In an article headlined, “Waukegan Cristo Rey students spend spring break with Native Americans,” The Chicago Tribune featured the CRSM/Red Cloud cultural exchange over Spring Break.
By Emily K. Coleman
The steam was everywhere, rising up from the hot stones in the center of the sweat lodge and sweeping down the curved sides of the structure.
Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep sophomore Ivette Mancilloa — one of about 10 students from the Waukegan Catholic school who traveled to Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for spring break — had never experienced anything like it and was surprised how clean she felt afterward.
“It was really intense, but it was so beautiful,” Mancilloa said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Just seeing how everyone was so comfortable around each other and how we all cried during the sweat lodge.
“No one even judged or no one even spoke about that. Everyone was just praying so openly.”
About 10 seniors from Red Cloud made the trek to Waukegan in mid-March, and then, about two weeks ago, the Cristo Rey students made the same trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota.
Cristo Rey staff members had talked about it for a while as “just an idea,” but when doing the planning for the current school year, they were able to put together a budget and make it happen, school President Preston Kendall said.
“What we’re hoping is that not only will those 10 students from Waukegan have this very rich experience of the culture and lifestyle and traditions of the Lakota people at Pine Ridge, but that they will then bring back that experience to the greater school community where we’re going to have them write essays and hopefully make presentations at our assemblies about their experience,” Kendall said.
Cristo Rey director of campus ministry Jim Dippold, who had spent a total of eight years teaching at Red Cloud High School before coming to Waukegan, had suggested the idea, and connecting the two communities made sense to Garrett Gundlach, a faith and justice educator as well as the campus ministry director at Red Cloud.
Both communities had “so much richness” and could relate to each other’s struggles and culture, Gundlach said. He added that to “do this in the context of a relationship and not in a textbook or even a movie” would be “so much more powerful.”
The cultural exchange fit into a growing trend of volunteer and social service trips at Cristo Rey, but this trip was specifically designed to ensure that the both groups of students met each other as equals, Dippold said.
“During the summer seasons when college trips are coming out [to the reservation] and parish church groups are coming out, they’re all very well-intentioned, but I think a lot of the people feel like it’s not a zoo, it’s not a museum,” Dippold said. “They’re not there to have other people come and observe them or do for them.”
To make sure the trips started out on the right foot, the two schools had the Red Cloud students travel first to Waukegan where they did service work together at the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Park City and Feed My Starving Children in Libertyville. They also attended a Chicago Blackhawks game, went to the National Museum of Mexican Art and had dinner at some of the students’ homes, Dippold said.
Over the week or so between trips, the students stayed connected via Snapchat, a social media app that allows users to send each other photos and videos, something that Gundlach said he thinks helped them connect further and realize even more how similar they were.
Red Cloud senior Kiana Richard had expected the two cultures to be very different, but said she was struck by the similarities, including having to deal with racism and the pressures to learn English.
Cristo Rey junior Ana Flores said she noticed the similarities too, and the struggle to revive the Lakota language has gotten her thinking about the Spanish language.
“It’s important, but it’s dying out in our families,” she said pointing to her younger siblings who don’t really know how to speak or read Spanish.
Flores added that she was also inspired by the hope shown by the students she met despite the size of the community, the high suicide rate and harsh economics. The spirituality behind having a path and find oneself has made her realize that she wants to help people, not just advance economically.
Richard has been learning more about her own Lakota culture through the trips too, she said. Listening to her classmates talk about it has her wanting to dig deeper into her own roots.
“Culture is so important,” Richard said. “I thought it was more important to say we’re all human, but I think now that culture is what makes us human.”
The first thing Mancilloa did when she got back from Pine Ridge was talk to her mother, asking her about their cultural stories and about her experiences, she said. Learning about the Lakota people and their challenges had put the issues she sees in her own community in perspective, she said.
“It makes you humble to learn about other people’s struggles,” she said, adding that she hopes to go on more culture-based trips to learn about other groups of people.
The stories around immigration inspired Red Cloud senior Stevie Cross Dog, who said he learned a lot about the perseverance immigrants have despite the fears they have of having to leave the U.S.
“Hearing their stories, it’s given me extra motivation not to fail,” the 18-year-old said.
Both schools have already set dates for another trip next year, and some Waukegan families have talked about heading out to South Dakota this summer, Dippold said.
“I think a lot of our students like a lot of other young people other places too just feel a sense that they want to do something more with their lives than just live it for themselves,” he said. “They have a desire to contribute in a positive way to our communities, to our world, and I think these immersion trips are a huge opportunity to get a taste of that.”