Volunteering, Mexico and the Western Guilt Complex

“Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” –

The above quote is one of my favourites about travel and it sums up this month’s topic very neatly. We’re discussing Sustainable Travel – it’s a term which covers a wide range of meanings, from eco-travel, to shopping, transport to volunteering. We will cover them all over the coming weeks, but first, I think the time has come for me to tell you about what happened in Mexico.

It was the summer of 2008; I had just turned 20. Young, naive and idealistic, I suppose I was your typical languages student. I had learnt just enough about world issues to consider myself worldly-wise. It was a ridiculous thing for me to imagine, but hindsight, as so often said, is a wonderful thing.

I decided to use my summer holidays to travel alone to Mexico and engage in volunteering. I thought I had done my research: shunning the big voluntourism companies, whose ethics even then I found questionable (not to mention the vast amounts of money they charge for their programmes were beyond my reach) and choosing an independent organisation. I had a fair amount of childcare experience, though no formal training or qualifications, and the project I found was to work in an orphanage in the depths of rural Mexico, close to the Guatemalan border.

Ethics of Volunteering

Volunteering can be an ethical nightmare
*This photo taken at a good, well-managed orphanage in Peru*

I didn’t pause for a second to wonder why the man I was communicating with and sending the money for my stay to was based in the USA, or why the details I had on the orphanage were pretty scant. As far as I was concerned, I was ‘doing good’.

I can now look back and marvel that my mother barely flinched when I told her I was going off  to rural Mexico to work in an orphanage – but she is wiser than me and knows how headstrong her daughter is. She has always let me make my own mistakes.

It took three flights and a pretty sketchy layover in Mexico City, but I made it to the tiny village of Rosario Ixtal in the state of Chiapas. The orphanage was a big, white house, set in pleasant gardens. Across the road, families lived in tin shacks, half-hidden by the encroaching jungle. Beyond that, the forested mountains of Guatemala.

It became quickly apparent that rather than a traditional orphanage, this was more of a family home. ‘Mama’, a matriarch in her 60s, and her American husband, collected orphaned or abandoned babies – one or two every few years – and eventually expected to support 14 children in the large house. When I arrived, there were four – a 10-year-old girl, two seven-year-old girls and a four-year-old boy.”Why didn’t you bring us presents?” They demanded immediately. With my senses dulled by jetlag, I just stared at them disbelievingly and sat down for lunch. As ‘Mama’ brought dishes through, she explained: “Today I make the lunch. From tomorrow, it is your job, ok?”

“Elizabeth brought us presents,” the children complained.

It quickly became apparent that making the lunch was not my only job. From the time the children woke up – about 6:30, until the time I could wrestle them into bed – 9pm if I was lucky – they were more or less my sole responsibility. I also had to make all their meals and clean the house. It was completely different to what I had been led to believe I would have to do. For want of a better word, I was a slave. And I was paying for the privilege.

I quickly realised that ‘Mama’ was slightly unhinged. Strongly religious, she believed that she was saving the children she took in and deserved all the praise and money that the charity and local people could bestow upon her. The children, meanwhile, were looked after by a constant flux of volunteers, no doubt young girls like me, imagining that a very different experience lay in store for them.

I quickly began to hate Elizabeth. Anything I did that the children didn’t like, they would say: “but Elizabeth always let us” or “Elizabeth never made us do that”. The children were uncontrollable. They would fight, throw scissors, upend their large selection of toys onto the playroom floor, run around the house screaming, punch each other, punch me. The little one would change his opinion of me like the wind, sometimes coming to curl up on my lap and asking when he could marry me, other times hitting me and telling me I was a ‘conchita gorda’ which I won’t even translate, but it’s not language you expect from a four-year-old.

Whenever I could grab some time to myself, I would walk down the road, to a spot where I could get phone signal, and make a phonecall home, which always ended in tears. The women and children doing their washing in the river or working outside their shacks would stop and stare at me as if I had dropped out of space. I guess I did look a little nuts.

Mama clearly favoured the eldest girl above all the other children, to the extent that my heart was breaking for the others. Then, after two weeks, she announced that she and her husband were taking her to the US for a holiday. I would be left with the other three, plus Mama’s elderly and slightly senile mother, for the next fortnight. Two weeks, with three difficult children and an old lady to care for, alone in the Mexican jungle?

I phoned home – in front of the usual audience – and begged my family to get me out of there. And to my eternal gratitude, they did.

Now, with teacher training and child development courses behind me, I understand that those children were damaged. More than anything, even then, I wanted to scoop them up and take them home with me, to give them the love and security they need. They are orphans, children who, for whatever reason, have no parents or family to call their own. Their ‘Mama’, suffering with delusions of grandeur, allows a constant parade of unqualified foreigners to wander in and out of their lives, all with different rules and approaches, giving them a total lack of consistency.

No wonder they throw scissors.

The whole point of this post is to explain that you have to be so very careful when you decide to undertake volunteer work. I don’t believe that particular project was a scam, since I think they truly believe that what they are doing is good, but you have to be so sure about what you are getting into. It can be an ugly thing to examine the reasons you are volunteering, because sometimes you find a hidden complex of Western guilt or a desire to be seen as a ‘good person’. The people you are going to help are not there to assuage your guilt. Nor are they there so that you have a story to boast about when you come back. Just because you’ve gone to an orphanage, it doesn’t mean you have saved the world; you might have actually done some harm.

Of course, volunteering can be wonderful, both for you and for the people you work with – I did it later in Huaraz, Peru and Salta, Argentina and had incredible, successful experiences. So if you are thinking of volunteering, approach with caution, ask a lot of questions – and make them tough. Ensure there is support for volunteers, and training if necessary, and above all, go with an attitude of respect. You are not going to save some poor souls, you are going to work with local people and engage in local projects and provide the help they need. That respect should be returned to you and you should not be treated like a slave – if you are, get out!




  1. This is such a good post, Katy, wise, informative and helpful. I can only imagine how difficult that was for you. Emotionally wrenching, physically exhausting, and mentally wearing. I’m so glad you were able to see it, to know how you DIDN’T want to treat children, but also so, so grateful your family took you out before you were damaged as well. XOXO
    Krista recently posted..Puppies, Learning Italian, and Not Becoming A ModelMy Profile

  2. First off, congratulations for having good intentions and the conviction to actually go try to help. So many of us “would like to help, but [insert excuse]”. Second, thanks for sharing this.

    I’m a bit torn as to how and where to help. I don’t consider Mexico to be a poor country. There are, however, a lot of countries that are poorly governed, and whose resources are poorly distributed (Mexico included). If you volunteer in a place like Mexico, are you (please excuse the expression) “pissing into the wind”?

    I guess any help, anywhere, is a good thing. But you only have so much time…how and where do you make the biggest impact? I am starting to think that my time is best spent helping locally. My country – one of the “richest” in the world – has no shortage of opportunities to help.
    Drew recently posted..Open Letter To Gen Y – Part 2 – On the subject of your deathMy Profile

  3. What a great post…really candid and quite shocking. There are however, so many orphanages in India that are exploiting visitors, and the government also does nothing to stop this–they must know it’s going on. I’m glad you experienced this and decided quickly to leave—it must have widened your perspective of Mexico quite a bit.
    Charu recently posted..Post-Olympic Nostalgia: London CallingMy Profile


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