When I first arrived in Yucatán, Mexico two years ago, I was excited to travel abroad and improve my Spanish. I remember checking in at the hotel in Mérida ready to sunbathe and swim at the rooftop pool. Knowing it was below freezing in Maine made it all the more indulgent. Under the guidance of Karla Peña, the genius Spanish professor and cultural mastermind behind COA’s Yucatán immersion program, I was eager for an adventure. The first week was full of activities to get our feet wet: scavenger hunts that had us talking with strangers in the park, dinners at local spots that taught us the difference between a salbut and a panucho, and field trips that showed us there’s so much more to experience beyond the ancient ruins of Chichén Itzá.

Then we went to the archeological site of Ek Balam and its neighboring pueblo. We spent the day climbing pyramids and learning about hieroglyphics from Fátima Tec, resident archaeologist and all-around amazing human. We stayed in cabanas that were part of a local eco-tourism project and laughed as we tried to get comfortable in the hammocks that would eventually replace our beds. It was fun. And then, in a matter of four hours, my entire worldview shattered.

Karla paired us individually with local families and we temporarily left the comfort of the group to learn about hammock weaving, an important artisan craft. Little did I know, it wasn’t about the hammocks at all.

I had travelled outside the United States before but never truly left my emotional and ideological bubble. When I lost sight of my classmates in Ek Balam pueblo, I entered another world. My temporary host family showed me hospitality I had never seen before. My host sister introduced me to her parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles; she showed me where they slept and ate together. I even met the chickens and pigs. We talked about school and our favorite subjects. It was December; the   family had built an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe and was preparing for a posada that night. We sang a prayer song together that we read from their songbook. Time stood still.

Upon returning to the cabanas and our group for dinner, we recounted our experiences. A good friend shared her frustration about not being able to “give something back.” Although our meals were covered as part of the program, many families fed their guests. My friend’s host mom cooked for her, fed her, and then wouldn’t let her help with dishes. Others had similar reactions. Strangers opened their home to us—and we felt bad about their generosity.

This is when Karla worked her magic by asking us a simple question: “Why?” Something clicked. We assumed our help was needed. How arrogant of us.

From then on I realized I was not in Yucatán to learn Spanish or have an adventure I could boast about on social media. I was in Yucatán to listen. To share. The last thing I should be thinking about was “helping.”

Thus began the never-ending journey of “breaking open my coconut,” to borrow Karla’s terminology. If you’ve ever opened a coconut, you know that the best way to do it is with force, preferably using a machete. Imagine that the coconut is your mind, and its hard shell is all the cultural baggage each of us carries. To get to the nutritious and delicious insides, you must destroy the fear, stereotypes, prejudice, moral superiority, and bigotry you don’t even know you hold onto. It feels like trying to break open a coconut with a pocket knife. You look stupid and you’ll probably hurt yourself.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten to know an overwhelming number of incredibly generous individuals who have taken the time to teach me how to use a machete. In addition to my endlessly loving and lovable host families, I owe just about everything to Karla and her team at PICY, Programas de Inmersion Cultural en Yucatán.

Having finished the ten-week immersion program, I was left wanting more but not sure exactly what. After some searching, I decided to complete my internship with Karla and PICY. I worked mostly in translation, but also in research and development, gaining an even clearer understanding of the program’s value. In my spare time I connected with master black and white photographer Jorge Luis Reyes, who became my mentor. With his darkroom guidance, I hosted my first solo photography exhibition at a café in Mérida in June 2014. A week later I left Yucatán with infinite gratitude and an inkling that I’d be back.

Last summer, I received a Davis Projects for Peace grant to join my host parents from the immersion program (who I still call Mom and Dad) in founding a cultural center in Yaxkukul, located twenty miles outside Mérida. The center develops and supports local artistic talent while promoting and valuing Yucatec Mayan culture. Our first summer arts program was a success, with workshops in theater, music, photography, and Mayan. I co-taught the photography workshop with maestro Jorge and we hosted Jaime Li Wu ’17 as a volunteer. Although I returned to Bar Harbor in September, Centro Cultural RealizArte continues to grow and take shape thanks to the community’s dedication and my host family’s elbow grease.

For my senior project, I’ve returned to Yucatán to explore my own artistic vision while continuing the community-based work I started this summer. For those who can’t make it to the Ethel H. Blum Gallery between May 16 and 20, 2016, I’ve been working with traditional Yucatec artisans to create a combination of photography, cyanotype, and embroidery.

My family often asks me why I keep returning to Yucatán. “Isn’t it so hot? What about the mosquitoes? The food? Are you just trying to avoid us?” I tell them I’ll always be a Jersey girl, but for now I’m trying to break open that coconut (if only palm trees grew in Ocean City). While I’m still working on my machete-wielding technique, two years later I can say that I’ve gotten a taste of the fresh water and sweet meat inside. And nothing’s ever been so rico.

For more on Centro Cultural RealizArte, visit facebook.com/CentroCulturalRealizArte.
For more of Becca’s photos, visit beccahaydu.com.