a really old man - he had broken English and I had broken Spanish, so with that, and a bit of charades, we managed to have a conversation, and he very kindly taught me how to make tortillas from scratch. He was almost in tears when he told me how he had to leave his family 20 years ago, and that it was the hardest thing he ever had to do - he went to New York City to work on building sites for six years, so he could send money home to support his family.
I can't even imagine being in that position of having to leave my family for years. Now, he has his maize farm, and he makes tortillas, and he has his kids there, and they are all married. He's just so content. He had very little and was a very humble man, and his daily routine was just so simple, but I think a lot of people could learn from him. I found him to be a very inspiring character.
Education is making a massive difference in Mexico. Children are so much more knowledgeable now in terms of their rights.
The most important concept that World Vision tries to impress on the kids is: you can be whatever you want to be. Don't feel suppressed by your environment or what's going on, because you're a young, strong individual and these are your rights, and we'll do our very best to make sure you have those rights.
So it's quite an empowering experience to be part of, because you're with these people and you come back and realise how much you take for granted. We have so many opportunities here and there are so many different groups to help out individuals, whereas there they don't have that.
World Vision is raising awareness, they're re-educating, they're doing small, simple things that I suppose we might not look at as being important, but in Mexico, and for those that I met, they are, without a doubt, truly life-changing.
To find out more about World Vision's work, or to donate, see worldvision.ie or call (01) 498-0800.