by Elaine Ezekiel ’13
Sophomore Elaine Ezekiel wrote the following story about her externship with alumna Rachel Udow ’08. The award winning Discovery Externship Program is one of those “K” innovations that make the education here so valuable.
How does an unassuming, Anglo, 24-year old woman from Dexter, Michigan end up on the Texas-Mexico border advocating for the health of migrant workers? That question was foremost in my mind when I applied to the Center for Career and Professional Development’s Discovery Externship Program to spend two weeks living and working with Rachel Udow’08. I filed my application to “extern” with Migrant Health Promotion, the non-profit for which Rachel works, with only a vague idea of what the externship might hold. Two weeks later, Rachel called me for an interview, quizzing me in Spanish to check my fluency. And two months after that, Rachel met me at the airport in Hidalgo County, Texas, where I’d be working.
We stepped out of the terminal into what felt like a foreign country (90 percent of Hidalgo County’s population is Hispanic). I wiped sweat from my eyes and saw a barrage of signs and billboards in Spanish. We stopped at a supermarket, and Rachel’s interactions flitted from rapid Spanish to excited English as she explained her plan for the next two weeks.
When she’d e-mailed me saying she wanted me out in the field as much as possible, I’d assumed she meant the agricultural fields where migrant workers harvest cotton, citrus, onions and sugarcane. A silent panic set in as I tried to imagine the feel of an afternoon’s searing heat during midday toil in a field. To my relief, Rachel clarified that by “field” she meant MHP’s field of community outreach.
We pulled off of the highway and into Rachel’s dirt driveway across from a cane field. She lives in what’s called a colonia, an unzoned neighborhood near the Mexico border and often lacking essential infrastructure. Her home is propped atop stacks of cinder blocks to avoid saturation from the oft-flooding Rio Grande levees. Rachel’s college friend, Marlene Chavez ’08, who grew up next door, arranged for her to live here. The friends met as first-year runners on the Hornet cross-country team. Marlene introduced Rachel to the Rio Grande Valley when they collaborated on their Senior Individualized Project, a documentary about single mothers in the valley. I fell asleep early on that first night, succumbing to the unexpected wave of South Texas culture shock.
It was already 80 degrees outside at 6:30 the next morning, when a chorus of the neighbor’s roosters, geese, five dogs, and a pony woke us. After cold showers and a light breakfast, Rachel and I drove her Chow, Lila, to a nearby park in order to avoid the half dozen rowdy neighborhood dogs, scrapping for Lila’s affection.
Walking Lila, we passed a man selling raspas, or sno-cones, boasting a selection of more than 50 flavors, including the local delicacy, dubbed a “Piccadilly:” grape syrup over shaved iced, topped with the contents of a Kool-Aid packet, dill pickles, and several Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
After dropping Lila at home, Rachel and I headed to MHP’s headquarters: a nondescript office nestled in Weslaco’s historic district. Rachel stepped into her office, labeled Program Director, and handed me a pair of headphones, asking me to translate three video interviews about immigration stories so that they could be dubbed in English and posted to YouTube as educational material.
Determined to translate the unfamiliar Mexican Spanish completely, I sat in the chilly conference room under fluorescent lights for most of the workday, replaying rapid sentences over and over, until I’d picked apart every possible unknown word with my translation dictionary. I sat puzzling over one man saying he harvested pino, or pine trees, in Texas, until I realized he was saying a heavily-accented pepino, or cucumber.
During the next two weeks, Rachel fit me into her routine of coming home from work to walk Lila, experimenting with new recipes, visiting her neighbors, and going to sleep around 10 p.m. I saw her both in an out of a professional environment, which helped us get to know each other quickly. After a stressful day of work, Marlene’s home was a haven of laughter and delicious TexMex. Meeting the Chavez family was a high point of my externship. Their welcoming yet frank spirit put me at ease, even across a language barrier. Marlene, who works with a legal aid firm in the valley, and Rachel became interested in the rights of migrant workers at “K.” The women worked together in a service-learning partnership between Farmworker Legal Services and the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning. Rachel continued to work FLS after graduating and before her move to MHP.
MHP uses a model of advocacy where respected members of a community are designated and trained to become Promatoras, or health workers. Rachel spends her time behind the scenes, writing grants, coordinating with the Promatoras and fielding problems. Each program is run by grant support, and most have finite schedules to achieve their goals of educating colonia populations about a range of issues, including healthy pregnancies, teen empowerment, vitamins, relationship violence, and severe weather preparedness.
Early in the externship Rachel put my interest in journalism to use by assigning me to shadow or conduct an interview with a Promatora
Something I had applied for on a whim provided unforgettable lessons in humility, perspective, and gratitude in a way impossible to glean solely from a classroom.from each MHP’s programs. I spoke with a dozen women so committed to their cause that my task began to seem less like work and more of an honor, albeit an important responsibility to something sacred. Before heading back to the colonia I would transcribe or translate each story of community empowerment.
Rachel and I were at the supermarket after work one afternoon, and I remember seeing obese mothers and their overweight children checking out on either side of us, purchasing two-liter cokes, Ramen noodles, and loaves of Wonder Bread. On the way home, Rachel told me that many women consider those groceries a staple. Access to healthy and affordable food can be challenging for valley residents. Rachel said that promoting nutrition is more complex than just explaining the food pyramid.
I learned the complexity of living in the valley one morning when Rachel and I heard that a tropical storm was barreling straight for us. At first, I was simply frightened for my own safety, never having experienced a hurricane before. Rachel’s concern was on behalf of families with undocumented members. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains permanent checkpoints along the only evacuation routes in times of danger. Families with undocumented members must choose braving the storm in their frail colonia homes or evacuating and running the risk of deportation of a loved one.
The storm merely soaked the valley, but it caused fatalities in parts of Mexico, and I learned that families in the valley’s colonias had opted to endanger the entire family in order to stay together. The pain of such a choice made me angry, and I called ICE’s Texas office to ask about its evacuation policy. The operator treated me with extreme suspicion, asking me questions about my identity and motivation for calling and leaving me on hold before transferring me to another operator who told me that that information was unavailable.
In such unexpected ways my externship shed light on the immigration debate. Something I had applied for on a whim provided unforgettable lessons in humility, perspective, and gratitude in a way impossible to glean solely from a classroom. I came to appreciate the experiential opportunities “K” provides and the important connections that result. Because Rachel joined the cross-country team she ended up in Texas, making a difference in a community that needs her. She trusted herself to follow the people she grew to love at K, and opportunities unfolded before her.
Rachel said it best one evening at a coffee shop when I asked her how she ended up in such an unlikely place. After a thoughtful pause she said, “I care about issues outside of myself, but I don’t really get drawn to issues, or fired up about issues. I think that what you get fired up about are relationships and people.”
Rachel Udow ’08 (left) and Elaine Ezekiel ’13