El Cercado, Dominican Republic: A Place of Community

El Cercado, Dominican Republic: A Place of Community

First it breaks your heart, then you fall in love.
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"Mi casa es tu casa."

The words "Mi casa es tu casa" were said to us more times than I can say. Selfishness and strangers do not exist in the communities of El Cercado. "Family" is used to describe every single person and if a stranger is seen, the people will make sure they are no longer a stranger. I can without a doubt vouch for this; as soon as I entered the communities of El Cercado, I was embraced with hugs, kisses, and fully welcomed into many homes. I am a complete stranger, I speak a different language, I have different mannerisms, and my skin is a different color. However, this does not mean anything. I am human and I am no longer a stranger, I am family. It brings tears to my eyes and fills my heart recalling the amount of times I was standing in someone else's home only to be asked to sit down, eat, and drink water. Whether resources are lacked or not, I was always offered; guests always come first in El Cercado.

However, let me start from the beginning. I was fortunate enough, with 12 others, to have an experience that changed all of our lives forever through Stonehill College's H.O.P.E. Service Immersion Program. I knew where I was going and I knew I'd be fully immersed in the Dominican Republic culture, but I never thought my heart would both break in half and fall in love the way that it did. When we arrived, we were first welcomed by two friends from IPM-International Partners in Mission. These two women played a major role during our time here. They not only spoke both Spanish and English, helping with translations, but they had open hearts, shared their own stories, and had welcoming shoulders to both cry and laugh on. Their passion to be immersed in this culture and learn as much as possible all while living in the moment spoke to us all. We were welcomed more than simply into homes and the community; we were welcomed to immerse ourselves in their culture and truly be a part of it.

All of the provinces joining together in one festival to share each of their cultures: Carnival.

I am not writing this to share what we did everyday or where we visited. Instead, I'd rather share the happiness seen and felt, the beauty seen and felt, and the faithfulness seen and felt. I'd rather share stories about the people of El Cercado because this is about them, not me. I am writing this because El Cercado is a place of community filled with more social injustices than deserved. Although these injustices are experienced, the people are constantly smiling and refer to everyone as their families. El Cercado is filled with the most amazing and empowered groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. "Community" can be defined as "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals". This does not do the El Cercado justice though.

An agriculture-based cooperative that creates products primarily out of peanuts: Mujeres Unidas en Desarrollo. This empowered group of women also make a nutrition bar called Nutrifort, which works to combat child malnutrition.

We may wake up each day, switch on the lights, take a hot shower, and safely drink tap water. However, this is not always the case for others and it is easily taken for granted. I for one, always take these for granted simply because it is the lifestyle I am used to. It's not bad to take these for granted, but we should be paying more attention. By traveling and immersing myself in El Cercado, I learned what "community" genuinely means.

Fe y Alegría-Faith and Joy.

One of our partners from IPM explained to us an unforgettable comparison-

Service is like a seed planted within us. Simply because we leave the place we learned from doesn't mean the plant lives. We need to keep watering it. We need to give it light. We need to do this by advocating for injustices and sharing knowledge with others. By doing this, the seed will live. The seed will grow.

"Empathy is a seed planted inside of us that must be cared for and watered."

A woman who helped organize our trip spent the entire week with us and shared many of her stories. This humble woman never once focused on herself. If we were to give her a compliment, she'd turn the compliment to the people of El Cercado; "It's because of the leaders of these communities." Joana is willing to give her all to and for others. She is strong willed and encouraged each one of us to strive and be proud of persistence. I will not fail to mention that she is a woman. This woman breaks the gender stereotype and has helped provide homes, education, food, and more to the people of El Cercado. She visited once and then knew her path in life; she has now been living in El Cercado for 35 years. This should be all of our paths. We do not necessarily need to pack our bags and move away from our home country, but little actions and knowledge are more beneficial than a lot of people are aware of. By sharing knowledge of injustices, the word spreads and eventually, more people like Joana are born. She noted that she nearly drowned one time while saving a friend; she had accomplished her goal and was ready to surrender herself to the sea. When she woke up to water being pumped out of her lungs, she later went back into the sea because she knew not to let fear consume her.

I will never forget you El Cercado, Dominican Republic. You stole my heart along with every other member of the group's hearts. We will never stop sharing the knowledge we gained here and we cannot wait to go back.

Until we meet again.

These are some quotes that stood out to my group throughout the week. These were said by both members of our group, our IPM friends, and people we met in the Dominican Republic. We believe these are extremely important and deserve to be shared.

"It's not about the project."

"Don't tell the poor what they need. They know what they need."

"When we walk beside them and accompany, that is the best way to support."

"Each decision that we make, and allow our leaders to make, affects others."

"There are two words that perpetuate inequality; individualism and indifference."

"We saw improvement, but also strength."

"They lack resources, but not life. Their struggles make them strong.

Cover Image Credit: Kalyani Twyman

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I Visited The "Shameless" Houses And Here's Why You Shouldn't

Glamorizing a less-than-ideal way to live.
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After five hours of driving, hearing the GPS say "Turn right onto South Homan Avenue" was a blessing. My eyes peeled to the side of the road, viciously looking for what I have been driving so long for, when finally, I see it: the house from Shameless.

Shameless is a hit TV show produced by Showtime. It takes place in modern-day Southside, Chicago. The plot, while straying at times, largely revolves around the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. While a majority of the show is filmed offsite in a studio in Los Angeles, many outside scenes are filmed in Southside and the houses of the Gallagher's and side-characters are very much based on real houses.

We walked down the street, stopped in front of the two houses, took pictures and admired seeing the house in real life. It was a surreal experience and I felt out-of-place like I didn't belong there. As we prepared to leave (and see other spots from the show), a man came strolling down on his bicycle and asked how we were doing.

"Great! How are you?"

It fell silent as the man stopped in front of the Gallagher house, opened the gate, parked his bike and entered his home. We left a donation on his front porch, got back to the car and took off.

As we took the drive to downtown Chicago, something didn't sit right with me. While it was exciting to have this experience, I began to feel a sense of guilt or wrongdoing. After discussing it with my friends, I came to a sudden realization: No one should visit the "Gallagher" house.

The plot largely revolves the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. It represents what Southside is like for so many residents. While TV shows always dramatize reality, I realized coming to this house was an exploitation of their conditions. It's entertaining to see Frank's shenanigans on TV, the emotional roller coasters characters endure and the outlandish things they have to do to survive. I didn't come here to help better their conditions, immerse myself in what their reality is or even for the donation I left: I came here for my entertainment.

Southside, Chicago is notoriously dangerous. The thefts, murders and other crimes committed on the show are not a far-fetched fantasy for many of the residents, it's a brutal reality. It's a scary way to live. Besides the Milkovich home, all the houses typically seen by tourists are occupied by homeowners. It's not a corporation or a small museum -- it's their actual property. I don't know how many visitors these homes get per day, week, month or year. Still, these homeowners have to see frequent visitors at any hour of the day, interfering with their lives. In my view, coming to their homes and taking pictures of them is a silent way of glamorizing the cycle of poverty. It's a silent way of saying we find joy in their almost unlivable conditions.

The conceit of the show is not the issue. TV shows have a way of romanticizing very negative things all the time. The issue at hand is that several visitors are privileged enough to live in a higher quality of life.

I myself experienced the desire and excitement to see the houses. I came for the experience but left with a lesson. I understand that tourism will continue to the homes of these individuals and I am aware that my grievances may not be shared with everyone -- however, I think it's important to take a step back and think about if this were your life. Would you want hundreds, potentially thousands, of people coming to your house? Would you want people to find entertainment in your lifestyle, good and bad?

I understand the experience, excitement, and fun the trip can be. While I recommend skipping the houses altogether and just head downtown, it's most important to remember to be respectful to those very individuals whose lives have been affected so deeply by Shameless.

Cover Image Credit: itsfilmedthere.com

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Solo Travel As An Extrovert Is Not Easy

Traveling alone, I can choose to view it as a difficult separation from other people or a journey of learning more about myself.

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Life has a funny way of revealing itself and after my mom ditched me on our mother-daughter trip to Taiwan, I found myself on a plane headed to a country I had never visited where I didn't know a soul. (Disclaimer: I have relatives in Taiwan but had never met them prior to the trip.) I was excited for the adventure that awaited, fear not setting in of how difficult it would be not to just travel in a foreign country where I didn't speak or read any Mandarin beyond the very, very basics (Literally my vocabulary consisted of 10 simple words/phrases, one of which was the word for "apple" which isn't that helpful for getting around. I have since picked up a few more phrases.), but also be alone with just myself for company.

So much of who we are is influenced by the people around us. A large part of our identity comes the communities we choose to be part of and how we interact with others. But who are we when no one's looking? Who am I without the pressure of other people around me?

I am an extrovert. I get my energy from being around other people. It's not that I can't spend time by myself; I just prefer to be in the company of others even if we aren't always interacting the entire time. My best friend and I will even do independent activities together. (Once when we were hanging out, she was knitting and I was doing a puzzle. I swear we don't act like grandmas all the time.)

Although an extrovert, I'm still a pretty independent person who doesn't like to rely on others for help. But traveling alone in Taiwan, I don't have much of a choice. I'm forced to learn to navigate public transport myself and somehow survive with the basic English that Taiwanese locals know.

Learning to travel alone has been an emotional and difficult journey as this is the first time I've been on my own for this long. Although lonely at times, I've realized that loneliness is a mental state of mind. There is the Sanskrit saying, "Mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha moksayoh" which translates to "As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind." My mind determines my emotional state of being and perspective! Traveling alone, I can choose to view it as a difficult separation from other people or a journey of learning more about myself.

Through solo travel, I am slowly learning to be comfortable with my own company which has been the biggest challenge. I was never an only child, I've always had a roommate in college, and even when I study, I go to public spaces like coffee shops so I can be surrounded by people. I don't know what to do when it's just me and my thoughts all the time. (Especially during meals. Should I appear busy on my phone like all the other single people around me?)


Because when you're traveling alone, you're in charge. You have control. You can change the itinerary from moment to moment without anyone's approval. No one's holding you accountable. Spontaneity? Let's go. You can build barriers but you can also tear them down. It's fun, it's exhilarating. But it's also scary. And unpredictable.


Would I go on another solo expedition in the future? Preferably not as traveling is way more enjoyable when you have someone to share the experience with. It's the people, not the place who make all the difference on a vacation. Yet I do believe solo travel is an experience that everyone should embark on at some point in their life (to grow and learn more about yourself).


This trip has taught me to find spontaneity in the fear and excitement and I've learned to embrace discomfort and unpredictability. To travel with not just my mind and logic but my heart. There are so many unique experiences, if you overthink too much, you'll lose your chance.

I've found that when I am alone, I become more vulnerable and open to meeting new people and having more offbeat experiences. I say yes with zero hesitation. Certainly, there are friends I made, hikes I climbed, streets I meandered, and epiphanies I had that wouldn't have transpired had I been with my mom or a group of people.


Traveling alone, I am now more confident in myself and am ready for the next wave that life throws me. Because I've learned that once you overcome the fear of being by yourself, getting lost (which you will), or accidentally eating meat as a vegan because you didn't understand the signage (I'm sorry!), the world in all its vast infinity can be pretty great. And there are some things that you can only learn on solo travel.

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