When Erick Rivas arrived in Pittsburgh last week, he had one thing on his mind: “la comida.”
“I really enjoyed trying different types of food,” he said through a translator. “Being friends with the teens here was a great experience.”
The 15-year-old is one of six students visiting the U.S. from Quito, Ecuador as part of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Scaling the Walls/Escalanda Paredas cultural exchange program.
The exchange with the Interactive Science Museum in Quito has been in the works since last summer, when the Children’s Museum received a $79,000 Museum Connect grant from the American Alliance of Museums and the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.
Kimberly Bracken, community programs manager at the Children’s Museum said the students had an instant connection when they met for the first time.
“They were playing sports immediately together,” she said. “They were hugging immediately. They were so thrilled to be together and there was so much excitement on both sides. There was this synergy that language was no longer a problem.”
A club of 20 teens, recruited from local Spanish classes, has been using tools such as Skype to chat with the Ecuadorian students since last year. They’ve covered subjects such as food, health and the environment, but they’ve also talked about more serious issues like racism and poverty.
Tyrae Brewer, a junior at Perry High School, said the Skype sessions helped her get used to the language barrier.
“Even though we didn’t know each other,” she said, “we actually took the time out through Skype and it was really interesting to see that they were trying to speak English. I felt like it was okay for me to try and speak Spanish.”
Bracken agreed. She said communicating has somehow been simple, yet challenging.
“When you have a language barrier, your goal together is connection,” she said, “and you’re just trying to look for the most common, familiar denominator that you can make a connection and feel familiar with each other on. And there’s something that creates a lot of peace in that interaction.”
This is the second round of exchanges. Brewer and five other Pittsburgh students traveled to Quito last month, where they toured historic neighborhoods, visited artisan markets and made chocolate while on a camping trip in Tulipe.
For Brewer, it’s not even a question—she said she’s going back.
“The people are awesome,” she said. “They’re just so welcoming.”
The Ecuadorian students have been staying in a hotel on the North Side’s Mexican War Streets and, so far, they’ve visited the Carnegie Museums, the Cathedral of Learning, the National Aviary, and Phipps Conservatory, among other Pittsburgh “must-see’s.”
Estefania Arias, an administrator with the Interactive Science Museum, came along on the trip. She said Pittsburgh was a little nerve-racking at first, but it’s starting to feel like a second home for the students.
“They feel like they are at home,” she said. “That is why we start to feel everyday more calmer, more happy, more welcome, more welcome, more welcome.”