I recently sat down with self-described lover, winner, and musician Ethan MacLean James to talk about his experience in the Se Luz/TEN FE I AM ART camp that was held this past June. If you too have an ultra chill and cuddly personality, you may be especially interested in his perspective on I AM ART. What’s that you say? You’re hot-blooded and prickly? Not to worry, the MacLean flavor is enjoyed by all. Keep reading.

Why did you decide to do I AM ART?
One of the partner organizations for my IAA trip was TEN FE, a nonprofit co-founded by Julie Leubbers, who is a Spanish professor at my former college. I had helped TEN FE a little in the past (i.e., attended fundraising galas to play ring toss and drink wine), but I knew that this was my chance to actually make a substantial, discernible difference. Raising awareness is great, and very much needed, but I wanted to see the effects of TEN FE’s work for myself.

What were you expecting before you went?
I am fortunate enough to have traveled internationally before. In my high school years I took two trips across the Atlantic, coming back with a total of nine countries under my belt. These trips were of pure educational and tourist intentions though, not to mention I only experienced fairly upscale accommodations the entire time. This, as you can guess, is a little different than what I experienced with IAA.

Inhabitants of developing countries are usually depicted in one of two ways: The incredibly poor, and the incredibly rich. The middle class as we know it just doesn’t really exist. I didn’t think I was going to get to experience the wealthy part of the country, but I came to terms with that. After all, this wasn’t about me. Still, the whole “mission trip” thing is pretty foreign to me to begin with, and when you throw in a language that I slept through two years of in high school…well you get the picture. Basically, my expectations were that this place was going to destroy me and my soul. Hyperbole aside, I really was nervous. But I had already paid the non-refundable deposit, so what’s a boy to do?

What were you surprised by when you got there?
Everything. The view. The people. The dollar-quetzal exchange rate. I felt like a king dropping 200 Qs on dinner.

What was your role in the camp? What did you do?
My initial role was to lead one of the workshops and teach the kids music. However, things happen sometimes, and I ended up with two other jobs instead, one of them assisting Tamagochi with his miming workshop and the other being the camp maestro and sound-system helper for the large-group sessions in the afternoon. I also took as many other opportunities to help with setting/packing things up as I could so that I would get truck rides from site to site. Those Guatemalan hills are killer.

MacLean Helps Tamagochi Teach the Mimes
MacLean helped Tama teach the mimes…
MacLean Sporting His Clown Nose
…and wore his clown nose proudly.

Tell me about one or two moments from your trip that stick out to you.
In Latin American countries they have what are called chicken buses—retired North American school buses that are often extravagantly painted and used for public transportation. I was walking down the street one morning and ahead of me turning the corner I caught a glimpse of the side of one of these buses. It said Dawson-Bryant Public Schools. Dawson-Bryant is in Coal Grove, a tiny village right next to my home town of Ironton, Ohio! Of course, by the time I got my phone out to take a picture it was long gone.

Another moment that stuck out happened during the first day or two of camp when I was feeling very discouraged about not being able to say the things that I wanted to in Spanish. I wanted my chicos to know I cared, and I wanted them to care about me. But a few of them were trying to ask me a question, and I was obviously struggling, so they kind of huddled up and whispered for a few seconds, then came back to me with their question in English. That showed me they did care.

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MacLean’s chicos dressed him up in toilet paper…
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…as a ninja!

Now that you’re back and have had time to reflect on your experience, what does the camp mean to you?
An accurate view of the world around us is extremely difficult to achieve without experiencing it first hand. That’s what this camp helped me start working toward. Time hasn’t really changed anything, though. The trip hit me hard and fast and that feeling has remained to this day. I documented my trip every night via Facebook, and this is what I wrote upon my return:

What I learned in Guatemala today: Epilogue
“You are our teacher now,” one of my chicos said to me as we prepared to make some art this week. Boy, was he wrong.

Kids like these will teach you more than you could ever even try to teach them. They are the perfect example of determination, purity, and wisdom in the face of adversity. Each one of them is amazing in his or her own right, and it was an absolute honor to work alongside them.

Now, as I sit in a nice air-conditioned apartment in Cincinnati, complaints of tiny airplane seats and dry, overly salted pretzels still fresh in my mind, the image of these children walking to work in the fields to put some tortillas and beans on the table drifts into my daydreams. I try to guide my thoughts elsewhere, to happier times, my own life reruns and sneak peeks of future joy, but they circle back to the same place over and over again.

Was it enough to put a few extra grins on their faces for the week? Could we have done more? Should we have? Of course. But they won’t complain.

Those smiles are priceless. I only wish they happened more often.

I hope and plan to one day go back and see them again so that they can teach me a refresher course in humanity. God knows it’s needed.”

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