Building connections to travel more conscientiously.
Todos Santos is a small coastal town in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. It is considered one of Mexico’s “Pueblo Mágico” because of its natural beauty and cultural richness. The Pacific Ocean moderates the year-round temperatures of this desert climate, making it comfortable to visit most months of the year. Despite a rapid influx of visitors and residents to this bustling town, its beaches remain clean and relatively uncrowded.
It's easy to see the appeal of Todos Santos and why so many people from other countries have decided to live here. Artists, musicians, and healers are among those who are attracted to its special energy and light, its beaches, and the whales which inhabit the surrounding waters.
During the two weeks I spent here, most notably taking daily long walks on the beach with whales as companions, I wondered if this place's specialness could be protected from the ongoing rapid development. Baja California Sur, the larger area in which Todos Santos is contained, is the driest state in Mexico, without enough fresh water to supply the development that is projected. And with no integrated waste management system, rapid population growth will threaten water, soil, and air quality, which disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities.
Ivonne Benitez founded Hablando Mexicano seven years ago, a language school in Todos Santos which offers immersive cultural experiences in addition to language classes. I discovered her school when I was searched online for a cooking class that specialized in traditional food.
Not only is Ivonne an entrepreneur with a wide range of professional experiences, she also cares about the vulnerable communities around Todos Santos and dreams of creating a nonprofit that would empower single mothers. After signing up for a cooking class, I reached out to her and asked if she'd be willing to meet and speak with me about her work around Todos Santos.
We met for lunch at Santoro, a rooftop restaurant a few blocks from her school, to discuss the different communities she intersects with in her work and life. We started the conversation talking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book We Should All Be Feminists, which she had just finished. She expressed how she wished that all women in Mexico could read it, particularly since a woman’s standing is still perceived only in relation to the men in their lives.
Ivonne’s parents were both highly educated, and her father is a professor. She herself holds two master’s degrees and is trilingual, speaking Spanish, English, and French.
Ivonne shared a personal story of how she left an abusive marriage, motivated by wanting to provide her son a healthy model for relating with women later in life. She could not get support from her family or even from friends because of the cultural norm to stay in a marriage, even when it is abusive. If this was her experience, she said, imagine the same situation for women raising kids without education and who have substantial barriers to supporting families on their own.
Not only does Ivonne prioritize lifting up women in Todos Santos, but she and the teachers in her school also support children in nearby small agricultural communities. Every year, the Hablando Mexicano work family, joined by friends in the greater Todos Santos community, deliver toys and school supplies to hundreds of local children in need. To make it more personal and special, this past year, they wrote a personal letter to every child and teenager.
When asked about the impact of the surge of non-Mexicans building homes here, Ivonne’s response was that those who benefit are mostly Mexican families who already have access and some privilege. (This is similar to the widespread development throughout the world, primarily fueled by outside capital investment and disconnected from grassroots communities.)
Ivonne's generosity in sharing the stories of communities that matter to her was a wonderful way for us to connect over common values. We said our goodbyes, but before we did, we expressed an interest in staying in touch and continuing the conversation.
This trip was an opportunity not only to enjoy the extraordinary natural beauty of this Pueblo Mágico, but also to meet people who are making a difference in their communities. Meeting someone like Ivonne, and having the good fortune of a possible future friendship, is one way to travel with greater intention. Through her hospitality and openness, there is now the possibility that I and others like me can participate in future projects lifting up the communities in Todos Santos.
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