Familia es todo

Why was I medically evacuated? It might sound extreme to take an international flight for a twisted ankle, but to the Peace Corps community – including myself – it makes complete sense.

It has to do with water, accessibility, and the importance of family.


“Familia es todo.” Family is everything.

A pilot trainee said that to me as she explained what it is like to be a pioneer in her family-centric culture. Her pride of straying from the paradigm emanated through her smile. To me, it was obvious that she was nervous but honored to follow her dreams as they took her up into the sky and away from her family.

“It is gratefying to inspire young women to reach their potential too. But I am also sad that living by example takes me away from my family. Familia es todo para mi.”

I know exactly what she means.

They are there for celebrations. They are there for the most necessary hugs.

They are there to share milestones; it is hard to be absent from celebrations and ceremonies


You do not love your family?
You are not scared to live so far from family?
Are you really lonely without your family?

These are all questions I have been asked while living outside of the United States. I always try to explain that it is common for US Americans to “leave the nest” when they are about 18 years old. In our culture, young adults need to learn independence and find their path. Sometimes, these dreams separate families with great distances. It is something that we accept as normal.

My audiences never seem to gulf this cultural divide. What I see in their eyes is a deep misunderstanding. Here is how many people misinterpret our actions:

Uncaring Family does not exist without individuals. If you go out in the world, who pays the price for your absence? Your family does, and you do too.
Imprudent Family is efficient. If you need something, how do you get it on your own? A family system is more economical and adept than an individual.
Family is your support system. If you get injured, who can help you? Your family sacrifices for you, and you need to do the same for them.

In US American culture, our point of view could not be more opposing. Staying with family into your 20s and 30s is criticized as a “failure to launch.”

Family sticks together in Mexico

By in large, family sticks together no matter what in Mexico

One thing is certain: the USA is designed for families as well as single adults; Mexico is not.


Peace Corps Volunteers might live far from family, but we become part of another. One that is dispersed across the host country. One that is born out of our need for support and a sense of belonging. We understand each other better than our host-country peers and sometimes better than our own families who have not lived as an expatriate.

Tapping into my "constructed family," I regularly Skyped with fellow volunteers or friends outside of Mexico while cooking

Tapping into my “constructed family,” I often Skype with friends while cooking

During one of our regular catch-up sessions, a fellow volunteer complained that she and her husband were getting some flack from their co-workers. Like all of volunteers, several mornings per month require that they go into work late. This allows them to do chores and errands that are only doable during business hours.

They explained to their co-workers that they do not have a “stay at home” grandmother or wife; if they do not do these chores, no one will. This was eye-opening for their co-workers. Their attitude changed from: Why are you both so lazy? to How do you do it all without your family?

It is hard, but it is possible.


I had a similar experience with my co-workers a few weeks later. I was making casual small talk and I mentioned that I planned to pop by the market to pick up some food after work. One man was baffled.

“Do you really know how to go to the market?”
Me: “Well yeah, how do you think I have been eating for the last year and a half?”
“Really? Wow! But who cooks the food for you?”
Me: “Um, I have been cooking for years!”

My co-worker was dumb-founded. The others just laughed.
They said: “Of course she knows how to cook. She is a modern woman. She is an American. They try to do everything by themselves with no help.”

They shook their heads and smiled, revealing what they really thought about our system.


Challenges with a severe ankle sprain in Mexico

Here are the chores and errands that I do to maintain health, cleanliness, and comfort each week or month. It is easy to see that a severely sprained ankle make almost all tasks impossible to complete.

Banking This is a cash economy, and cash is only available at banks and ATMs with long lines

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Bill-paying Forget online bill-pay options. Heck, forget “check-in-mail” options. In Mexico, bills are paid in stores which are of course, scattered across the city. Paying them can take a half day of public transit and requires standing in various lines and cash hand-offs

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Shopping for food & household goods There is no one-stop shopping here. To keep the pantry stocked, I visit the bakery, the fruit stand, the dairy shop, and the general store. This is a 30 minute walk with a return trip that is weighed down by 10 – 20 pounds of groceries and cleaning supplies

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Preparing food After cleaning food, it needs to be cooked. This is where I shine! I make my own jams, breads, spreads, soups, salads, desserts, sauces, and main dishes. I love buzzing around the kitchen and multitasking with both hands. This is not terribly different than in the United States

Possible with a sprained ankle: Yes, but it is painful and risks falling. It involves hopping around, packaging food in Tupperware, and putting it in a backpack to bring it to a safe eating place

Water While there is running water in the house for showering and washing dishes, it is not potable. Cooking and drinking water is carried three blocks in a 40 pound container, then up two flights of stairs

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Showering Light a pilot light for the gas boiler; pretty simple

Possible with a sprained ankle: Yes, but it is painful and risks falling. Standing up and showering with a cast and swollen foot is just difficult

Laundry There are two options: washing by hand, or paying someone to wash it. Soak, scrub, wring, rinse and hang, or walk 20 minutes round-trip carrying all laundry and returning three days later to pick them up. Sometimes they are not ready within the three days

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Getting gas For heating water and for stove-top burners, natural gas is used in Mexico. It is bought in tanks from trucks that drive around playing a loud song. When the song is heard, you have to run outside to flag them down. The driver then carries heavy tanks to your home gas line and attaches them

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Getting mail There is no mail service to houses throughout much of Mexico. Most people have to go to the post office in person to pick up their mail. My nearest post office is a 40 minute walk round-trip

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Taking out the trash There is no curbside trash collection in my city so citizens drop household waste near public bins on collection night. Technically it is littering, so people are careful not to be caught doing it. This is a 5 to 7 minute walk while carrying trash

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

Getting to and from work My commute is a 30 minute round-trip walk and a 1 hour round-trip ride in public transit. I carry about 20 pounds with me: a laptop, a camera, my equipment for field work, some food and water, and various warm layers. This is the nature of environmental field work

Possible with a sprained ankle: No

I do not know anyone who does all of these chores without help from family. Especially not if they are injured.


After my injury, I survived five days with the help of my constructed family. They came to my house once per day, bringing me food, taking out the trash, and cheering my spirits. They made it possible for me to survive in my third floor apartment with steep, slick stairs.

Still, this is not a good way to live. Peace Corps agrees with me. Logistically and emotionally, it just made sense for me to return to my family while I recover.

My family has been there with me the whole way and always has my back

My family has always been there for me and is happy to provide support

When I broke the bad news to my co-workers, their response was: “of course you are going home. Familia es todo. Now get better so that you come back.”


Doctor’s update

Ankle problems from the very first steps?

Hopefully I can start walking short distances in a week or two. I now have a walking boot and a homework assignment: try to stretch flexibility back into my ankle so that I can graduate to stepping on it.

As they say in Mexico, poco a poco (little by little). Maybe next week I can say paso a paso (step by step)!

Goals: get walking by early March, and get independent before March 31 so that I can go back to Mexico.


Making me smile

  • My visit to Dr. Su Yu (sounds like “sue you”), who is a miracle-working acupuncturist/herbologist, brought my swelling down to almost zero with only one hour of poking and herb-rubbing; what a difference, and what a relief!
  • There is no shortage of opportunities to speak Spanish where my family lives. I practice whenever I can which is really neat, even though los hombres me tiren la onda… literally: the wave is thrown at me by the men (I get hit-on) almost every time
  • Family advantages, duh! I have received thoughtful care packages, hand-delivered and home-cooked meals, and have shared lots of laughs with my great support network
  • We have been applying Mexican water conservation techniques in parched California! My mom (and her garden) loves how her new practices keep the yard lovely and does not negatively impact the environment

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