In our first Telling Lives class at UNLA, we watched a video from a program called “Story Swap.” Sponsored by the Aspen Institute’s Writer’s Foundation, this multimedia effort links diverse groups through storytelling, creative writing, and visual art. Each time we listen to and write another’s story, the program’s website states, we build “compassion and empathy through authentic engagement.”

Tolerance for other cultures and ideas is one of the program’s goals. One international swap brought together Jewish high school students from Haifa and Arab students from Nazareth, Israel. Most of the participants had never met a person from “the other side.” But there were no polemics or political statements. Participants told a story important to their lives and identities. Then, their partners retold the story in written form as if it were their own.

After sharing their stories online, students from Haifa traveled to their partners’ school in Nazareth to read the story to the combined community from both schools. What did it feel like to hear someone else’s version of your story? “She really listened to me,” said Merin, the young woman from Haifa of her Arab partner Ayat’s rendering of her tale of emigrating from Russia to Israel with her mother.

How often does this happen – true listening? In Beyond the Writer’s Workshop, Carol Bly argues for more empathic listening among writers. She describes a common cocktail party phenomenon: You are telling a story to someone you’ve just met. In his or her eyes, you see that “please move on so I can tell my own story” look. Who learns to listen, Bly asks, really empty themselves of their personal agenda so they can hear another?

Eudora Welty writes, “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them [my italics]. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on.” Students in the “Telling Lives” workshop at UNLA fully participated. They attended carefully to one another and wrote profiles of their partners for the website. Then they traveled from Morelia to Erongarícuaro to record the stories of the staff at Mujeres Aliadas, a women’s health care project. Though all belong to the circle of culture called “Mexican,” beyond that little was shared. Many students had never been to the pueblos surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro, or knew about the work of this group on behalf of indigenous and mestizo women, or had considered midwifery as a viable health option. They transcribed their recorded interviews and faced the challenge of telling another’s story. Several profiles of Mujeres Aliadas’ staff appeared in the last blog. Four more are featured here.

These are “small stories,” perhaps, if you counter them to “big events” central to news coverage. But each reveals the power of stories and the effects of deep listening on the writer. Each profile also contributes to a collective portrait of remarkable women.

“Verónica Pureco Farías” by Maribel Barcena Lopez

Maribel with Vero (right)

Verónica Pureco Farías is a woman who by hard work, determination. and just plain luck has reached a place where she is truly making a difference. Verónica – Vero – was born in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán to a traditional mestizo family, and she continues to live there with her own family. Life in a traditional family meant certain things were never discussed because they were deemed inappropriate, including women’s health, menstruation, and overall well being. This was true for Vero, the women before her, and remains true for many of the women living in Pátzcuaro, Erongarícuaro, and other surrounding towns.

To Vero, it seemed as if life guided her to exactly where she was supposed to be. Before joining Mujeres Aliadas, she worked in hotel maintenance and also as a promotora voluntaria de oportunidades – a promoter of volunteer opportunities. She has always had a profound love of helping others, especially women in her community. When Vero lost her job at the hotel, a friend found her work cleaning houses. One such home belonged to Brenda Madura and Richard Ferguson, the founders of Mujeres Aliadas. One thing led to another and Vero joined forces with them, volunteering for two years. Finally, she became Community Coordinator, a staff position. She now travels to twenty pueblos, leading discussions on a variety of topics including the basics of women’s health, how to recognize and treat vaginal diseases, and the benefits of natural birth.  In her community, Vero is considered to be a modern woman because of her ideas and outreach work. She is also a pioneer working hard for the advancement, knowledge, health, and respect of women.

“Eluvia Pedtro Mateos” by Miriam Lamarka Miranda

Eluvia with Miriam (right)

Eluvia Pedro Mateos is 25-years-old and a professional midwife. She studied at CASA, the professional midwifery school that is also a civic association in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. She was born in Chiapas, where her parents moved during the war. She grew up part Guatemalteco and part Mexican, so she speaks Spanish and Acateko Maya.

She believes that being a midwife is something as worthy of respect and as honorable as being a doctor. “A midwife is a friend and a confident,” She says, “When people look to us we have to help them,” she says. “At Mujeres Aliadas we are committed to giving women good information, especially in towns like Erongarícuaro. Most of the women are not well informed so if we help them, they can defend their rights. It’s tough work because the idea of giving birth in the hospital is so strong. Some people are afraid of midwives or the families don’t trust us.”

Eluvia has a smooth and calm presence. She wears a uniform and carries a badge with her name on it. For our interview, she picked her favorite place at Mujeres Aliadas, behind a big tree, covered by purple flowers and a nice hammock with a beautiful view. “Everything here is pretty. I can sit here and read something to relax.”

When she talks about her work, I can see the joy in her face. “A simple caress or just talking in a kind way changes women’s attitude and their health. I’m proud of being a woman and it’s beautiful, how women’s bodies work so perfectly … it’s a blessing.” She thinks that pregnant women deserve the right treatment. “Every time I see a birth I think it’s wonderful. This is where I want to be.” Her eyes shine and transmit the happiness of receiving a life in her hands. “A humanized birth is so different from the hospital. We prepare the mother in a natural way and form a better connection with the father and the baby. There’s a lot of union.”

Eluvia can surprise people with her youth and happiness, her strong ideals, and her choice to help women. “When people think of a midwife they think of an old lady with a rebozo and when they see us it’s like, “Oh! You’re so young!”

“A woman is capable of making her own decisions. A birth is something that belongs to her so nobody can force her to do things a certain way.”

“Liliana Campos Zúñiga” by Carlos Emilio Rodríguez Barrientos

Carlos interviewing Liliana

For Liliana Campos Zúñiga, everything started with an interview. With a degree in pedagogy, she could not find a job in her field so she applied for work as a secretary at Mujeres Aliadas. When she met Brenda Madura, the founding director and Ondine Rosenthal, now the Interim Director; she grew excited about the organization and its work. Liliana wanted the job, and if that were not possible, she would become a patient because she really fell in love with the group’s purpose.

In the end, she came to Mujeres Aliadas as both patient and worker. The secretary is an important position. Liliana organizes everyone’s work and communicates to the entire group. She also tries to spread the word about their services to help the organization grow.

Mujeres Aliadas changed Liliana’s life. Thanks to this group, she now feels proud of being a woman and is able to make decisions about her life. Now she can say “no” and defend her rights. She knows more about taking care of her body and is never ashamed to talk about her sexuality, pregnancy, and health issues with her friends. She realizes now that these things are very natural and important for every person to know about, not just women. Men too, can change their lives through this knowledge.

Liliana loves being part of this family. She hopes that men and women will want to join Mujeres Aliadas and experience life changes as she did.

Amalia Cabrera Cruz” by Talía De Niz Pérez Negrón

 Twenty-eight-years-old, Amalia Cabrera Cruz is part of the twelfth generation of professional midwives from the CASA school in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Amalia works at Mujeres Aliadas in Erongarícuaro, a beautiful place surrounded by nature that has great positive energy.

Born and raised in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Amalia, the last of thirteen children, decided to study professional midwifery without knowing all the amazing things she would discover. She defines the moment when a newborn meets the world for the first time as “magical.”

She is a very professional woman who feels passionate about taking care of other women not just in her role as a midwife but as an “all in one”: midwife, psychologist, friend, confident and more. She feels a special connection to women and wants to be sensitive enough to know what a woman is going through even when she doesn’t speak.

Amalia is humble as well as prepared for her work. This midwife feels God’s blessings around her in having discovered people and places she’ll never forget. She likes to learn something new during every moment she spends with a woman while she is giving birth.

“You always need to love what you do.” Amalia Cabrera Cruz