Graciela Magdalena Tapp-Kocks, better known in Ashland and Guanajuato as Señora Chela, is headed to Guanajuato. Again.
In fact, she may have been to Ashland’s sister city more than any other Ashlander in the past half a century. It was through her grit and determination that the sister-city relationship, internationally recognized as one of the world’s most active, was brought to life. But it wasn’t always so.
Nearly 50 years ago, when she approached Southern Oregon University Chancellor Elmo Stevenson about establishing the sister-city relationship, she was given the nebulous task of going to Guanajuato to assess whether or not the city would be a good fit. After the director of the University of Guanajuato missed his third appointment with her, she, as she describes it, found out by “hook and crook” where he lived and intentionally rapped on his door during his lunch hour. He said he could spare 15 minutes. She stayed five hours, and thus the sister city relationship was born.
To date, more than a thousand Ashlanders have participated in the exchange, resulting in more than 80 marriages between residents in the sister cities, and many children.
Today she is preparing two Ashland High School seniors to represent the city as part of the annual community delegation visiting Guanajuato. AHS selects two representatives, known as the Reinas de Ashland, or “Queens of Ashland,” the moment they set foot in the central Mexican state, for a state visit more closely associated with visiting dignitaries than high school student exchanges.
Mikaela Louise Perry and Angelique Alecia Ostimo will perform dances, songs, and deliver speeches at nearly every stop on their 10-day tour of the city. They will visit Rotary clubs, Elks clubs, and countless political functions during their visit, and at each one they will be expected to represent the city of Ashland with grace and dignity. And they will do all of this in Spanish. Despite the added pressure of using their burgeoning language skills, the two are undaunted. Both have studied Spanish both within their families and in school.
Ostimo, whose grandmother was born in the northern city of Monterrey, Mexico, says the practical application of the language is just the sort of challenge she excels at. “My mom’s Mexican, so I grew up speaking (Spanish). I do way better if I’m talking in front of a group of people. I don’t know if that is going to change. I do really well when it counts.”
Perry says she is a little apprehensive, but she thinks that is a good thing. “I’m nervous, but I’ve always heard that it’s better to be nervous than scared, because if you weren’t nervous, life would be pretty boring. I think once we get down there, it will be more natural, because we won’t have time to think. Up here, we have too much time to think!”
Both have been in contact with their counterpart, Wendy Rodriguez, the "Queen of Guanajuato," who represents the third generation of her family to participate in the city sister relationship, via Facebook, and are excited to attend her coronation as part of the cultural exchange.
Both Ostimo and Perry have been practicing their speeches, dances, and musical numbers with Senora Chela for the past six weeks, and on Tuesday they performed for the staff at AHS and for Mayor John Stromberg. Mayor Stromberg, who was a member of the Guanajuato delegation several years ago, says Ashland High’s involvement in the exchange is critical.
“That is what people need to see," he said. "To see the young people being part of the exchange and bringing new energy and life to it.”
His advice to the AHS representatives was simple: “You go out there and you speak from the heart, wether you can speak the language or not, people just appreciate it when you try.”
While Stromberg will not be part of this year’s delegation, City Councilor Stefani Steffinger will represent the city government. The rest of the Ashland delegation includes program founder and SOU Emeritus Scholar, Señora Chela, Ashland High School Spanish Teacher Gladys Contreras, Rogue Valley native and dancer Hector Zaragoza Valentin (who will perform traditional Mexican dances with the Ashland High representatives), and artists and community members. The group will fly to Guanajuato on June 15 and return on June 25, just in time to welcome the Guanajuato delegation for Fourth of July festivities here in the Rogue Valley.
Alec Dickinson is a freelance writer living in Ashland.