Jorge Garcia, senior program manager at the University of New Mexico El Centro de la Raza signed letters of intent with the Mexican intercultural universities – 12 in all.

“The intent is to promote the exchange of students, develop specific areas of research and support intercultural education,” Garcia said, adding that he is organizing a visit with the rectors of the institutions at UNM in April.

Garcia and NMSU Director of Latin American Outreach and Engagement David Hansen, and others, collaborated on a grant, Tri-National Indigenous Rural Tourism and Community Development. UNM, New Mexico State University and institutions in Canada and Mexico participated in several meetings with faculty and students with a goal to understand and appreciate the indigenous heritage in each country and to develop and share courses in indigenous rural tourism.

“An objective was to increase indigenous community capacity in indigenous community development and increase awareness of the indigenous community experience and the importance of a unified North American community,” Garcia said.

Establishing the initiative in El Centro encourages cross-campus collaboration. “We established the Community-Based Research and Learning Institute with our partners in Chicana and Chicano Studies, Southwest Hispanic Research Institute and Latin American and Iberian Institute. We continue to work closely with them and the Global Education Office,” he said.

El Centro also provides students, students who are already benefiting and taking advantage of the opportunity to study and research in Mexico. “Giving students the opportunity to go abroad is an educational tool,” he said.

Among the first to go is Sonora Rodriguez, who is finishing an ambitious bachelor’s degree in international studies, Spanish and sustainability studies/Chicana Studies. “I am into community development and saw this as a great opportunity,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez spent two months in Ocosingo, Chiapas. “Water is a draw for tourism. I was interested its influence on eco-tourism, and how communities thrive on water-based tourism,” she said, adding that she is looking into a Fulbright for research purposes with an eye to return to Mexico.

Saray Argumedo is a graduate student in Community and Regional Planning in the School of Architecture & Planning. “She completed some community development mapping that she is using for her thesis,” Garcia said.

Argumedo was also in Ocosingo; both students were working out of Universidad Tecnólogica de la Selva there. “I was looking at the development of indigenous communities in Chiapas,” she said, adding that she worked previously with Ted Jojola and the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute in the School of Architecture and Planning.

Among the communities she engaged was Agua Azul, Hach’Winik, Sibacá, Lacandones, Bonampak, Frontera Corozal, Amatitlán and Benimerito de las Americas. “Universidad la Selva already made connections with the communities, which helped I was able to speak Spanish with them, but not all of them are fluent,” she said.

“The women from Sibacá had a difficult time opening up with me, but little by little they did. It helped that I was wearing Mexican blouses. They thought I had already gone shopping and were surprised to find out I brought them with me,” Argumedo said.

Argumedo, who is from El Paso, she said she did not go in there as a community planner. “I went in with an open mind. I wanted to learn their ancestral ways, lifestyle and agriculture. I wanted to learn from them what it means to be a community planner,” she said, adding that she learned about organizing from them. “They could get five communities together in a few days without a telephone or the Internet,” she said.

She is also working on a development project at la Universidad de la Selva to create a curriculum to guide students in giving back to their communities. “They are anxious to leave, but they don’t realize what they have,” she said.

Argumedo mulls over what she learned and how she can use it back home. “Gentrification is happening in El Paso. You can’t stop it, but you can look at ways to capture the rich history of areas like Segundo Barrio,” she said.

Garcia said the collaboration also fills a gap in students’ education. “Latin American, Mexicano, Hispano heritage students are not well served in their cultural upbringing. Through this initiative, they learn about the lives, hopes and expectations of indigenous students. This provides them with the educational tools to live and work in a globalized society,” he said.