Michelle Obama talks with Mexican youths about community-improvement projects

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; C02

MEXICO CITY -- First lady Michelle Obama and a dozen student leaders gathered over a late breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries on Thursday in La Hacienda de los Morales, an elegant event space with manicured courtyards and magnificent stone archways. Centuries ago, it was a grand private residence; even today, located in one of the Mexican capital's most upscale neighborhoods, it echoes with wealth, status and privilege.

In some ways, the hacienda was a jarringly posh setting for the morning's gritty topics, which included grass-roots activism, disenfranchised rural and indigenous communities, and the debilitating effects of the drug trade. But the majestic backdrop also lent credence to the message Obama has repeated during her three-day visit: Family legacy, net worth and social status do not have to determine one's future. Everyone should be able to walk through the door of success.

And while Obama has made a full-throated sales pitch for the bootstrap version of success, she has also preached the moral imperative of the biblical admonishment: "To whom much is given, much is required."

Obama's sit-down with these young adults, who ranged from late teens to mid-20s, came at the end of her first solo foreign trip. The students were handpicked, with guidance from the U.S. Embassy, for the work they are doing to improve the lives of people in their communities, and they are an overachieving lot. Among the accomplishments are literacy campaigns, human rights advocacy, environmental activism, medical assistance to impoverished communities, programs to preserve indigenous cultures and efforts to eradicate gender inequality.

In her opening remarks, Obama, dressed in ivory trousers and a cream-colored blazer, described the dozen students as "movers and shakers" in Mexico and expressed admiration for their leadership skills. "We have to keep reaching up and bringing other young people to the table."

She emphasized the need to expand the ranks of the influential and recalled how she was often the only African American, or the only person of color, or the youngest person seated among the powerful. That needed to change, she said; it could change with their perseverance.

"My hope is that all of you bring a new level of patience and deliberation" to your work, Obama said. Recalling this week's visit to Haiti, she reminded the young activists that "the only thing that happens in an instant is destruction. . . . It takes centuries to build anything meaningful."

The students had been in their seats for more than an hour before the first lady's arrival. She'd spent part of her morning meeting with embassy staff members and thanking them for their time and effort. When Obama walked into the courtyard and took her place at the head of the rectangular table with its lush floral arrangements, the students fell silent. They didn't stand or applaud; they simply leaned in expectantly.

Some were dressed in dark business suits, others in colorful indigenous ensembles, often with embroidery; a few women had pinned bright flowers in their hair. An interpreter sat discreetly to the first lady's right, whispering into her ear. The students, who spoke Spanish, were provided with electronic translating devices.

If the first lady needed any reassurance that her visit to Mexico City has resonated, she received it from Olivetti Paredes Sacarias, an undergraduate in law. Sacarias, who gives talks on family planning and self-esteem to rural youths, spoke with great emotion, her voice cracking and trembling, about the first lady's impact.

"You've opened a door for young, indigenous people," Sacarias said. "You let us know that we are worthy."

For more than an hour, Obama listened as the students told their stories, explaining why they had taken on a particular cause and sharing their visions for the future. And Obama received enough invitations to visit regions, towns and parks in Mexico to keep her on the road for months.

The students told their stories with passion. They rarely asked questions -- although one request for a hug came early, and Obama assured the woman that everyone would be getting a hug.

She listened as Maria del Mar Diaz, who works as a volunteer for Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala, decried the drug crisis. "Drugs breed chaos," the student said. "They take away the dreams of young people who use drugs or sell drugs. I believe all of us here today have to fight for Mexico."

The first lady was determined to hear from each guest, even as the time allotted for the gathering ticked away. One senior member of her staff slipped her a note advising that five minutes remained. About 10 minutes later, another staff member interjected that, unfortunately, it was time to go. "No," Obama said. And she glanced around the table. "We've got one more."

Obama gave her attention to Jose Alonso Salgado Cordero, who founded the Free Book Movement. The program encourages individuals to read a book, write a personal message on the title page and then "release it" into a public space for someone else to find, read and pass along. Cordero said he'd given a great deal of thought to how great leaders are created. He has figured out one simple lesson: "My main limitations are my own beliefs about the world."

The East Wing had described this gathering as a round table, but it wasn't really a group conversation. No one riffed off another participant's remarks. No new ideas emerged through brainstorming. Instead, it was a series of declarations -- 12, to be exact. Each student took a stand. And then politely relinquished the floor.

If they sought anything -- aside from a hug or another visit -- it was reassurance and validation. An attentive ear. When the final voice fell silent, Obama remained seated. No matter that those charged with keeping her on schedule had long since stood up and cast glances toward the exit.

"What you have to know is you are the voices of inspiration," she said. "You don't need Bill Gates or Michelle Obama, although that's nice sometimes. Young people in your community are connecting to you.

"I know very clearly this isn't just here in Mexico. It's why young people are my issue." Young people "have hope."

Obama left Mexico City on Thursday afternoon for San Diego, where she visited a community farm and stumped for her childhood obesity initiative. She was scheduled to return to Washington on Thursday night.

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