The age of youth: Traveling abroad, first lady Michelle Obama makes kids Topic 1

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; C01

MEXICO CITY -- First lady Michelle Obama stepped into a more prominent, more ambitious role on the world stage this week with visits to Haiti and Mexico. In each country, she had a single overarching message: Children can change the world. And as much as she can, she wants to make sure they have every opportunity to do so.

She delivered her most direct call to arms in Mexico City during a speech delivered before a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of 3,000 young adults at the Universidad Iberoamericana -- an elite Jesuit university. Obama quietly took nations, governments and societies to task for their failure to deliver on what she has described as the rights of all youth to be educated, nurtured and inspired.

"We must confront wrong and outdated ideas and assumptions that only certain young people deserve to be educated, that girls aren't as capable as boys, that some young people are less worthy of opportunities because of their religion or disability or ethnicity or socioeconomic class. Because we have seen time and again that potential can be found in some of the most unlikely places," she said.

"My husband and I are living proof of that."

But in championing the rights of young people, she also reminded them that they owe a debt to their communities. And so under Wednesday afternoon's sunny skies and with Mexico's first lady, Margarita Zavala, looking on, Obama engaged in her own version of youth diplomacy. She challenged the world's vast population of young people to make history themselves and to take ownership of some of the globe's most daunting challenges.

"Soon, the world will be looking to your generation to make the discoveries and build the industries that will fuel our prosperity and ensure our well-being for decades to come. We'll be looking to your generation to seize the promise of clean energy to power our economies and preserve our planet for your kids and grandkids," she said. "We'll be looking to your generation to find the courage and patience to resolve the conflicts and heal the divides that plague our world. And I'm here today because I believe that all of you -- and your peers around the world -- are more ready than ever to meet these challenges."

Her audience, which read her speech as it was translated from English to Spanish on a large video screen, stood rapt. Save for the occasional chuckle when she tried out a few judiciously chosen Spanish phrases such as "Si se puede" ("Yes we can"), the audience was silent. No one interrupted her with applause. No one squirmed. No one stirred.

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Obama chose the Mexican capital as the launching pad for an international agenda that she describes as "youth engagement" partly because of its proximity to the United States, but also because of its cultural emphasis on family and faith, because nearly half the Mexican population is younger than 25, and because of the inextricable economic and cultural relationships between the two countries, she said.

One of the most pressing issues confronting the United States and Mexico is the drug trade, particularly the violence that has erupted along the border. Before Obama's speech, the dean of the university, Jose Morales Orozco, addressed the concerns head-on in his opening remarks, calling the death and mayhem a "painful situation."

And in private meetings with Zavala, both here and in Washington two months ago, Obama discussed drug addiction and treatment opportunities. But the first lady did not raise the topic in her public comments.

In an interview with reporters following her speech, she explained her omission, noting that as first lady she's focused on the "big picture," not policy -- that is for the president to do.

She wanted to use this trip "to remind us in the U.S. and our partners in Mexico that more connects us than the violence and the drugs," she said.

"Our young people struggle with some of the same challenges. Drug violence exists on the South Side of Chicago, in L.A.," Obama added. "You name any urban or rural environment and it's there. And I think we all know we have to focus not just on curbing demand for drugs, and the cartels, but also on looking at expanding opportunities for young people.

"If young people don't have an alternative in their lives, they're going to engage in drugs," she said. "They're going to choose the drug trade."

* * *

Obama arrived here Tuesday evening at Benito Juarez International Airport, where she was greeted by a small clutch of dignitaries, including Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, as well as the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan. But what seemed to have her practically bounding down the steps of the military jet that brought her -- and a half-dozen or so staff -- to this country were the children who waited to receive her.

About 50 young girls dressed in blue-and-white pants and tops formed a line to Obama's right. They were members of Las Guias, the Mexican equivalent of Girl Scouts, and had been invited by Zavala, who was a scout when she was a child. On Obama's left stood a line of about 37 boys and girls who volunteer for the youth division of Mexico's Red Cross.

In the quiet, balmy evening, the young people waved Mexican and American flags. There was no elaborate ceremonial fanfare. Very little pomp and circumstance. The Mexican president and first lady weren't on hand to greet Obama. (They were scheduled to host her at a dinner at their residence Wednesday evening.) Instead, it was the children who welcomed her to this country. And she hugged and waved to them in return.

During her visit, as her motorcade crisscrossed the city, children were the centerpiece of virtually every stop -- at least those that were public. She met privately for about 45 minutes in Los Pinos, the presidential offices and residence, with Zavala. But even there, their conversation revolved around young people, with an emphasis on drug addiction and treatment, as well as "the importance of the humane treatment of unaccompanied migrant children," according to a statement issued by the White House.

Obama made a point of not surrounding herself with dignitaries and VIPs. This was an official visit, but it was not one dominated by policy and policymakers. Instead, her time here was dominated by youth outreach and hugs.

Children performed for her at the National Museum of Anthropology, which she toured with Zavala. The museum tells Mexican history through its ancient pottery, its carved sarcophagi and its breathtaking examples of both Mayan and Aztec architecture. But the central focus of Obama's visit was the performances by young people in the National Program for the Promotion of Music.

In the museum's open-air courtyard, the two first ladies stood with their backs to Mexico's history -- housed inside the interconnected galleries -- and faced the country's sweet, smiling future. A chorus of about 100 children -- some of them disabled -- performed for them. Perhaps 40 of those young singers told their musical story in sign language rather than in song. Others in the group performed from wheelchairs. The Carlos Chavez Youth Symphonic Orchestra serenaded the two first ladies, who chatted amiably. As the dignitaries were leaving, Obama, who does not speak Spanish, waved and offered a simple "Gracias."

Next, at a primary school in one of the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods, more than 500 students at Escuela Siete de Enero made their presence known to the American visitor with high-pitched shrieks and squeals of delight. In a nod to Obama's anti-childhood-obesity initiative in the United States, children dressed in white shorts and tops ran an obstacle course for her, dashing between bright orange plastic cones and leaping over orange and yellow hurdles that rose about six inches off the ground. Obama joined the children in an exercise game called A Le Le Quita Tonga, which had the first lady shimmying her hips, jumping and waving her hands in the air.

Another group of children, dressed as Aztecs and wearing rainbow-colored headdresses, performed a traditional indigenous song and ceremony that included the cry of a conch-shell trumpet echoing across the courtyard.

After applauding the performers, Obama said, "That was beautiful, everything you did. I loved the singing. I loved the dancing. And I loved to see you all moving and exercising.

"Of all the things I do when I travel outside the United States," she said, what she most enjoys is "getting to see all the smart, bright young people like you."

* * *

Obama has embarked on an international agenda that views the world -- and its significant problems -- through the eyes of children. Before arriving in Mexico City, she made a five-hour stopover in Haiti -- something she has wanted to do since January.

"The minute the disaster struck, you're thinking, 'I need to go down there,' " she said during an interview with reporters. "Then you think, 'I'm the first lady. I'll just shut the whole country down.' "

This trip, three months in the making, allowed her to survey the earthquake damage, thank aid workers for their dedication to the country's rebuilding and draw attention to Haiti's continuing need for help. And Obama, once again, struck her familiar refrain: What about the children?

She spent time with displaced kids, touring a makeshift arts camp built to provide them with some semblance of normalcy as well as a creative and therapeutic outlet.

She listened to their songs. She drew a fish. And as always, she went in for the hugs.

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