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Michelle Obama's 40 Hours in Mexico: Collecting and Sharing Stories

4 years ago
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MEXICO CITY -- "Thank you for allowing me to use your stories," First Lady Michelle Obama told the dozen student leaders seated around her at a big rectangular table. It was Thursday morning at a beautiful event site, a 16th-century former Spanish hacienda, a reminder of this nation's colonial era.

Each of the students had a personal, passionate story to tell Mrs. Obama. The six men and six women, from different parts of the country, were picked by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to come to the capital for a roundtable discussion. A State Department translator sat next to Mrs. Obama whispering to her in English as another translator across the room (at a table walled off by glass) turned Mrs. Obama's words to Spanish, transmitting them to ear pieces everyone wore.

Mrs. Obama wanted to hear the stories of these social activists -- she called them "movers and shakers here in Mexico" -- as she crafts her new "youth engagement" platform, whether in international arenas or domestically, including upcoming graduation addresses at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff; George Washington University and Anacostia High School, in a low-income part of Washington.

Oscar "Ukeme" Bautista Munoz told Mrs. Obama of his struggle to organize his indigenous Huichol community, creating a Web site so his "language and culture will not be lost."

Sofia Jimena Canales Albarran, a medical student, told how she once shaved her head to raise $10,000 for orphans and to buy medical supplies for the needy in Vietnam.

Olivetti Paredes Sacarias, who founded a day-care center and runs workshops on the prevention of child and sexual exploitation, demonstrated the power of modern media, telling Mrs. Obama, "I have seen you dance through the Internet, on TV, you and your husband. By the way, let me say you make a beautiful couple. I still have images in my head of the day you danced . . . the day the president was inaugurated."

The personal narrative is a central part of the Obama ethos. Encouraging people to tell their stories is a tool that a young community organizer, Barack Obama, used on the South Side of Chicago. President Obama introduced himself to much of the world one summer night in Boston in 2004, when he told his own.

"I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible," Obama said in his famous keynote address to the Democratic National Convention.

Asking people to share their stories was a centerpiece of the Obama presidential campaign field outreach effort. In the successful drive to pass a health care reform bill, having people tell personal tales of being short-changed by their insurance company was part of the grassroots campaign run by Democrats and their allies.

So now Mrs. Obama, too, is collecting stories as she moves ahead with her agenda. The event at the hacienda never became a real discussion; it took time just for each of the 12 to explain their projects. Mrs. Obama lavished them with praise.

"You are the voices of inspiration," she said. "You don't need Bill Gates [the Microsoft founder and philanthropist] or Michelle Obama, although that's nice sometimes. Young people in your communities are relating to you."

In closing, she urged the young people to keep up their good works -- and to not get discouraged if change does not happen quickly. "When I went to Haiti, the one thing you realize is that the only thing that happens in an instant is destruction," she said.

This was the last public event of Mrs. Obama's first official solo international swing, which started Tuesday with an unannounced visit to Haiti, which, it turned out, had been on the drawing board for months. Mrs. Obama told a group of six print journalists in a Wednesday interview she wanted to go there soon after the Jan. 12 earthquake hit.

"Well, you know, the minute the disaster struck, the earthquake struck, you're looking from your living room sets and you're thinking, 'What can I do? I need to go down there.' But then you start thinking, 'I'm the First Lady and I'm just going to shut the whole country down trying to get in there.'

"So we have always been talking about when would the right time be to come. And I think my staff, my team, we all agreed that this was a good time because rainy season is coming, hurricane season is coming."

Mrs. Obama arrived here Tuesday night from Haiti and spent about 40 hours in Mexico before her plane took off at 12:01 p.m. for San Diego to attend an event spotlighting her anti-childhood obesity drive.

At the Benito Juarez International Airport here, Mrs. Obama was serenaded by a waiting group of boys and girls before she boarded her plane.

The singers, waving U.S. and Mexican flags, were members of the Christel House choir, called the Polyphonic Chorus. The adorable children wore uniforms -- blue jumpers and tan shirts for girls; blue sleeveless sweaters, blue pants and tan shirts for boys. Christel House was founded to help impoverished children.

Mrs. Obama's trip seemed successful. The coverage she generated in Mexico and the U.S. -- well, so far there is nothing for the East Wing to complain about. Deciding to give solo interviews to each U.S. network while in Mexico City vaulted Mrs. Obama's trip to the top newscasts.

The Thursday front pages of Mexico City papers Milenio and El Universal featured photos of Mrs. Obama playing the day before with grammar school students in a school yard. La Cronica's front page used a picture of her delivering a speech at a university. Inside pages had pictures of her with Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala at the National Museum of Anthropology, which Mrs. Obama speed-toured on Wednesday morning.

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