Finding Meaning in Mexico
By Thomas "Po" Charyton, UGA '22
Personal identity is a finicky thing. It is hard to define and constantly evolves while at the same time remaining central to one’s life. Everyone in life is constantly looking for how their identity affects their lives, whether it be ethnic, religious, cultural, or otherwise.
Personally, I rethink my identity as a Jewish, Hispanic American at every stage in life, and it’s how I grow as a person. Jewish and Hispanic are not two identities that many people connect, and it gets even more complicated when one considers skin tone. My own skin is white, given to me from my Argentine parents, which means I do not “look” Hispanic. As a result, I often felt like I had to prove myself as Hispanic. As I entered my final semester in college, I had been thinking a lot about my own identity and how that will change once I am on my own in the world, so to speak, separated from the community I have spent the last four years building.
In the midst of this identity crisis (if you could call it that) was an offer to participate in a trip to Mexico with Hillels of Georgia, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, for a week of volunteer work with Project TEN, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel. When one is offered a free trip to Mexico for a week, it’s usually disregarded as a scam. However, after meeting with the project leader, Merit Pinker, I realized my assumptions could not be farther from the truth. So after running it by my parents, I quickly booked a flight for Mexico City and planned for an exciting, eye opening experience.
There were many reasons this was a great opportunity for me. As a senior at the University of Georgia studying Political Science and International Affairs, this experience would offer me a real-world perspective on issues I would learn about in the classroom. As someone who loves to help others, volunteering at the school gave me a chance to connect with children who are different from me. As someone who is constantly exploring his Jewish identity, this great opportunity allowed me to learn from other Jewish people from around the world and engage in thoughtful discussion. But perhaps more personally for me, I felt this was a perfect chance to explore my own Hispanic identity. As I mentioned, my family is from Argentina, debatably the farthest Latin American nation from Mexico in many different respects. In that spirit, I felt that this opportunity would allow me a chance to look at other Hispanic Jewish communities. In doing so, I could learn more about myself and my two identities both independently and as a duo.
From the start of the trip, everyone was beyond kind and welcoming. Being already fluent in Spanish allowed me to connect with the children much quicker, and it came in handy when our project coordinator had to step away and asked me to help facilitate the activities. While our total volunteer days were unfortunately cut short due to unforeseen circumstances, the time we did spend in the school opened my eyes to how shared so many of our human experiences are. The border I had created in my mind between my version of Latino heritage and Mexico’s version quickly began to fade as I found myself picking up on their slang and playing games with the children. Meeting with local Jewish community leaders showed me yet again how we as Jewish people of the diaspora can always connect through our common heritage as Jews. It made me feel seen as a Hispanic Jew, which I had rarely felt before. Visiting the old synagogue in Mexico City felt like a true sanctuary from the busy city life and blend of Indigenous and Catholic iconography that decorates much of the country.
It is a strangely powerful and comforting thing to feel seen, especially when it is through an identity that one does not always feel is allowed for them. During the trip, I met and played with some of the sweetest school kids I have ever met. I also met young Jewish professionals from around the world and discussed both Jewish identity as well as our least favorite foods. By all means, I learned more on the trip than I ever thought I would. But most meaningful for me, I learned that identity is not just a label that one can only wear if they tick off the right boxes. Identity is fluid and difficult to define for a reason. I shouldn’t worry about proving myself as Hispanic enough to anyone, because I am Hispanic. I don’t have to compete to prove my Judaism to the world. All I need to do is remain true to the values that my identities have taught me, like compassion, empathy, and curiosity, and use them to make the world a better place.