By Tavia Moore
When someone says “Make a birthday wish!” the average person wishes for gift cards or money for miscellaneous shopping expenses. For 23-year-old Water Valley native Karen Turnage, a one-way ticket to Chihuahua, Mexico would suffice.
This was to be the year of unexpected change. From persevering through depression and anxiety to landing two new jobs, on Jan. 13 Turnage took a leap to embark on an opportunity to explore her Mexican heritage and become more in tune with the culture.
A 15-year hiatus did not prevent Turnage from starting a new chapter in her book of life. Rather than using her late start to learning as an excuse, she used it as motivation to gain more knowledge about the social atmosphere to her Mexican side. Growing up in a non-traditional Mexican household, Turnage could easily recognize the difference in cultures from her Abuela’s home, or grandmother’s, than her home in Water Valley.
“I was young when we had visits to Mexico and I remember being able to see the difference in the quality of life around,” Turnage said. “Back at home in Water Valley, we didn’t grow up in the ‘Mexican culture’ in ways that I can look back on and see.”
Karen’s mother, Monica Turnage, was not as open-minded to her daughter’s plan to travel across the country for six months. She was excited for her daughter to reunite with her family, but the fear of distance and danger surrounding Chihuahua was far too much for her to bear.
“Initially, I felt happy that she wanted to spend time with my parents since they only get to see her in pictures or every two or three years. It also made me nervous because of the insecurity of the city of Chihuahua. That is the only thing I am still worried about,” Monica said.
“Years ago, my brother-in-law’s cousin was kidnapped in Chihuahua City. She was in her early 20s and her family hasn’t heard anything from her. The thought of someone taking my child away is always in the back of my mind.”
Things started to look up when she realized how much Karen was enjoying herself.
“Karen started to send me pictures with her aunts and uncles that she hasn’t seen since she was seven years old,” she said. “She got to meet some of my cousins that I haven’t seen in over 28 years. It was then that I felt excited for her and my family.”
However, the sun did not always shine on Karen’s side of the equator. She faced obstacles that she had to overcome independently now that she was on her own. In particular, her education. Sacrificing school was a decision that she had to consider before leaving for her excursion.
“In coming here for six months I’ve put aside school, which I’m already pretty behind in. But to me, this living, traveling, and learning Spanish here is just as beneficial to me in the real world experience,” she said.
Her mother was not hesitant about approving her daughter’s decision to take a year off from school. In fact, she was highly supportive.
“We are very happy we can give Karen the opportunity to go. So many parents would have told their child to finish school first and then go. But hey, you only get to be young once,” Monica said.
It was no surprise to Karen that her trip to Mexico would be sporadic and spontaneous because most of her travel excursions are.
“To just go for things and live to make memories and new experiences is entirely the purpose of my trip to Mexico,” she said.
Karen said she hopes to incorporate some habits from her experience in Mexico into her daily life in Water Valley.
“I definitely hope to keep the diet of fresher and unprocessed foods and shopping at farmers markets,” she said. “It’s been so much better for my body and I feel so much better. I also hope to continue to speak Spanish frequently and listen to the music and TV so I don’t lose my skills. Being here has also encouraged me to make more time for family.”
The unmatched scenery and hospitable nature of the Mexican culture was more than a birthday wish-come-true for Karen. It was a learning experience.
“It was super freeing and I felt so much more in touch with my Mexican side. I feel like I grew a lot those three weeks seeing new parts of Mexico and being able to see it on my own,” she said. “It has definitely encouraged me travel to more Spanish speaking countries. I hope to go to the central part of Mexico and explore more and see the other side of my family before I head back to Mississippi.”
Karen is still enjoying her travels in Mexico but plans to return to Water Valley soon, she said.