Culture of Connection
Semester in Todos Santos offers immersion, inspiration
story by Anthony Lane
published Dec. 16, 2022
One memorable interview from Ruth Alexander’s course this fall on “History, Community, and Environment in Mexico” involved Jorge Gonzales, a lifelong resident of Todos Santos, a town in Mexico’s Baja California Sur.
Gonzales, known as “Caballo Loco” for his skill training wild horses, is an entrepreneur who recently started a business collecting garden clippings and other waste from area residents and businesses and then converting the material into high-quality compost.
With the interview, Gonzales’s story became part of a library of oral histories that Alexander and her students have developed to illustrate how Todos Santos, a growing community of about 7,000 residents, is changing in response to development and other pressures. Alexander, a Colorado State University history professor, recently returned from a fifth trip teaching at the CSU System’s Todos Santos Center.
For Grace Goldenberg and Isabelle “Belle” Wilson, CSU students who took the class this fall as part of a semester program at the center, the process of eliciting, experiencing, and recording Gonzales’ story was both engaging and illuminating.
“It was amazing,” said Wilson, a sophomore majoring in Spanish. She described how Gonzales grew animated during the interview, at times rising to his feet. “He would take us on journeys with his stories, for sure. We learned a lot about his plans for the community, and what future goals he has. He’s very passionate about expanding his business and adding more ways to help the community.”
Left: Isabelle “Belle” Wilson explores the gardens during a visit to a cactus sanctuary in Baja California Sur. Right: Grace Goldenberg sorts cardboard during a visit to a local recycling facility.
A similar focus on supporting the community connects much of the work that happens at the Todos Santos Center. Wilson and Goldenberg are two of the five students now completing a 10-week semester program at the center in environmental humanities. In addition to taking Alexander’s history course, the students took intensive CSU courses in art, Spanish, and writing. For an additional, 1-credit service learning course, they helped out at a local recycling center and supported a range of other efforts related to sustainability, both in the community and at the center.
Interviews in Alexander’s course often center on issues of environmental degradation and protection, and waste disposal is one overarching concern. Todos Santos shares an inadequate landfill with the neighboring town of Pescadero, and the town’s relative isolation – the community is located along the Pacific Ocean near the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula – adds to the expense of getting recyclable goods to places that could use them.
Another of the interviews Alexander and her students conducted this fall involved a staff member at the Zero Waste Alliance, a local nonprofit organization working to strengthen the region’s waste management practices, in part by promoting recycling and composting efforts. Among the organization’s partners is Gonzales, who started his business, Caballo Loco Composta, in part to keep organic materials that can be put to productive use from unnecessarily taking up landfill space.
Through the oral histories, Alexander said, the students gain insight into the region’s history and its challenges, and at the same time the interviews teach them “…to think on their feet and come up with follow up questions based on what they’re hearing.”
The courses and activities of the semester program connect with the community and with each other in multiple and overlapping ways. Erika Osborne, a professor in the department of art and art history, taught an art class in which students worked with artists in the region, including Uli Martinez, a muralist and printmaker from the city of La Paz, about an hour away, and ceramics artists from the local community.
On a three-day excursion to a ranch in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve above Todos Santos, the students learned about plant medicine and leather working from residents whose accumulated knowledge over generations has allowed them to maintain a high level of self-sufficiency in the rugged, mountainous region.
Through her own research, and in her approach to working with students, Osborne explores the ways art intersects with the environment and with science. This includes thinking about how the “humanities can be brought back into some of the wicked problems that our world faces, and what that might do to bridge the gap between some of the things we know are true, like climate change, and the policies and actions that we can’t seem to put into place.”
“I think art really sits in that lovely space of being able to create empathy and generate wisdom that might then be driving factors in social and cultural change,” said Osborne, who first taught a course for the Todos Santos semester program in 2019, and recently took on a new role as the program’s academic coordinator.
Jorge “Caballo Loco” Gonzales, a gifted storyteller and successful businessman, is often seen around Todos Santos on his Harley Davidson, with its custom saddle.
In their writing class, the students met with local writers, and they wrote journal entries while at the ranch. In Spanish, their instructor Olaf Morales would send them out at times to talk with and learn from local residents. Part of the value of that experience is in learning about new ways of doing things and thinking about the world, Morales said. “When it comes to learning a language – and it doesn’t really matter what language you’re talking about – you also have to learn about the culture.”
Morales is the Todos Santos Center’s senior languages coordinator, and he’s also an affiliate faculty member with the CSU’s department of languages, literatures and cultures. In addition to teaching students in the semester program and those who take the courses he teaches during regular visits to the Fort Collins campus, Morales is an instructor for Spanish immersion programs at the center. He also teaches English, supporting the center’s efforts make English instruction available to members of the Todos Santos community.
The center’s environmental initiatives also have inward and outward facing components. As a program coordinator with the center, Antonio Diego, an environmental educator with a background in communications and sustainable development, is focused on refining and perfecting the center’s waste management practices. One project involving the semester students is an “experimental” compost that makes use of thermophilic bacteria to quickly convert food waste into nutrient-rich compost.
Diego works with the Zero Waste Alliance, and he also still teaches at local schools as an environmental educator. With the semester students, he is supporting local recycling efforts while looking at possible uses for other waste, including the construction of “eco-bricks.” This process involves tightly packing plastic bottles with bags, drinking straws, packaging materials, and other single-use plastics, and it requires careful sorting and cleaning of materials at front end. The resulting bricks can then be used as a building material, Diego said, describing how he and the semester students worked with a farmer in using the bricks to make chicken coops.
“What we have to remember is that what ‘trash’ means is putting everything together mixed up, including organics and inorganics,” Diego said. “Once you start separating and classifying them, you don’t have trash anymore. You only have waste, and now you can start to organize and decide what to do with it.”
Olaf Morales, the Todos Santos Center’s senior languages coordinator, looks for opportunities to build community and cultural connections during his Spanish lessons.
For Goldenberg and Wilson, the process of cleaning and sorting plastics quickly became second nature. “You have to be thinking about all of the trash you have, and the products you’re buying, and where they’re going to end up,” Wilson said. “It’s very environmentally focused, and I think that’s cool.”
Beyond classes and structured activities, both of the students talk about friendships and connections they’ve established in the community. While breakfast and lunch are served at the center during the week, the students often cook for themselves or venture into town for dinners and weekend meals. One option for a quick snack involves placing a call to Elotes Beto. Beto, the business owner, then drives up on his motorcycle and serves a bowl of corn with cotija cheese and sauce from his sidecar.
Wilson and Goldenberg also talk about ways the experience is informing their plans for the future. Wilson is intrigued by the work that environmental organizations in the area are doing, and she is thinking about ways she might use her Spanish language ability to support similar efforts.
Goldenberg, a junior studying interdisciplinary liberal arts, said she has been “artistically pushed and challenged” by the experience. “I do think that there is a place in the art world that is involved in environmental activism, and, within this program especially, I’ve learned a lot more about that. I can see myself being a part of that conversation.”
About the CSU Todos Santos Center
The Todos Santos Center, located in Todos Santos, Mexico, is an international extension of the CSU System. The center provides opportunities for students to grow as global citizens, supports a variety of research and educational opportunities, and also serves as a community hub for educational sessions and information sharing. Learn more about the Todos Santos community and the priorities of its residents at todossantos.colostate.edu/community-research/. Faculty interested in teaching in a semester program at Todos Santos can visit todossantos.colostate.edu/call-for-teaching-proposals/; students interested in learning about semester programs can visit todossantos.colostate.edu/semester/.