I remember a lazy soccer game being played out in front of me and the other two American girls in the hot Honduran sun. The game in the small village of Villa Soleada had been delayed nearly an hour since everyone had shown up late and no one had thought to bring a ball. My friend next to me nodded at one of the sweaty players in the field in front of us.
“He was deported you, you know,” she told me. “I think he’s going to try to go back next year.”
My month long stay in Honduras was the first time I had been to Latin America, or to any developing country, for that matter. At the time, I didn’t know that I would focus my undergraduate studies on the region, or even that I would be pursuing a Master’s degree in the subject some years later. When I heard about an opportunity with a nonprofit associated with my university to live in a small village where no one spoke English and to work with children in an orphanage, it seemed like a good chance to improve my Spanish. Honestly, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was getting myself in to. When my program director first dropped me off at the family’s house where I would be staying, I almost panicked. My Spanish felt useless, a lot of the words I had been taught my European Spanish professors weren’t understood there. I had the easiest time communicating with the children, a boy and a girl, three and six years old, so I played with them and avoided trying to talk to their parents. As the days wore on, I got used to only having running water for an hour a day, and showering out of a bucket. Hondurans were patient with my language skills, and eventually I managed to talk to the family I was staying with. I played soccer with the kids from the orphanage nearly every afternoon. Probably the strangest part of being there was that nearly everyone knew who I was, and they always seemed happy to see me, awful Spanish and crappy soccer skills notwithstanding.
I still remember looking up at the man who had been deported. The other villagers called him Black, because of his darker complexion. I learned quickly that Hondurans had few qualms about giving their friends irreverent nicknames. He looked pretty much just like any of the other men running around the dirt field, but I considered him for a moment.
Just the semester before, I had done coursework in migration politics, and deportation was one of the issues we had covered. I had come to form strong opinions about unjust deportations in the United States. Visiting Honduras and meeting people who had been deported, however, gave me my first real experience with people who had gone through that process. How unfair it was, I thought, that someone would have to leave a wonderful place like this, where they had their family and their home, and they spoke the language to go on a dangerous trip to an unwelcoming place with no guarantee of their future? But many of them did have to. From my conversations with the kids my age – I was nineteen at the time – there really weren’t a lot of options for them. The local school didn’t prepare them well for the exam they had to pass in order to continue their education past the elementary level, and most students dropped out well before finishing anyway. Their work options were limited to construction jobs with the nonprofit that had built the village where they lived, or a job with a nearby Fruit of the Loom factory.
A lot of people go on volunteer trips similar to mine, and have wonderful experiences. Sometimes they like to frame it as a selfless or charitable act, but I have generally found that people who study the places they go on service trips have a more sophisticated perspective. Even while I was there, I understood that I was getting far more out of me being there than the locals were. I got to live with an actual Honduran family, who laughed with me and teased me about my awful Spanish and made me feel like I belonged there. I still remember when my Honduran “mom” tried to teach me how to make tortillas. When she put my sad attempts on the dinner table that night, my “dad” enthusiastically ate them and insisted they were just as good as any hondurena’s. I got to see an entirely different perspective of the world in Villa Soleada. The village, on the other hand, got a hapless gringa chasing around a few of their kids, trying to convince them to do their math homework.
I wish I could say I had done more for the place that I grew to love over my short stay. I made friends, I fell in love with Latin America, which helped me decide the regional focus for my studies. At the very least, I think I brought back a perspective on a country that most Americans will never see. It is true that it’s poor and wrought with violence and insecurity that especially recently has forced many people to flee. But it’s also a place beautiful country with friendly people and a rich culture and history that a lot of people call home.
Rachel Martin is a first year MALAS student with a concentration in security studies, and she helps run the Transformaciones blog.