“Love is—Project Mexico,” Ensign, June 1974, 66
The buses carrying 100 students and faculty members left El Paso, Texas, on April 26. They were headed for Mexico City, 1,000 miles away, to participate in Project Mexico ’74, an experience in service and involvement in the lives of others.
Project Mexico is a continuing program sponsored by Church Continuing Education through Brigham Young University’s Department of Travel Study. Its purpose is to assist both members and nonmembers in Puebla State, Mexico, in programs of nutrition, home management, construction, agriculture, and small industries.
This year the two-month program attracted LDS students from BYU, Ricks College, Utah State University, Idaho State University, and the University of Utah. Each of them has paid approximately $600 to be involved in the project that will take them this month from the comforts of Mexico City to small villages in the Puebla area 100 miles away.
Currently in Mexico City, the students are undergoing a three-week period of culturalization that includes living with Mexican families, attending classes at the Universidad Ibero-Americana, visiting museums, and learning some basics of Spanish. Although the ability to speak Spanish is not a requirement, many of the participants do speak Spanish. More important, though, than language skills, is a desire to serve, a desire to reach out to others, a desire to share skills and talents.
These desires are fostered and encouraged by seven BYU faculty members, including Dr. Thomas Edgar Lyon, Project Mexico ’74 director, and Dr. Frank Santiago, project coordinator.
Over the years many people have been involved in the formation and development of Project Mexico. Among them are Dr. Lowell D. Wood, chairman of the Department of Agricultural Economics at BYU, and Sister Kay Franz of BYU’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition. Each of them has motivated and encouraged the students, and raised the spirits of the Puebla Saints with their enthusiasm and energy.
This year’s activities are based on the experience of projects held in 1972 and 1973. The students have been formed into small service teams under the direction of the faculty members and local Church leadership. For five weeks these teams will travel to small outlying villages, where they will teach and serve. They will board with local residents of Puebla. There are approximately 3,000 Saints in the area, and while project programs are provided for them through the local leadership and Church organizations, nonmembers also are invited to participate.
Programs initiated last year will be evaluated and, where necessary, refined. One such program, rabbit raising, not only helped to improve the quality of meat for individual families, but also gave them the promise of a “cash crop.” This project supplies participating families with enough meat to eat and enough meat to sell in order to buy more feed and continue the project. Working together, students of agriculture and construction designed rabbit hutches of precast concrete parts that fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.
In addition to the rabbit-raising project, the students worked to improve housing for the inhabitants of the villages. Because wood is scarce but termites are not, longer-lasting housing is a major concern. Last year students demonstrated an inexpensive, practical, and acceptable way to build walls of compressed soil cement. Using a hand press that can be operated by a husband and wife, soil is mixed with a handful of cement, then pressed into blocks, the cement acting as a bonding agent.
Sometimes the nutrition and health teams saw remarkable changes in just a short time. In Xalitzintla, an ancient village resting on the slopes of Mount Popocatepetl, a 17,000-foot volcano, students began teaching sanitation classes on a Tuesday. The following Sunday was a district conference and when the district leaders arrived, they found the sacrament water had been boiled, and a dinner had been prepared, with the dishes having been soaked in water containing chlorine. The first latrines also had been dug.
In the same community a mother who had lost a child through severe protein and vitamin A malnutrition proudly displayed her new baby, the biggest ever born in the village, born healthy because some young Latter-day Saints cared enough to share their knowledge with their fellowmen.
An important aspect of Project Mexico is the development of testimonies as the gospel is put into action. Field work photographer for Project Mexico ’73, Marilyn Harvey, says of her experiences, “Pictures will never tell the story behind the project and the good it is doing. The brothers and sisters here in Mexico are surely wonderful people. They are full of love and warm hospitality toward each other and toward us. I’ve learned universals like the language of a smile or laughter, the love of a mother for her family, the desire for a better way of life.”
In seeking a better way of life for themselves and their families, the local Saints have been taking advantage of the opportunities suggested and offered by the visiting students and their leaders. One such suggestion developed into a thriving industry employing some 12 families in manufacturing chessboards and pieces from onyx. After BYU College of Business representatives investigated the feasibility of such a business, a private foundation loaned the local workers funds to purchase tools and 18 tons of black, brown, green, gray, and white onyx. The manufacturing plant that was established now produces 110 units per week and sells them throughout the world.
Local Saints and nonmembers also learned pottery making. Initially involving only one village, the project proved to be a great attraction, and within a few days other communities sent representatives to the classes. Among those who came were 11 villagers from Atexcac located high on the side of Mount Popocatepetl; they had to walk for two hours and then ride a bus for another hour to get to the classes.
Whether it be pottery, nutrition, rabbit hutches, health care, or new businesses, the lives of many members of the Church have been improved. “When approximately 100 students pay for the privilege and opportunity to serve other human beings, it’s difficult for a project to fail,” says Dr. Santiago.
Kirt Olson, who is the resident field supervisor for BYU’s Indian assistance program in Puebla, has gained an interesting insight into the project. He says:
“I had thought that people would change because of knowledge—all we needed to do was to teach them effectively and they would change. Now I see a new dimension. The moving force doesn’t seem to be knowledge, but love, brotherhood, testimony, and obligation. The obligation is to the young people who travel so far to share their time and their skills with their brothers and sisters, who, in turn, feel a strong responsibility to show a new and better way of life to their children.”