Photo Essays

Special Topics in Counseling: Cross-Cultural Counseling (Mexico)

Photos and Captions by Evan Oppenheimer

Making a Life
In January, I traveled to Mexico with a graduate course in Cross-Cultural Counseling, taught by Applied Psychology Professor Ron Esposito. The purpose of the course was to help prepare us to be culturally effective counseling professionals by developing a trans-cultural perspective and learning specific skills that will increase our competency in the delivery of services to people of different cultures. Our syllabus included readings on topics such as counseling the culturally diverse and issues pertaining to class, racial, and ethnic identity. Throughout Puebla, Cholula, and Mexico City, we see how people work incredibly hard to make a living. Here we see a local woman at the Pyramid of Choulua selling a sampling of various dried fruits, candy and, a local favorite, crickets in mole chili sauce. It is difficult to define socioeconomic classes because one family might easily be able to survive on two dollars a day in rural areas, whereas others with similar income in the city might be living in poverty.

Fun at Work
This small community home, UPAIT, is a refuge outside Puebla for street kids who have willingly escaped their abusive homes. The boys range in age from 5-16, attend public school, are paid for the work they do at the farm, and are free to come and go as they please. We visited UPIAT to see a successful, self-sustaining alternative to the traditional foster homes and orphanages that we are familiar with in the United States. We also learned that there are psychologists working on staff to help the boys with a number of issues that may have contributed to their coming to the home in the first place. Out of the 80 boys (sometime less) who live here, all are offered the opportunity for a full scholarship to higher education, but few choose to pursue and accept this. It is unclear as to why, but they are surly better off living in a home that provides adequate nutrition, safety, mental health services and opportunity to develop a positive work ethic.

One of the most unfortunate facts about Mexico is that in much of the region families live in poverty. They lack basic infrastructure amenities that we often take for granted. Most places lack clean water and adequate sewage treatment facilities. Many people barely get by in terms of food, and are lucky to receive so much as a 6th grade education. Far too many kids are put to work instead of attending school, because the family would not otherwise be able to survive. Interestingly, many people whom we spoke with, despite living on sometimes as little as a few cents a day, still report being happy and satisfied with their lives and fortunately there are people who are working to provide better working, education, and living conditions for all people.

Fun with Soda
Students at the school in Chipiloto play soccer with a soda bottle after their ball was taken away by one of the teachers. Their games seemingly have no boundaries and no score; they play for the sake of play—”ball or no ball. We visited the school and spoke with the executive director about how they are fully supported by the local community. The school board is made up of parents, who truly have a vested interest in the education of their children and are actively involved at the school on a daily basis. I learned that because of the general collectivist mentality, education is a major focus in relation to community development. Visiting this school showed me that with vested interest from the local people, students can have the opportunity to be well educated and strive for a life of wellness.

Helping Hands
We had the opportunity to visit the home of Ismaela -- a student at the school in Chipilo -- to gain perspective on what it is like to live in this community. Here, NYU student Jen Fink helps the mother of Ismaela to prepare lunch for our group. The family was honored that we would be interested to come and learn about their culture and their family, so they were happy to share their stories and offer us a meal as a sign of their gratitude. We learned that most of their other children lived in NYC, and like many Mexicans, the family does not dream of coming to the states to escape their country; they come for the prospect of finding a well-paying job in order to help build a better life for their families and communities back home. I learned that when counseling clients, it is important to have an understanding of where they come from and what their values are, but this knowledge must understood from the clients perspective, not based on our own stereotypical judgments. It is also important to gain exposure to and immerse ourselves in other cultures, so we can consistently develop our own global perspective. Doing this in another part of the world has opened my eyes to seeing different people from multiple perspectives, something that we should all strive to do to be culturally sensitive counselors and people.