Amigos de las Américas: Incorporating media in youth-oriented Latin American volunteer projects

In today’s fast-paced world of digital cameras and Blackberries, it may be difficult to imagine a place where roads are unpaved, running water is a luxury and digital technology is practically non-existent. With the media’s oftentimes negative representation of young people, it may come as a surprise that young people in the U.S. are willing to serve indigenous communities in other countries—using digital media.
At Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), teen volunteers travel to Latin America to investigate, document, and share culture and history as they work to improve the local communities’ living conditions. Each summer 600 volunteers—with an average age of 17—live with Spanish-speaking host families and participate in service programs in eight Latin American countries.
Last summer, an AMIGOS Digital Culture Project in Oaxaca, Mexico bridged youth media, leadership, and service-learning. Digital media was taught by teens to a local Latin American community, documenting indigenous stories and culture. In addition, blogs and online journals helped U.S. teen volunteers document and communicate service work, sharing their cross-cultural, global experiences back home.
Having a youth-led media project was a new initiative for AMIGOS and provided great insights into the ways youth take the lead in teaching global communities about technology and how digital media can capture shared cultural exchange.
About AMIGOS and the Digital Culture Project
AMIGOS is unique because of the leadership and cultural sensitivity it requires of young volunteers. First, young people must go through about six months of extensive cultural training before stepping foot in Latin America. Volunteers are educated about overcoming cultural differences, trained on project specific Spanish vocabulary and taught how to engage community members in Latin America. Once trained and on Latin American soil, small groups exercise their personal initiative and leadership in designing and implementing projects with their host communities. AMIGOS projects foster youth education to promote healthy social development, leadership skills, and creative expression of young people.
The first AMIGOS Digital Culture Project was created in 2006 by Jon Crail, a two-time AMIGOS Volunteer and Project Staff member. The project incorporated the leadership of teens who team-taught media to inspire youth in the host community. Teen volunteers worked with adults and mainly young people between the ages of 8 and 16. These teens had a high interest in technology and media products.
Crail explains, “Video in particular can be really creative and empowering for young people in marginalized or indigenous communities.” He continues, “People who are less educated [often] are scared to speak or write, so they end up losing their voice. Video and photography allow them a creative way to express that voice.”
In the project, teens taught digital media skills through a hands-on approach with one-on-one tutoring. They worked in small groups, which allowed young people to learn about digital technology first hand. These small groups created a special peer-to-peer relationship between community youth and AMIGOS volunteers. In addition, having a peer-to-peer teaching model set an example for the community to teach one another across generations.
Young children learned quickly about aspects of the camera and photography and took part in the documentation process. Teen volunteers posted photos and videos online in a digital museum, kept archives for the local community to use, and kept web journals on their experience in Oaxaca.
For example, Apporva Shah, a 2006 Volunteer in Oaxaca kept an extensive blog about his experiences in the Digital Culture Project ( Shah’s blog is an example of the ways AMIGOS youth volunteers share their life-changing experiences with the worldwide online community.
Emily Untermeyer, Executive Director/President of AMIGOS says digital media is an expressive resource for young people. She explains, “Our young volunteers often experience a rollercoaster of emotions. For many, it is their first time being out of the country and the longest period of time they have spend apart from their family and friends,” Untermeyer says. “The use of media provides a healthy outlet for them to share their experiences as they live and work within a new culture.” As teen volunteers served the local Latin American community in Oaxaca using digital media, digital media served a purpose for their own expression and experience in Oaxaca—a two way system of learning.
Youth led Media Serves Marginalized Communities
Youth are taking a leadership role in teaching, training and engaging Latin Americans in technology in ways that support and represent their culture in a digital age. The use of technology is shared across the Americas, and young people—as a new generation of technology users—are sharing their interest in digital media more globally.
Untermeyer explains, “AMIGOS volunteers and project staff are a positive catalyst in helping communities throughout the Americas to use the incredible educational and professional opportunities today’s technology offers.” The fusion of media with a cultural exchange service-oriented program is extremely beneficial to our young participants and our Latin American counterparts.
AMIGOS volunteers are excellent candidates for teaching digital media because they come with knowledge of digital technology. Most teen volunteers enter the program with computer and technology skills from growing up in the U.S., which can be shared with Latin American counterparts that have extremely limited access to technology.
Moreover, the use of media in service-learning can be effective despite language barriers. Young volunteers, though versed in Spanish, can more readily share technology despite language differences. Because an extensive vocabulary is not needed to teach someone to navigate the Internet or use a digital camera, digital media is a much more effective means to teach technology. Digitial media can be shown, set as an example, as opposed to teaching video and photography verbally.
In addition, because AMIGOS volunteers are versed in Latin American culture and technology before they step foot in Oaxaca, they are prepared to remain conscious and respectful of cultural norms; introducing technology in ways that will benefit communities. Teens become aware that bringing digital media into a community can change the way of life for people who have had limited access to technology, having experienced the power of digital media in influencing cultural norms in the U.S.
As a result, young people encouraged indigenous people to use technology beyond the digital media program. Their leadership enabled the community to confidently use the Internet more frequently and become more comfortable with computers and digital cameras. Introducing technology benefited community members for future work, to store and share information, and to communicate virtually.
Digital Media for Cultural Exchange
Digital media allows host communities to express their ideas and share their culture with a worldwide audience. Using digital media serves the local community in ways that effectively allows young people to work together and interact more readily across cultural differences. Digital projects that embrace and document a community’s heritage have been successful for young people at AMIGOS.
The leadership and digital media expertise of teen volunteers in Oaxaca enabled community members in 2006 to photograph artifacts and take videos of shared stories and indigenous cultural reflections—using technology to capture indigenous history. Digital documentation can be quickly transferred and easier to maintain than a physical museum representing diverse cultures.
The importance of using digital media in this way is that Oaxaca has a high concentration of indigenous people. Due to increased urban developments, these groups have begun to lose some of their rich history and culture. There are 16 total registered indigenous groups, with the most populous groups being Zapotec and Miztec. By documenting culture in a city that has a high concentration of indigenous people; young people are learning the importance of sharing stories and history to both a local and worldwide audience.
Crail said the AMIGOS Digital Culture Project helped document these important indigenous cultures through digital media. Digital media gave community members and volunteers another means of sharing culture through documentation. Used in this way, both community members in Oaxaca and American volunteers learned more about the history of indigenous Mexican culture. As a result, these community members gain a voice to share their history and vision of their community, while simultaneously gaining valuable technology skills and experiencing a lasting impact from cultural exchanges.
The digital program that Crail started at AMIGOS has influenced and launched new projects beyond AMIGOS, a trend for service projects that use youth led media as a tool for host communities to express their culture globally. For example, Crail’s experience in Oaxaca inspired him to start his own non-profit organization called Digital Roots (, an organization that specifically empowers communities around the world to investigate, document and share their culture and history by using environmentally friendly digital technologies, creating physical and virtual exhibitions and museums, and encouraging young people to reflect on the past, present and future of their community and their role as community members.
Youth led media has been instrumental in introducing technology to Latin American community members through AMIGOS’ digital media program. Teen volunteers have combined their knowledge of digital media and service-learning in Latin America to teach local community members how to use digital cameras and other technology, despite language and cultural barriers. These projects have provided community members with valuable technology skills and digital end products that feature their history and culture.
Digital media is a way for host communities to share their culture locally and globally. AIn Oaxaca, volunteers and young community members in the Digital Media Project simultaneously learned about Oaxaca’s indigenous culture. From using digital media as a tool to document and enliven indigenous culture to using blogs and online journalism to convey cultural exchanges and experiences to their communities back home, young people serve as a cultural and global bridge.
Using digital media, young people—despite differences in language and backgrounds—can express their identity, history, and perspective to the world. Young people are using their knowledge of technology and bringing them to service learning sites in Latin America more frequently. Digital technology helps young people teach and learn how to express one’s voice. Marginalized communities in rural areas such as Oaxaca, Mexico can benefit from young people’s leadership, peer-to-peer media training, and their knowledge of technology. Such bridging—of youth led media and service—can enhance social and cultural exchanges for young people in the U.S. and in cities around the globe like Oaxaca, Mexico.
Tara is the Communication Manager at AMIGOS and has a degree in Spanish and Journalism. She grew up on a 3,000-acre farm in Dodge City, Kansas and before moving to Houston, she was the Editor of La Voz online, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Arizona. Tara was also editor of her award-winning college newspaper, The Baker Orange. In her spare time she enjoys yoga.