Sing, and don’t cry : a Mexican journal (Transit Lounge, 2005) is Cate Kennedy’s biographical account of her time with a rural development organization in Queretaro, Mexico called URAC (the Regional Union for the Support of Peasant Farmers). Cate explains in one brief sentence how this came about. “Less than a year ago, restless for a new challenge, Phil and I had applied to do a volunteer stint anywhere in the world, and the dice have rattled in the cup and tossed us here in Mexico.” It proved to a life changing experience.

Cate arrives in Mexico barely able to speak Spanish and is initially assigned the task of working with the URAC’s community bank program. URAC provides a community bank where members can both borrow and save money. She learns there are five things which are considered essential to life and therefore worth getting into debt for. These are medicine, education, home improvements, fiestas (celebrations) and pilgrimages. These five things form the backbone of the book as Cate discusses them in much detail. The book is filled with vivid descriptions which convey not only the sights and sounds of rural Mexico but also the heartbeat of the place. You feel like you are there.

Cate willingly opens her heart to the Mexican people and in her two year placement learns not only the language and customs of these people but also their values. She finds herself confronted with a value system vastly different to the one she knew in Australia. A value system based on what is sometimes referred to as ‘social capital’ where community, participation and human contact are considered valuable which is why fiestas and pilgrimages are so important to them.

The overwhelming poverty and lack of opportunities for people, particularly the children is heart wrenching. It makes Cate realizes how wealthy she is monetarily but her real distress is the knowledge she is helpless to bring any lasting change to these people. Negligent governments have enacted policies which have caused much of the poverty and hardship in the country and there are no simple solutions to the immense problems. However the resilience of the people to celebrate and remain hopeful in the face of such depressing circumstances deeply impacts Cate and is reflected in the title, Sing and don’t cry.

The book concludes with Cate struggling to readjust to living back in Australia. Walking around her home city, she is depressed by the lack of colour, everything appears so clean and orderly yet there is so little human interaction. The lack of eye contact, the coldness and indifference of strangers all make her feel lost in her own country. She finds it difficult to explain the reverse culture shock she is experiencing and thus it is hard for her to relate to her friends. In the end she comes to an unconvincing peace with her homeland.

Cate Kennedy’s Mexican journal is an intense journey into another culture which leaves you with a Mexican taste in your senses and disconcerting questions in your mind as to who is really poor.