The taxi takes us to Ana Santamaria’s house, not far from the University in Mexico where she teaches. “We just have a little bit to do today,” she says to me, turning around from the front passenger seat and smiling. “Noon to 3 or so.”

I didn’t leave her house that day until long after dark, but I neither minded nor was surprised. Ana is energetic and demanding, the magnitude of her ideas surpassed only by the amount of work she herself is willing to put into them.

Ana Santamaria is the director of Ayuda Mutua, the organization for which I have been working for the past several weeks in the pueblos of Michoacan. A civil association dedicated to the rural indigenous communities, Ayuda Mutua — or “Mutual Help”— organizes projects ranging from widespread literacy education to small business loans, from health education and women’s rights to the preservation of indigenous culture.

This summer, Ayuda Mutua celebrated 21 years as an organization — a celebration that turned into an all-day-long forum and party in the pueblo of San Francisco Uricho.

The “little bit of work” at Ana’s house was the preparation for the anniversary celebration the next day. Diana, the group’s secretary, and I had decided to make a photographic mural depicting the association’s history. The border would consist of the photographs I myself had taken in the last month; the inside of the mural, snapshots and photographs from the 21 years previous.

Twenty-one years is a lot of photographs.

Ana dug out two large bags of loose snapshots and we began to sort through them. It soon became apparent that we could spend weeks with them. Every photograph had a story, of old friends and special people. Ana misted over telling us about them. “Margherita, you have to select them with a photographer’s eye, because all I see are stories,” she said. Snapshots captured everything from the opening of Charahuen’s medical clinic to a photograph of smiling women in front of the village’s first school.

Ayuda Mutua is more like family than an organization. Often they work from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. It’s not a job; it’s their lives. In their shared dedication to their work, it has become such a mixture of personal and professional that the division is unclear.

As for Diana and I, we turned on the radio and mixed work with fun, cutting, pasting, and putting together the photos while laughing and talking. “Oh, Cafe Tacuba!” said Diana as one of her favorite songs came on. “This band was popular when I was in high school!” We are the same age, with similar interests; Diana told me about her teenage years in Morelia while I, in turn, told her about growing up in Maine. Surrounded by the chronicle of Ayuda Mutua, we shared our own histories.

Ana came in bringing two steaming mugs of atole. “How are you doing?” she asks us. Then, distracted by the photos again, she tells us about a literacy project they finished in the southern pueblos 10 years ago.

Finally, the mural is done. We step back and admire our handiwork. These photographs will be up on the wall all day the next day. The people who come to the celebration — more than 500 in all, car-pooling in vans from all of the villages Ayuda Mutua works with — will crowd around it, picking out their friends and family and telling us stories much as Ana has.

From a celebratory Catholic Mass in the morning until the last corrunda is eaten that night, Ayuda Mutua’s anniversary is a success. Ana organized a series of forums with lectures and discussions on prominent issues, including a possible petroleum reform and rising food prices. Everybody brings their crafts and wares to sell throughout the day. Several plays are acted out, and a group of women perform traditional dance.

I had just spent two weeks in Uricho, teaching English. The women I had stayed with — all part of the association — decided to dress me up in traditional garb, from the embroidered shirt to the several layers of skirts and apron. They stepped back to admire their handiwork, and howled with laughter at the sight of a gringa dressed like a Purhepehcan woman.

“I feel like a doily,” I said, bereft of my standard hiking boots and jean jacket.

“You look beautiful,” they said, and then started laughing all over again.

Driving home late that night, Ana dozes in the car, worn out. I am sorry to be leaving this group, as they have taught me a lot about community work and about their community’s culture.

“Twenty-one years,” I tell Ana. “For a 23-year-old woman, that sounds like a lifetime.”

“It is,” she says, smiling. “It is.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: