Riverwester Jackie Reid Dettloff was 20 years old whenshe first stepped beyond the borders of the United States. As a college junior she went to Mexico with a service project for three weeks and her life has never been the same. In 2007, as her personal response to thefracas about immigration, she inaugurated CONOCER, a program of Spanish study and cultural immersion in the very same town where she first went as a college student. We asked her about her undertaking. Why the name CONOCER? That’s the Spanish word that means “to becomeacquainted with” or “to get to know.” It fits our program perfectly because we aim to help people get to know theculture of central Mexico in apersonal way. What’s the idea behindCONOCER? In late 2006 I was driving downLake Drive when I heard areport on NPR about a group inSouthern California that wantedto make it a criminal offense for aproperty owner to rent to a nondocumentedperson. They said they were tired of having theircommunity “turned into a ThirdWorld cesspool.” Those werethe exact words, I swear. Peoplewho use words like that have noidea what they are talking about.They are so ignorant! They haveno experience of the culturefrom which Latin Americanimmigrants come. They’re like thetourists on the bus in the movie Babel. It occurred to me that day that people here would look differently at immigrants if they knew where they come from. Sure, average Mexicans don’t have all the moneythat we do. Their GNP is lower than ours. But that isnot to say that their culture is. Not at all. So, with a group of people in Michoacán, we put togethera 2-week program to let English-speaking people see some of the beauty and cultural richness of small-townMexico. We based the program in Zinapécuaro, a town that depends heavily on money sent from the US. Almostevery family there has someone who has left to go up north. In that way, CONOCER gives people a look atwhat lies at the southern end of the immigrant odyssey. It also provides income directly to the families thathost the participants and to the teachers. There are no franchises or corporate agents involved. That’s why wecall ourselves a fair trade company. Can you explain your reference to Babel? Well, that movie shows the hysteria that takes over whena busload of white-skinned tourists find themselves ina remote Moroccan village. The dark-skinned villagersdo them no harm but the tourists are consumed by fear.Brad Pitt’s character gets to know some of the villagersand he sees how they can be sympathetic and kind, sohe does not freak out the way the other bus passengersdo. Part of the idea behind CONOCER is to dispel thefear that is exemplified by the panicky tourists in themovie and by ignorant comments that are made in ournational debate about immigration.But of course, it’s also just fun. People get to swim in gorgeous hot springs, taste wonderful home-cooking,see artisans at work, visit ancient ruins, All this while learning Spanish as well. Sounds like a dynamite program. It is! The participants last summer were wowed by thewarm, heart-felt reception they got in Mexico and they talked about how it was so different from the reception that Mexican people tend to get in this country. They learned Spanish, but they learned a lot more than justthe language. Every single one of them was touched to the core by the generosity of their host familiesand the warmth of their teachers. They got acquainted with Mexican culture and appreciated it. That is whatCONOCER is about. You know, we only take 15 people a year and at thispoint we only go for two weeks each summer. In terms of promoting global understanding. you could say thatis a drop in the bucket. Still, I think every drop counts and I’m proud of what we’ve put together. To learn more, go to www.conocer3.com.