Alessandra McAllister, a finalist in Hispanic Studies and History, spent her year abroad in Mexico City, where she worked for Casa Alianza, a charity which works with street children. She tells us more about her experience:

 It was around this time two years ago that I sat in a small office in a business park in
Alessandra

Alessandra at the recent exhibition of her photography in London

Kettering, Northamptonshire – no exotic beginning for a year abroad in Latin America. However, it was the outcome of this interview at the Casa Alianza HQ that granted me my independent placement: running photography workshops for abandoned and homeless teenagers in Mexico City. The project began and has continued well beyond the seven months of study/work required on a year abroad; from raising £5, 500 in funds back in June 2011, the project is finally about to come to a close with an exhibition in Kemistry Gallery, London, which recently opened on 24th January, 2013.

The Mexican filling of this England-based sandwich was a profusion of flavours, ranging from the hot, the fresh, the fruity, the nutty, the spicy and the sweet, to the outright bitter. As is evident from my Street Children Photography blog, the project had some hairy moments: the teenagers were unpredictable, the NGOs were under pressure and Mexico City can be overwhelming. My eyes were opened to an underground world – literally, a world beneath the sewers, the overpasses and the railway tunnels – where babies are born, children live and teenagers die from undernourishment, alcoholism and solvent abuse. To me, it seemed a children’s world in the wastelands of urban society, where the only adults who dictated the course of childhood were the dealers, pimps and punters and, thankfully, the people working for NGOs like Casa Alianza to defend and protect street children, and steer them away from a life on the streets. It was into this chaos that I stepped, clutching a camera.
Photographs of street children in Mexico City

Photographs of street children in Mexico City

Over the course of the months, as my Spanish improved and my relationships with the teenagers grew more intimate, and the photography project came to life. I invited Mexican photojournalists to give talks to the children about a career in photojournalism, organised pin-hole camera workshops at national photography institutions, and accompanied each photography participant to photograph a place of personal nostalgia or happy memory. Outside of the photography project, working with Casa Alianza at its homes also meant there were endless invitations to children’s birthday parties, first communions and Christmas posadas. It was being thrown into this whirlwind of new experience (both in life and work) that taught me the value of patience, open-mindedness and self-management.

Please take time to look at the Casa Alianza website to see in more depth the work that they undertake to help raise funds and awareness for their partner projects in Mexico, Guatemala , Nicaragua and Honduras. The volunteer programme is ongoing and Casa are always in need of suitably qualified volunteers to undertake placements both with their project partners and in the UK.

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