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Rebecca FarrinRebecca Farrin

Rebecca Farrin: Finding Her Path.

The sun feels hot as the battered bus bounces along a dusty road on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Rebecca Farrin '05 lurches against the hard bench seat as the bus hits a pothole. In front of her sits a dark-skinned man in a sweat-stained straw hat. His hands are thick and calloused. Across the aisle, an old woman with a deeply lined face and straight, salt and pepper hair pulled into braid that's woven with a bright red ribbon, clutches a shopping bag to her ample bosom. Under her seat, two skinny chickens huddle in a cage made of thin sticks. Next to her sits a young mother, discretely nursing a baby. No, this isn't the tourist version of Oaxaca; it's the real Mexico that Willamette University student Farrin is living day after day.

Farrin, a Gilman Scholarship recipient, is on her way to Desarrollo Integral de la Juventud Oaxaquena (Integral Development of Oaxacan Youth), a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk and poverty-stricken youth in the small communities outside the city of Oaxaca, one of the poorest areas in southern Mexico. Her $5,000 scholarship paid for her to come to the University of Oaxaca where she's studying literature, anthropology and pre-Hispanic Mexican history, which is taught entirely in Spanish. She's also volunteering at the development center.

"I love kids," she says softly. "In Salem, I work with kids in bi-lingual education at Bush Elementary. Since most of my kids are from Mexico, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get to know their country."

The bus pulls up in front of a bright turquoise store where they sell newspapers and magazines. Farrin grabs her backpack and disembarks. The air is tinged with the smell of fresh tortillas, truck diesel, and sewage from a nearby litter-strewn creek. "Tamales," calls out a woman, who carries a cloth-covered basket propped on one hip. Farrin isn't temped by those fragrant parcels. At the home of her host family earlier today, she ate a mid-day meal - carrot soup, chicken, vegetables, fruit, rice and beans, tortillas and rice pudding with cinnamon.

As she walks along the street, Farrin's blond hair and freckled skin make her stand out in the sea of brown faces. "Oye, güwhite girl]," calls out a young man lounging against a tireless Chevy propped on blocks. Mexican music blares from a boombox at his feet. Nearby, his three friends snigger. Farrin looks straight ahead and quickens her pace slightly. She's learned to ignore the unwanted male attention her pale skin attracts. After so many months, she's almost become accustomed to Mexico's macho attitudes toward women. Almost, but not quite. Sometimes, she raises her soft voice and talks back to them. Today, she just keeps walking.

She's in the small community of Xoxo (pronounced ho ho), one of a number of towns surrounding the city. The unpaved streets are lined with tiny homes, some little more than collections of corrugated tin and mud bricks. Most of them have dirt floors, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. She passes an open door where a woman sweeps the dirt floor with a straw broom. The room is bare except for a small wooden table and two mismatched chairs. In the front yard, a thin dog that recently bore pups lies in the shade of a scruffy tree while three toddlers play on a pile of old tires. "HoláSeñ Vargas," Farrin calls out.

The woman, the mother of one of the children Farrin works with at the center, looks up from her work and smiles shyly. "Buenas tardes."

It's taken time, but Farrin has been embraced by many of the families she's worked with, unusual in such a close, family-oriented culture. "I've gotten to know many of my families," she says. "I've built relationships with them. I've even been invited to their baptisms and other special events."

At the development center, the children, who range in age from five to 13, smile when they see Farrin. One dark-haired youngster, a bare-footed girl no older than six who's dressed in a tattered flowered dress, holds Farrin's hand tightly. When Farrin first arrived, the children acted shy and withdrawn. Because she has freckled skin, they thought something was wrong with her. They asked if she had chicken pox. Now she's their friend and teacher.

"My kids are the poorest of the poor," she says, her brow furrowing. "They often don't have enough to eat. They have to climb down a mountain to collect water in a stream. Then they have to climb back up with it just to have water to cook with."

Today, she's prepared a lesson to help them learn English, a key to improving their lives. Because their reading skills are poor, she's forced to find creative ways to help them learn. Sometimes, a few parents or other adults who need English to sell their wares to tourists join the class.

Some days, Farrin works in a psycho-motor skills class where children participate in line- and swing dancing and other movement activities. "Kids who don't have good motor skills can't always complete tasks teachers require of them," she explains. "I'm minoring in psychology, so I find that fascinating."

In April, she helped several communities prepare for Diáe los Niñ a national day of recognition and celebration of children. "I went to different communities and helped them plan parties and prepare food," she says. "We planned activities and played games. I got to do my favorite thing, which is work with kids."

She looks around the brightly colored orange room that she recently spent hours repainting. "These kids have situational difficulties, which make it hard for them to learn," she says. "My experience in Oaxaca has given me a chance to organize and direct my own classes and I've enjoyed it."

When her travel abroad experience ends, it'll be painful to leave her kids and her Mexican family. She plans to return next summer to visit her host family, her friends and her students. She'd like to volunteer again at the center. "I've grown really close to my host mom and my host sister," she says. "And I love my kids."

It'll also be difficult to go home. Some people have clear-cut ideas about immigration and illegal aliens; ideas that have changed for Farrin since she came here. "I used to think it was pointless for people to cross the border illegally because they're still disadvantaged when they come to the U.S.," she explains. "In Mexico, the infrastructure is so poor and disorganized, it doesn't reach down to the people who need it. Many in Mexico are so poor that their only goal is to come to the United States, even if they have to be illegal, to get some help. I have new respect for immigrants and the amount of sacrifice it takes to get to the U.S."

When she graduates from Willamette this year, she's going to pursue a degree in special education. "This experience has put me on a different track," she says, smiling broadly. "Now, I'm interested in working with disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. I've found something I really love."