Gilbert schoolkids soak up Sonoran culture
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 15, 2005
Michelle Woo

It was a lesson that couldn't be found in the textbooks.

Twenty-five kids from Gilbert Elementary School packed their bags last week and traveled to Sonora, Mexico.

When they returned, they brought home a few Spanish phrases, scrapbooks of memories and a greater respect for the world around them.

As part of Hands Across the Border, a student exchange program between Arizona and Sonora, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders spent months preparing for the three-day trip south of the border, reading guidebooks, listening to Spanish tapes and studying Mexican customs.

But it wasn't until they set foot in the historical town of Nacozari that culture came to life.

"You can look at all the pictures in the world, but it's not the same as being there," said 10-year-old Devin Ciccarellijouett.

The students were welcomed by Mexican host families with a fiesta, highlighted with food and music. Their Mexican buddies, students from Benito Juarez Elementary School in Nacozari, taught them the Spanish bunny hop and hokeypokey. Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins all gathered for the celebration.

"They were treated like kings and queens," said coordinator Dottie Dawn. "In Mexico, everything is about respect."

Dawn was one of 10 chaperones for the trip.

Living with host families, students were immersed in the Mexican lifestyle. They watched family prayers and rituals and ate home-cooked meals.

Most host families spoke little or no English. The kids carried around Spanish language manuals.

"If you didn't know that leche means milk, you'd have to use hand motions," said Sam Smith, 11.

Ten-year-old Maria Winter said she was surprised to learn that her host family invited a neighbor to live with them after her husband died. In Mexico, Maria said, family togetherness is extremely important.

What surprised Sam was the daily schedule. His host dad would come home from work each day around 1 p.m. for a big family meal and a nap. He then would go back to work around 8 or 9 p.m.

"The mom usually doesn't work," Sam said. "She would stay home to raise the kids and teach them lessons."

Dalton Holliday, 10, said that even if the homes in Nacozari weren't as big or nice as those in Gilbert, people always seemed appreciative.

"Even if they're poor, they're just happy with what they have," Dalton said.

During the trip, the children took part in a flag ceremony and toured shops and museums. They went to school with their buddies and learned about the history of the town.

Dawn said the children realized that they had more in common their buddies than they imagined and that friendship sees no borders. In April, students from Benito Juarez Elementary School will travel to Arizona and stay with their Gilbert Buddies.

"When you first get there, you're afraid and shy. But then when you get to their house, you're like their best friend. You don't want to leave," said Kaitlyn Robinson, 11.

Ten-year-old Jacey Wigley agreed. She said the trip taught her how to better understand people.

"There is more than one way of looking at things. There's no right way," Jacey said.

Sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Sonora and approved by the Arizona Department of Education, Hands Across the Border is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting schools and communities in improving cultural sensitivity and understanding among residents of the border states of Mexico, Canada and the United States.