intercultural exchange

Advice from Paris on the last day of a quarter of a century

I could’ve never imagined the fullness of the beauty of Paris, the strength of the architecture & the unpredictability of its streets. The divine taste of the French overflows in the logic of the way of life: wine is cheaper than coke; “convenience” stores don’t exist; and being diverse is standard. 

Almost six months ago, a group of graduate students from University 8 of Paris contacted us with hopes of inventing a new way to interlace cultures by creating a dialogue between kids in Yaxhachen & kids from a suburb of Paris, called La Plaine. These students value art, language, and equal opportunity for all children like they value artisanal bread—there is no other way of eating. 

Allie, Oscar and I have spent the past week finally getting to know Imane, Clémence, & Nikita in person, and swimming through a whirlwind of new contacts. We are refining the details of our collaboration, as well as reflectively discussing the work of Ko’ox Boon on an analytical level. 

Their questions and interest in Ko’ox Boon has enlightened my own perspective of our work. They linger on the importance of the formation of Ko’ox Boon: that we knew the community before we developed our first projects. They emphasize that this is why they think that our model is more effective than traditional NGOs. They ask their questions and make comments with wide-eyes, cold beers in hand, clothed in impeccable style. 

In Paris, We move from academic contexts to making dream catchers with kids to hip-hop dancing, soaking in every moment like a new opportunity to plant seeds in French soil. At the end of the day, Clémence & Imane compliment us on our adaptability. This is the element which is most impressive to them, and which, to me, is a characteristic closely associated with emotional intelligence and mined through my favorite life experiences: travel, language-learning & listening. 

Many folks in our generation are interested in being change makers and working in arts and culture, but little opportunity for this type of work exists. The post-grad jolt is brutal. We finish masters programs where we are encouraged to be creative & invent ambitious projects, but when we graduate there are no jobs. The competition prevents us from being collaborative, so we work against one another, unraveling the complex net of open-minded ideas, which we so tenderly built during our University years. We are forced into restaurant jobs or nine-to-fives with little vacation time and no creative freedom. We are normalized, & this is our greatest nightmare, which we slowly learn to justify until we are completely reintegrated into the old system. 

Clémence tells me very seriously that Ko’ox Boon gives her hope in the face of this crisis. I’m turning 26 tomorrow, and, to her, the three years that separate us are the most difficult that she’s ever had to imagine. She feels like she’s walking through traffic blindfolded. I hardly feel sage, but realize the value of my own struggle through the past two years (the two most rewarding & difficult years of my life, the age of Ko’ox Boon & how long it's been since I finished my M.A.). So I thank her & think of something to tell her that doesn’t seem overwhelmingly cliché, and this is something that I want to tell all frightened Millennials fighting against normalization due to the pressure of the job market.  

The job that you want doesn’t exist yet. The career that perfectly harnesses your talents, forces you to grow intellectually & emotionally, and makes you so tired that you sleep soundly until the vibration of your alarm each morning isn’t out there. This job will be invented by you, and this job requires that you be brave; take risks; & consume the generous support of your friends & family like a melting ice-cream cone. Accept that failure will be annotated in your agenda on a daily basis, & you should recognize it, but don’t dwell, because that’s where fear comes from. Fear is your biggest enemy—not the person next to you who is trying out for the same job as you. And finally, you must live by one rule only: never give up. This is how you become the change you want to see in the world. 

Also, you can listen to the album Evil Friends by my favorite band Portugal. The Man any time you like for inspiration. It has always worked for me. Start with this one

An Archaeology of Love

Words and photographs by Spring 2016 Artist in Residence, Becca Haydu

Doña Eneyda at the sewing machine in her home in Yaxhachen

Doña Eneyda at the sewing machine in her home in Yaxhachen


Today I read in National Geographic that scuba divers discovered human bones at the bottom of a cave in Yucatan that turned out to be 12,000 to 13,000 years old. These are the oldest human remains ever found in the New World.

Today I read in National Geographic that women who lived in the Americas 13,000 years ago suffered malnutrition and domestic abuse. They were significantly smaller than their male counterparts and rarely lived past 26 years of age.

The bones that were found at the bottom of that cave belonged to an adolescent girl. They called her Naia after Greek mythology, even though she’s more closely related to the Maya of today than to the Ancient Greeks. The archaeologists suggested that she must have fallen while exploring the cave. But what if she was pushed off the edge?

13,000 years later, we hear the same story. She fell.

Today I read that misogyny and gendered violence have existed for at least 13,000 years and I cried. Is this our destiny?

13,000 years later, 180 miles from Hoyo Negro where Naia’s skeleton was found, I contemplate women’s work. In Yaxhachen, women carry and care for children, wash their family’s clothes, make tortillas at least twice a day, clean the house, feed the animals, and in their spare time embroider a new dress to wear for a special occasion or to gain a small income. They make time to laugh, to rest, and to enjoy themselves and their families. Then they go to sleep and do it all over again the next day.

The same issue of National Geographic highlighted the figure of Venus, a piece of stone shaped into a female form by human hands in what is now Germany 35,000 years ago. On the opposite page is a tiny sculpture of a female bust found in France dated as 25,000 years old. The caption debates whether the depicted is a “young girl” or a “madam.”

Today I learned that the earliest representations of the human body were feminine. 35,000 years later, the female body remains a symbol, an object, a canvas, but still fights and claws for true representation. As a woman and an artist, how can I rewrite this story that’s been 35,000 years in the making? Our work is never done.

My grandmother is from rural Ireland. I imagine her childhood as one similar to life in Yaxhachen today. My grandmother Philomena grew up in a small stone house with a thatched roof along with her parents and three brothers. Her mother never used a stove but cooked over an open fire. Her father raised cattle, allegedly among the finest cattle in all of county Longford. This is what I’ve been told.

One day while visiting my grandparents in Pennsylvania, my grandmother took me into the basement and showed me her sewing machine. “When I die, this will be yours,” she told me. I denounced her morbidity, but thanked her for the gesture. I thought of generations of women’s labor being passed down to me via this machine. But I can barely sew a straight line.

Today in Yaxhachen, Doña Irma is last to eat dinner because making tortillas for a group of hungry men takes time. I can eat with the men only because I’m a guest and a foreigner. My help in making a few tortillas is a novelty, and after about five they tell me to stop and eat. I offer her teenage daughter to eat with me, but she refuses saying “al rato,” later. Educational and employment opportunities for women are also behind those for men. For example, Irma never learned much Spanish, but her husband is completely bilingual.

I aim to embrace our similarities rather than to dwell on difference, but how can we appreciate our shared experience without understanding the nuances of our differences? How can we transcend difference when it is constantly shoved in our faces? How do we value equality without undermining our diversity?

Irma shares with me her difference through teaching me vocabulary in Maya and showing me how to cross-stich. The neighborhood boys ask me what it’s like in the United States. “Is it cold all the time? What kind of food do you eat? It’s very different from here, isn’t it?” Difference is always a topic of conversation. It is an opportunity.

Cross stitching, or punto de cruz, with Doña Irma

Cross stitching, or punto de cruz, with Doña Irma


Other times, difference is painful. YAXHA Bordados aims to provide economic opportunities where “no hay trabajo,” there are no jobs. Many people simply leave and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in Yaxhachen who doesn’t have an uncle, brother, or parent living in California or Oregon. Doña Eneyda and her family have been working with YAXHA for over a year and their income has more than doubled in that time. Yet they’re still struggling to stay afloat.

It’s pouring rain one evening in Yaxhachen as Eneyda and I sit embroidering in one of the two cement-block rooms of her family’s home. This room is a new addition, a sign of prosperity, yet water still pours in from the ceiling. The only people who go outside in the rain are little kids playing in puddles, and they relish in it. Eneyda and I stay put for a while. This is one of the beauties of embroidery: women sit down together and talk. In this case, I just listened.

Eneyda needs me to understand. She tells me that out of the money they have earned from embroidering t-shirts, they don’t have a single penny to show for it. This is a big extended family, not a nuclear one. Anything earned is shared among 15 or so individuals. Investments look like buying a few pigs or turkeys, not opening a savings account. Eneyda doesn’t feel safe storing cash in the house as a way to save. A conversation about the family economy quickly leads to a more personal account of injustice, and gender is at the heart of everything.

“As a woman, I have suffered like Christ suffered.” Eneyda fights back tears as I let mine go. Stories of domestic violence, of burden, of shame, of fighting as hard as you can to get ahead only to have the world tell you that you’ll never get anywhere because you’re poor, because you’re a woman, because you’re indigenous. I’m reminded that life can be brutal and unforgiving. I’m reminded that there are experiences I’ll never, ever, be able to share because they’re simply not mine.

But what shows through Doña Eneyda’s pain is her strength and love. She told me that her greatest joy in life was motherhood. I’m a big critic of the myth of motherhood: why should women derive our worth only through biological coincidence and our relative status to children and men? Even so, the pride Eneyda displayed in her mothering touched me. God blessed her with seven children, she says, and the gringos that come to visit are like her adopted children so she must have about fifteen by now. The ability to give love and that person’s openness to receiving it are most important to Eneyda. I imagine that when we are on our deathbed, does much else really matter?

I wonder what Naia’s greatest joy in life was 13,000 years ago. At only 13 with a life expectancy of 26, was she already a mother? Did she find heaven in the eyes of her child? Did she feel at peace in the labyrinth of underwater caves that surrounded her home? When did she give and receive love?

I am brought back to Arundhati Roy’s words in her “Come September” speech, given a year after September 11, 2001:


To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.


If this world is thousands of years in the making, where are we to go from here? 13,000 years from now, will our descendents find New York City 7,000 leagues under the sea and scratch their heads at how primitive we were? Will they chuckle at how not much has changed? Or will we sooner become just another extinct species?

In her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” bell hooks affirms, “Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.” This echoes the words of Doña Eneyda, of Arundhati Roy, and of my inner voice. Love is the only way out. Love is a choice. Love is freedom. Love is not a transaction. It cannot be bought or sold. Love is community. Love is truth. Across borders, across languages, between a mother and child, between neighbors, between strangers, for yourself. Without love, we cannot imagine a new world free of domination and subjugation. Without love, we cannot work together to make that world a reality.

Love is the only way out. 

Carambamos 2016

The New Whitney, Motley

The New Whitney, Motley

Isla Mujeres, México

Isla Mujeres, México

Mérida house

Mérida house

The New Whitney, NYC

The New Whitney, NYC

Billi via kaleidoscope 

Billi via kaleidoscope 

The New Whitney, NYC

The New Whitney, NYC

The market at Oxkutzcab, Yucatán

The market at Oxkutzcab, Yucatán

The breath of a new year rejuvenates people in the most obvious ways. Everyone gets taller and walks a little bit faster, smiling at people wearing hats, laughing at themselves when they trip. First in New York City, then Mérida, Isla Mujeres, Yaxhachen & now Mérida again, I can't stop listening to music about place (put the album Currents  by Tame Impala on your Spotify queue) and making new connections. Feeling global. Still stupidly smiling at cats and people, too.  

The North Point at Isla Mujeres, off the coast of the Riviera Maya. Foto by Allie Jordan <3

The North Point at Isla Mujeres, off the coast of the Riviera Maya. Foto by Allie Jordan <3

I set place-oriented goals for myself as I sink into the life of someone who lives abroad. This year I will read a novel en español, and I'll visit at least 3 new countries. I expect a year of a lot of firsts and new connections. I made resolutions to be happy and to put personal spiritual health first, which definitely hasn't been the case in 2014 and 2015. Beginning Ko'ox Boon felt equivalent to having a newborn (no sleep at night), then a toddler (always falling down and in danger of head bumping). Now Ko'ox Boon is a precocious kindergartener. She speaks for herself, and she has many more friends that she likes better than me half the time anyway. I used to have to articulate for her, now she chatters about with so much confidence. It's absolutely beautiful. 

Making dream catchers with my bae, Oscar&nbsp;

Making dream catchers with my bae, Oscar 

Science art with YAXHA Bordados &amp; Becca Haydu

Science art with YAXHA Bordados & Becca Haydu

This year is a parade of talent and activist enthusiasm coming from all corners. Starting out with a new Artist in Residence, Becca Haydu will use science to transpose the folkloric art of embroidery onto the realism of photography. The work that she cultivates through her connections with YAXHA Bordados and Ko'ox Boon will serve as her senior thesis project at the College of Atlantic, a liberal arts school where everyone studies Human Ecology. Allie and I look forward to hosting a gallery of her botanical-themed, socially-engaging work at our Mérida house on March 12. 

Meanwhile in Yaxhachen, we are expected to break ground on a bathroom in February, bringing running water to Casa Yaxha for the first time ever! Boasting locally-sourced materials and traditional Mayan architecture, the bathroom and running water symbolize cultural stability and community growth. With solid infrastructure, the center will provide a secure, hygienic, stimulating space for educational and community groups. This project was made possible thanks to generous support from The Pollination Project, an organization which empowers its grantees to be changemakers. I am so beyond honored to be on this journey with this incredible organization! <3

In late March, we will embark on the process phase of our Paris/Barcelona intercultural exchange with graduate students at the European Studies Institute at the University of Paris 8, Cleménce Thibault, Imane Hammar, Nikita Prin and Thomas Vassort. Clemence approached us in October with the idea to form a group within the "Politics and Management of Culture in Europe" Master's program to work with Ko'ox Boon, which she had just begun. She recruited Imane, Nikita, and Thomas, and they researched and conceptualized a stellar vision for stimulating exchange between 10-12 year olds from a culturually diverse neighborhood in Paris called La Plaine and our kids in Yaxhachen. The project involves correlative cultural excursions and the invention and filming of a collaborative shadow and sound film. We've recruited Mexican artists Orlando Dominguez, Astrid Cobb, Oscar Estrada and Fernando Baqueiro for facilitating the creative experience of our kids throughout April and May. In early June, Allie and I will travel to Paris for a screening and gallery exhibit of the project. Ko'ox Bonne!  

We will then walk directly into the counselor training week of the third annual Camp Ko'ox, which we project to serve 250 kids. We are dying to announce the lineup of artists and generally cool people volunteering this summer, but we can only give you this sneak peek right now! ⚡️ 

The Camp will run throughout the entire month of July, coming to a celebratory fin on July 30, when Yaxhachen will host a "Museo en Vivo." Everyone's invited! 

On August 1st, there will be a change. I will leave my job with Millsaps and seek a new funding opportunity. I am not sure what will happen--this is where the calendar ends--but I think I feel ok about it. I am exploring grant opportunities and potential intercultural exchanges with other cities, hoping that the voice of Ko'ox Boon articulates itself clearly enough to be noticed. For now, I'll enjoy the naive freshness of a new year in a pair of jean shorts and sandals, grateful for every second I live in the land of eternal summer. ✌🏽️

"Super Explorer," Mérida&nbsp;

"Super Explorer," Mérida