Family, Food, and Fighting for Justice: Reflections on the 2016 Cultural Vistas Fellowship

This summer, Alexis, Cynthia, and Cruz opened their eyes to new horizons, new cultures, and new experiences as part of the Cultural Vistas Fellowship, a fully funded eight-week internship opportunity for U.S. students in Bangalore, Buenos Aires, and Berlin.

Here’s a little of what they learned, living abroad for the very first time.

Cruz, Alexis, and Cynthia (pictured from L to R) just wrapped up an unforgettable summer living and interning overseas as members of our fourth class of Cultural Vistas Fellows.

Filling in Empty Spaces, by Cynthia Rann

Dirty Hands Welcome in Buenos Aires’ Local Food Movement, by Cruz Aleman

Ni Una Menos, by Alexis McKenney


Filling in Empty Spaces

By Cynthia Rann, Cultural Vistas Fellow (Bangalore, India)

Leaving everything they ever knew and had behind, my family escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. Fleeing with the clothes on their back, escaping into the dark night, paying people to help—that is what I know. Stories uttered in Khmer and broken English, all my life a canvas has been painted depicting my family’s life full of pain, lost lives, poverty and empty spaces left for me to fill on my own.

In the United States

There was never time for my parents to learn English because they were making sure my siblings and I had a roof over our heads and food to eat. For the floor that was also a bed by dark. For the clothes that were passed down from person to person or turned into other useful items. For indoor traps that caught rodents at night were the norm. For a stressful childhood that made it difficult to recall the good. To my surroundings filled with people trying to survive on a few dollars a week. Neighbours and my family alike, preached hope, hope that the struggles would dissipate and that our low socioeconomic upbringings would not hinder our futures. Maybe just maybe, living in India would help me understand what it is I want: to fill in my family’s stories too bleak to uncover and to see the wounds too deep to heal.

In India

I see a divide by economic levels. Bangalore is a developing city filled with construction from left and right. Yet just a couple of blocks away, families are stuck in a repetitive cycle of poverty. No money, no land elsewhere, no profitable resources so they cannot leave their dilapidated shelters. A city seeming to neglect people who have no voice, who are born into caste deemed less important. I see and hear about pain, from a woman running away from an abusive husband in daylight to my colleagues losing their loved ones from illness. The same newspaper you read is the same paper you wipe your hands with. Women in the front and men on the back of the public bus. Depending on the location, running water is difficult to attain. People use jasmine flowers as hair decoration that fill the rooms with a sweet aroma. As beautiful, as rich of a culture and as welcoming the people are, there is much left untold and much I can relate to. Recollecting my family’s life in Cambodia and families here, I have gained a deeper appreciate for their unending strength to fight for a better life.

The saying, “someone’s trash is another’s treasure”, innovation and  NGOs like Habitat are vital for India’s development. On the site, rather than spending rupees to buy long painting rods, our painter constructs the rods using already available resources: tree limbs, paper, rocks, and fabric. Government schools are often students only outlet. It may be their one opportunity to have fun with others kids, eat a meal, and their sole access to a sanitation facility/toilet. Around the city, the dire need for decent housing is obvious and often Habitat’s support are prospective homeowners only hope.

Students learn how to wash their hands.

Living in India has pushed me to embrace uncomfortable situations, become more self-reliant, and feel at home. It will be difficult and emotional to say “see ya later Bangalore.” I feel inspired more than ever before and I am certain that I want to dedicate my career to improving economic development and standards of living globally.

I am painting in the empty spaces.


Dirty Hands Welcome in Buenos Aires’ Local Food Movement

By Cruz Aleman, Cultural Vistas Fellow (Buenos Aires)

I’ve always thought the best way to get an idea of the people in the surrounding area is through their local outlets of food, culture, and entertainment.

That’s why here in Argentina, I love going to the ferias (markets) every weekend. Not only do I get to interact with locals, but I am also given a temporary portal to hear about their lives as artisans. They also remind me of U.S. farmers markets. Almost every Saturday summer morning in my hometown, locals get a chance to see its rainbow of food and conscientious products.

While in Argentina, I have been fortunate to be on the front lines of the local food and spirit that has inspired me so much. Every Wednesday I volunteer at a local NGO, Germinar, which serves as a vegetable garden, native tree, and medicinal plants haven along with an environmental education center.

When I asked the heads of Germinar if there are many others following their model, they say it’s few and far between. The reason being that within the capital in the province of Buenos Aires, there’s limited space and many of the areas that one may wish to start a community garden are untouchable because of their potential historical importance. So what is a local porteño to do if they would like local, organic, sustainable food? Well within the capital there are a plethora of dieteticas, specialty food product shops with organic foods.  There are also many organic, sustainable food events happening within the city.

Yet there are a growing number of people that want to get their hands dirty and assemble a produce sanctuary of their own. Recently, I attended a workshop detailing the basics of how to start your own vegetable garden, whilst also co-leading a workshop on healthy food. I heard children describing how the food in the supermarkets is filled with “poison,” due to all the harmful chemicals used to grow them.

Adults were tired of poor quality produce that could have been sitting in the grocery store for an unknown amount of time. The solution: grow it yourself! And Argentines are doing just that. As is evident from Germinar’s efforts and the efforts of every individual porteño bettering their understanding in this field.

Cruz, Alexis, Anna, and Saakib experienced life abroad for the first time together in Buenos Aires this summer as Cultural Vistas Fellows

In addition, Argentina has a national program called Pro Huerta, which is part of the nation’s National Food Security Plan. Argentina created the program to increase fruit and vegetables to poorer populations and now it encourages self-production of various food products. The program is organic and trains those wishing to produce their own food on techniques meant to maintain their plots without chemicals or any other harmful substances. Then, once or twice a week, the government set up fairs in the towns with Pro Huerta plots to sell their organic produce to locals. It’s a foodie’s (aka my) dream!

While I am studying nutrition, the concept of nutrition is much bigger than just what the plants contribute to us. Food is a harmonious system of interdependent parts. For one to specialize in an individual sector without giving credit to the others is a tragedy. Fortunately, I have been witness to Argentines embracing food on all fronts. It not only gives me hope for the preservation of their rich local identity but for the local identity of the United States.


Ni Una Menos

By Alexis McKenney, Cultural Vistas Fellow (Buenos Aires)

Last month we had the opportunity to participate in a protest at the National Congress about the violence committed against women in Argentina. Many of the protesters held signs with the faces of women and girls that had been killed at the hands of men who haven’t paid for their crimes.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the faces of Black individuals, such as Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, back at home who have also been senselessly murdered at the hands of those who refuse to acknowledge our humanity. As stated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.”

To the women of Argentina, I see you, your cries have not fallen upon deaf ears. We are both in this struggle together.

Also, a cool moment that I was able to capture during the protest were some teenage girls spray painting the Black power fist on a bus stop. Sadly, it was covered up a few minutes later by someone else’s posters.

But the moment still lives on in memory and on social media.

The Cultural Vistas Fellowship is a chance for promising young leaders with limited financial means to live in a foreign culture and gain professional experience abroad. Past fellows include first-generation college students, members of minority communities in the United States, veterans, and other underrepresented groups in exchange.


Please join us and support the Cultural Vistas Fellowship with a generous tax-deductible gift via our secure donation form. Or feel free to contact me with any questions.

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