This summer, a handful of Redwood students decided to stray from typical summer vacations and make a bold move to participate in Amigos de las Americas.
Amigos is a program that began in 1965 that places students in mostly rural Spanish-speaking countries. These students are fully immersed in the culture and language for six to seven weeks and work with the community that they are placed in to help build connections and work on mini projects, such as building gardens. When they begin their process with Amigos, each student requests the top three cities that they wish to be placed in, and they are placed in one with one or two other Amigos participants.
Juniors Grace Fried and Sam Jackson and senior Aidan Rankin-Williams enriched their Spanish knowledge as they all traveled to Panama this summer through the Amigos program.
Sofrito, Coclé, Panamá
Jackson stayed in the small, rural village of Sofrito with two other partners, Mia and Lauren.
“It was super tiny. If you search it up on Google, you can’t find it,” Jackson said. “There were cinderblock houses, holes in the ground as toilets and the shower was a PVC pipe and a hose nozzle just an inch taller than I was.”
According to Jackson, his parents found out about the Amigos program and suggested it to him.
“I wanted to do something cool and not sit around all summer,” Jackson said.
Jackson has had some experience living abroad. He traveled to Bali and stayed with a part of a boarding school program alone for a year during his gap year after eighth grade.
“It was kind of hard knowing what to expect going in. I just thought six weeks wasn’t that long, compared to the year I was in Bali,” Jackson said.
According to Jackson, Sofrito was his first choice because it had sustainability factors that interested him, which is something that he also focused on during his trip to Bali.
Jackson tried to spend as much time with his host family as possible. He had a large family, with four generations staying in his house.
“Their whole entire extended family lived in the community. The ones that didn’t live in the house lived a few-minute walk away and they would come over and watch WWE wrestling every single night in Spanish. It was pretty funny,” Jackson said.
According to Jackson, the large amount of time that he spent with his host family not only helped him become very close with them but also improve his Spanish.
“I was like a B-student and not a very confident Spanish speaker. Now I can speak confidently with local speakers,” Jackson said.
During his stay, he helped fundraise within the community. He made and sold tamales and the money from his sales went to paving bits of the road that had large potholes that prevented the cars from going through.
“It was really hard saying goodbye to my family. My favorite part was getting as close as I did with my host family and becoming so integrated and how much they welcomed me,” Jackson said.
El Capuri, Azuero, Panamá
Fried spent seven weeks in the rural community of El Capuri with her Amigos partner, Annabelle. They were the only two English speakers in the community.
“I got along with my partner really well and my host family was amazing, absolutely perfect,” Fried said.
According to Fried, she was excited but also nervous about meeting her host family.
“We pulled up to their house and the whole family was out on the porch and ready to greet me. They all greeted me with a hug and a kiss and invited me into their family so smoothly,” Fried said.
Fried first discovered Amigos through a presentation given at school. Her dad was very supportive of her decision to participate, but her mom was nervous about her living in a different country.
“I thought it would be a really good opportunity for me to learn about other cultures and improve my Spanish, but at the same time meet new people and do something good for others,” said Fried.
Fried has gone on trips with her friends without her parents before, but this was the first time she has traveled to a different country by herself.
“I didn’t get homesick or have cultural shock, so it was a very easy transition for me,” Fried said.
El Capuri was her second choice to travel to and was recommended for her because she is a vegetarian and Panama’s natural diet would accommodate more of her needs.
“When we got our information sheet it said Panama was really diverse and the people were super friendly. The cultural aspect of Panama interested me as well,” Fried said. “I looked up photos and saw that it was absolutely gorgeous.”
During her trip, Fried worked with the local kids for two hours a day, five days a week. They would lead educational activities with the local children and also built a greenhouse at the school.
In her free time, Friend would read books, hang out with the local children and talk to her partner.
“There’s no such thing as awkward in their culture. Everyone was so welcoming and nice,” Fried said. “They would see you walking by in the street and they would wave you over to say hi and give you fruit.”
Virotales, Azuero, Panamá
Rankin-Williams spent seven weeks in Virotales with one partner named Nico. Virotales was the most rural out of all the communities the Amigos members were placed in.
According to Rankin-Williams, he and his partner lived on a farm where there was no electricity and they had a pig living underneath their stove. His community was spread out and on average it was twenty-minute walk on unpaved roads from house to house.
This was the first time he had traveled to a foreign country alone or participated in a service trip, but he had traveled to different states alone before.
“I realized that I wanted to do something where I lived, breathed and did the activities in a different country as if I was born there,” Rankin-Williams said.
Virotales was his first choice because it was recommended to him and it was near the coast.
“I wanted to be more on the coastline because I knew that would mean a more cool climate, making it less humid and hot which was something I wasn’t looking forward too,” Rankin-Williams said.
Rankin-Williams had several inspirations that lead him to participate with Amigos. His mom had traveled with Amigos before and she had influenced him to look into it. Every year in each Spanish class, Amigos gives a small presentation to influence students to join.
“Mr. VP got me into it a little after I heard one of his crazy stories in his Spanish class,” Rankin-Williams said.
His third and main inspiration was his former parkour instructor.
“He explained to me that at one point in my life, even if it’s for a couple of weeks, I had to live somewhere else other than the United States,” said Rankin-Williams. “He told me that if water stays in one place for too long it gets stagnant, moldy and it’s bad. He explained that to me in a way that really connected with me.”
During his stay, he led a camp for the kids in the community as part of the school.
“At 12, we would walk over to the school and have lunch and play with them. A lot of the time the game would be soccer,” Rankin-Williams said. “Basically you would take games and add an educational spin on them. For example, there was one called ‘Animales y arboles’ that would demonstrate that if you cut down a tree you are cutting down an animal’s house and there’s not going to be as many animals.”
His partner and him also completed a mini project, where they figured out what the community wanted and built it.
“My partner and I built a garden in front of the school to help it look better as well as show the kids that if you put in some effort and plant this little seed here, one day it will grow into this great plant that is beautiful and is appealing,” Rankin-Williams said.
Rankin-Williams said he acclimated into the community as easily as he did because his partner brought vitamins, which helped supplement his body because a big part of the diet was just rice and beans.
“I would say I transitioned pretty quickly and within a week being in the community I was in the swing of things,” Rankin-Williams said.
His partner, Nico, lives in San Jose, California and they became very close during their stay. They are still in touch and are planning to hang out in the upcoming weeks.
According to Rankin-Williams, he wasn’t the strongest Spanish speaker before his trip.
“It was definitely hard to get in the full swing of Spanish but at the same time it kind of comes automatically so even after the third day my host dad was telling me that my Spanish was already getting better,” Rankin-Williams said. “When it’s all you hear and the only other person you can speak to in English is your partner, it forces you to speak in Spanish and when you’re forced to speak in Spanish that’s when you truly learn it.”
Throughout his seven weeks, according to Rankin-Williams, the one moment that really summarizes his entire experience was during his going away party when he got to help kill, cook and eat a pig.
“There was this 150-pound pig that I had to kill with a little knife and my partner was suppose to stun it with a metal bat,” Rankin-Williams said.
He describes how he had to drag the live pig with a rope into the place where they had to kill it, and then only moments later how it was cooking over a cement block fire, to a few hours later how he was putting ketchup and BBQ sauce on it.
“Seeing this animal I killed and in the process of two hours I’m eating it. It was by far one of the craziest experiences I’ve had and was definitely was some of the freshest food I have ever eaten in my entire life,” Rankin-Williams said. “Absolutely insane.”