The Stellar Queen of Oaxaca, by Heather Embree

A few years ago I went on a soul journey to Oaxaca City, Mexico. I packed everything up and carried only a backpack, allowing the Universe to show me where it needed me to be. I had visited the city before for 3 weeks, but I had no idea what to expect in the 5 ½ months I was committing to the place. When I arrived, I was surrounded by the beautiful colours of the buildings, the mariachi music men playing for the tourists in the zocalo (the centre), and the endless art galleries that lined the streets. I was reminded of the reason why I was drawn there – the arts, culture, international tourism, indigenous traditions that dated back 2,000 years, the Zapotec ruins and the people who, despite being in the second-most economically impoverished state in Mexico, were able to sing, dance, paint, write poetry and appreciate being alive. They knew, through the veil of life and death, about what mattered the most – relationships, community and a Higher Power of Soul, God/Goddess and Spirit. Breaking through the illusions of violence, power issues, fear and pain, these were the main attitudes I would come across. There is nothing like Mexican hospitality and doors open if you know someone who is related to someone. Food, sweets, mezcal (a drink like tequila) are all offered upon arrival. Life here was about who you know, not what you know. It’s become part survival of the soul and part survival in corrupt times to hear about what’s going on in the world through friends, family and foreigners.

After a month of being there, I felt the stirring of boredom, knowing I needed to make a greater contribution to the place. I had read about a local organization called Esperanza Infantil ( which was there to help children who were living on the streets of Oaxaca. I was not a mother, and I never had a sense of working with children before, but this called to me. I had heard endless stories about the experiences of the young people in Oaxaca – their parents either died from poverty-stricken illness, or were addicts or had left them behind to go to the States or Canada. Or these children came from homes where their parents had to beg for money, be in prostitution or simply scrape by. There were many examples of these children living in landfill sites, where garbage from Canada and the U.S. were shipped to. These children are the faces of the shame of our consumerist culture, and it was a wonder who would take responsibility to preserve the well-being of these children, where they were left to their own devices to survive.

Feeling powerless and moved in my heart, I started volunteering for this organization. It opened my eyes to the blatant realities these young people faced on a daily basis. Their innocence was heart-breaking, knowing that they were prey to adults who had ill intentions towards them. The fact that they had to have education programs for these kids to understand the risk of HIV/AIDS during unsafe sex was telling. They needed to be aware of the real dangers living on streets meant. Mexico, being a travel destination in the world, would have child sex tourists going to places like Oaxaca City to seek out young people for sexual encounters because the child protection laws are not enforced. It was sickening and shameful to hear about how my country’s or the wealthy nations’ people would lose all conscience when going to a place where people had no voice or rights and take advantage of the innocence and vulnerability of these children.

The administration of this organization took on a massive giant of oppression, where they offered food programs, hygiene education, an art and play room, and social services for parents living in poverty. I was amazed at their level of organization, faith in love and goodness, and being very honest about the realities these children faced. I’ve participated with many NGOs and I had to say that this one was the most humane structure that provided genuine support to those they advocate for. They knew there were benevolent tourists like me in the world and found ways to integrate us into their work quickly. They had a good interview process and ensured the protection of the children. They even found funds to translate the English textbook to braile for my friend, Reyna (which means “Queen” in Spanish) – a single mother living with blindness, who was bound and determined to learn English in order to make a better life for herself. It was through getting to know the heart and soul of Reyna, that I was inspired to write the soon-to-be-published children’s story, The Stellar Queen of Oaxaca. Reyna, through her enjoyment of simple pleasures and her big smile despite all of her struggles, is what kept me sane on this trip where the largest revolution in Oaxaca’s history broke out (which says a lot because there’s always a revolution or protest in Mexico). Reyna decided on her own that she didn’t want to follow her family line of begging for change to make a living, because she wanted to be a role model to her daughter. Her parents thought she was crazy for wasting her time learning English. But she was determined and every day she would carry her braile textbook and practice reading it and have conversation exchanges with foreigners. She said she loved talking to foreigners more than locals because she gets to travel with them in her mind – she dreamt to go to the mountains one day when she could get the money, which is about a 40-minute ride, I believe, from the City. There are so many things she showed me that I took for granted – my sight, my privilege to travel to Mexico and return, the ability to speak English, being able to be supported by my family members, the smells of flowers and so much more. I have held her in my heart ever since I met her, even though we have lost touch.

Since returning to Canada, I have always wondered how I could continue their work and be a voice for their cause. I had forgotten that I had written a children’s story years ago upon my return that featured my friend, Reyna. A little voice said to me that I needed to pull it out of the drawer this year and get it published. And wouldn’t you know that Lisa Browning said it would be a perfect fit for her Children’s Publishing branch. The agreement to work with her is to make part of the proceeds from the book towards a charitable organization. I couldn’t think of a better fit than Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots ( which is the funding body for Esperanza Infantil, the centre in Oaxaca where I volunteered. So please, if you’re moved to, join me at the pre-book launch on Sunday August 16th at Senor Chipotle’s Mexican Restaurant in Guelph at 7 p.m. Or please send a charitable donation to the organization. Or buy a book when it comes out. Or pre-purchase one now for $15. If you would like to contact me directly, please email me at or call 226-706-9331.

I truly believe that children are here to remind us to keep our hearts open, to ensure we have a conscience and to remind us of the love we came from. Supporting children is one of the holiest acts of service one can do, and it is up to the adults to ensure they can preserve their innocence, wonder and safety.

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