Photo caption: La Poza de Vida’s Walls Bare Message of Freedom for All, a Nice Reminder for Students and Visitors

By Benny Yu, Founder, El Pozo de Vida and 27Million

Today kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month, when we celebrate the contributions of all who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean have made to American society and culture.

Tomorrow, September 16, is Independence Day in Mexico. As a resident of Mexico City, I’m seeing the community prepare for the festivities and celebrations. At the same time, I want to take a moment to reflect on the true meaning of freedom in the midst of a country-wide quarantine. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some students of the OGI culinary arts program have been experiencing something similar to a lockdown. In our program, which partners with Open Gate International to provide culinary and life skills training to vulnerable individuals in Mexico, many of the young women and children we serve are under witness protection while they testify against their traffickers. They live in a safe house with very limited access to the outside world for their protection; and because of the sensitivity of their ongoing cases.

We have discovered that being on lockdown does not mean we cannot experience freedom. Our students have learned freedom isn’t about limiting physical space, but about opening emotional space. They have been able to find emotional openness through learning new skills, cooking with their friends and creating dishes. Personal growth, camaraderie and creativity have paved a pathway to experiencing true freedom that one can only find in the soul.

In an interesting turn of events, this newfound liberty is now being shared with us. For years, we have spent our energies and resources to help our students find freedom. Now, they are helping us navigate the new normal during the pandemic. As we’ve been struggling with online meetings, drive-by birthday parties and loss of travel plans, our students have already developed the inner fortitude to transcend circumstance with the emotional strength they’ve gained. They are now coaching our staff in how to better cope with disappointment by teaching us to draw from the strength within us.

As Independence Day and graduation from the OGI culinary arts program approach, we can’t help but ask ourselves, what more do we have to learn from each other?

Benny resides in Mexico City, where El Pozo de Vida fights human trafficking in Mexico and Central America. El Pozo de Vida partners with OGI to operate a culinary arts and life skills program in Mexico City.