'Diplomats' from Ashland started relationship with sister city

Señora Chela (Tapp) Kocks once told Meredith Reynolds that language teachers could help create diplomats.

"The kind of diplomats that understand another culture's point of view," said Reynolds, an administrator in Southern Oregon University's school of business. "It was really important to her to give students a chance to be in another culture, not just to study it."

Reynolds had that chance in 1969 as an SOU student on a winter break bus trip to Mexico lead by Kocks, a Spanish professor.

Once final exams had been completed and Kocks had turned in her grades, she and 41 students piled on a bus bound for central Mexico.

They brought sleeping bags and enough food to get them to border, only stopping to use the bathroom and get gas, Reynolds said.

At the border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., they had to walk into Mexico, Reynolds said, because at that time U.S. vehicles weren't allowed to enter the country.

The students took a southbound train and ended up in a car with a group of Mexican novitiates.

"They were very straight-laced and shy," Reynolds said. "We were sort of pseudo hippies. We had unmanageable hair and questionable clothing."

But Kocks soon had everybody singing Christmas carols — in Spanish.

"That was my first impression of Mexico and what a lovely one it was," Reynolds said.

The SOU students traveled to Guadalajara and then to Mexico City. During the trip, they would stop at small cities where, "in exchange for our supper, we sang Christmas carols — in English," Reynolds said.

Their hosts put them up in their homes, and the group only stayed in a hotel once, at Christmastime in downtown Mexico City, where they visited the Museo de Antropologia and saw Diego Rivera murals, a bull fight, the Ballet Folklorico and flamenco dancers.

"We did all the things a person can read about," Reynolds said. "But it doesn't make sense until you do it."

When they arrived in Guanajuato just before New Years, the students visited museums and heard their first estudiantina — an all-male singing group of roving musicians based on a 16th century European custom where students sang for their supper.

When the SOU students were invited to the Baile de Blanco y Negro (White and Black Dance) they were surprised to learn they needed to wear formal dresses or black or white tuxedos.

The "pseudo hippies" did the best they could, but "we were definitely the ragtags in the room," Reynolds said.

But their hosts — "the most elegant people I've ever seen," Reynolds said — had the students on the dance floor, as a big band, a rock band and a traditional Mexican band rotated sets.

"So, just as when Señora Chela took us to Mexico, she tried to show us as many things as possible to see the big picture," Reynolds said, that's what Ashlanders will be doing next week when delegates from Guananajuato visit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the sister-city relationship.

Kira Rubenthaler can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.

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