Student View: Reflections on Experience at El Buen Amigo

By: Emily Pawelski
GS 300: Service Learning Abroad – Dominican Republic

El-Buen-Amigo-12During the Fall 2015 semester, students from GS 300: Service Learning Abroad – Dominican Republic traveled to El Buen Amigo, which translates to: “A good friend” in English.  Founded by Santiago Masferrer, once a political prisoner in Chile, El Buen Amigo is a unique shop nestled in a quaint block on Elmwood Avenue in Allentown.  El Buen Amigo, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and was featured in The Public,  is a non-profit organization which offers “fair trade” goods such as: crafts, clothing, and coffee direct from artisans and farmers in Central America, Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean which helps support the artisans and their families by providing a fair wage for their services.  To that end, Hilbert College Enactus has collaborated with EBA over the past few years through its Artisan Support Project in the Dominican Republic by importing ornate, handcrafted items from local artisans which aims to provide impoverished individuals in a developing country earn a living wage.  Furthermore, El Buen Amigo is a Cultural Center that provides educational programming to enhance understanding of issues related to diversity, which was the focus of the day’s activities.

To start the day off… MarCe Zerrate, a native of Columbia and the Founder/Executive Director of Amor and Heritage Inc. – an Hispanic Traditional Dance Company, provided dance lessons. Amor and Heritage is a traditional Hispanic dance company dedicated to the promotion of multiculturalism and diversity, through the use of dance!   Through dance and movement, Amor and Heritage promotes tolerance, education, understanding of other cultures, the importance of self-confidence, sharing, kindness and staying healthy. Amor and Heritage teaches dance as school programming, special workshops and classes and performs at festivals and events all over WNY.  Through the use of choreography, MarCe explained how the styles of Latin dance have evolved over time and how many of the movements in Latin dance originated from slavery. For example, women would raise their skirts before the music commenced to give praise to God for the opportunity and freedom to dance.  However since slaves could not move their bodies freely while they were on transport ships, they moved their wrists and feet that were shackled together to produce a beat.  Other correlations between slavery and dance included women making swooping gestures with their hats in such a way to symbolize gathering water and men making motions with their arms to symbolize cutting cane with machetes to prove their worth to the ladies. Learning about the different types of Latin dance and the history behind the moves was really cool.  It was definitely more than just a dance class.  It was a really great way to experience some Latin culture firsthand!

After the dance lesson, Santiago engaged the group in a lesson of “Life by Numbers” by asking each individual their age and the age of their grandmother. He then subtracted the two ages (For example: 85-19=66). He then surmised that the number calculated was the estimated number of years left to live. With this, he asserted each day should never be taken for granted and lives should be lived to the fullest!

Last but not least, the most impactful part of the experience was Santiago’s Character Tower exercise as it made so much sense and related to life in so many ways.   To start, Santiago divided the individuals present into two groups. Each group was then to construct a freestanding tower on the hardwood floor using just wooden blocks. The base of the tower was composed of just four pillars.  Each pillar represented a vital component of one’s life, such as: faith, family, friends and finances. Each level of the tower represented a different time in life and with eight levels, they seemed to parallel the eight decades of expected life.  When finished with building the towers, Santiago asked which side the tower may be leaning towards; from there, he started adding blocks to the corner opposite to balance the structure.  After he did that, he removed the weak side pillar and the tower still stood strong on just three legs.  He connected this back to one’s key pillars in life: faith, family and friends.  He conveyed that with a supportive family and great friends (representative of community and society), it is possible to survive most hardships.  Santiago also modeled persistence by having us each throw a block at the other group’s character tower.  The blocks thrown demonstrated the challenges in life such as break-ups and personal losses.  Even with everyone trying to destroy the tower with their blocks, it took a lot longer than expected.  Santiago explained how character must stay strong and constant through life’s challenges. Throughout life, one will experience many obstacles and grueling challenges; however, one must never give up… One must rather persevere and overcome problems with grace and finesse.

Although time spent with MarCe and Santiago at El Buen Amigo was limited, the impact it had on the lives of GS 300 students will last a lifetime.  The dancing lesson rewarded everyone with very important cultural knowledge; while the exercises led by Santiago were thought-provoking and incredibly meaningful.  In summary, El Buen Amigo provided a fun and active learning environment that was engaging to all!

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