Mexico: Cultural Awareness and Education
By Janeal Downs
Warnings and Fears
With sweaty palms, an overworked heart and tears that I would not let fall, I boarded the plane that would take me to the trip I had only dreamed of for three years. It was July 19 and I was about to be on my way to Mexico to study abroad for 30 days. After struggling for the funds for the trip and convincing, or telling family members that this is what I was about to do, it was finally coming true. The tears at that moment were not from happiness, and they were not from fear of being in Mexico. My biggest concern, with my phobia for flying, were the two flights I would have to take to get to the country. Of course, my family had more concerns. There are gangs and drugs in Mexico, the Cartel is there and all of the stereotypes we have been fed over the years came to their minds. I cannot say I was not a little worried, but I reminded my family about the city, state and country I resided within. Most of the cities where I or my family members have resided, are not the first place people think of when they think of safe. I did not let their fears or my phobia stop me from taking this trip that turned into one of the best experiences, thus far, in my life.
Before my trip I was reminded constantly to be aware of my surroundings. Don’t take taxis alone, don’t carry around too much money, and don’t walk around alone at night, and many other warnings. Are these not the same things people are advised against in the U.S.? There is no secret that Mexico has a travel warning from the U.S. government. Because of this, I could not apply for certain federal scholarships. However, with a scholarship from my school, an immense amount of assistance from my mother, and donations from friends and family, I was able to go on the trip.
Differences in Landscape and Weather
After I was far away from the airport, I was able to observe Mexico City with my program members on the way to our destination, Cuernavaca. I noticed that advertisements in the city were much larger than in the U.S. There were advertisements larger than billboards that were draped across entire buildings and walls. The driving was very different. It was a little more sporadic, closer together and hectic. However, I am convinced that this type of driving makes drivers more cautious of their surroundings. After being raised and living most of my life in the very flat Hampton Roads, the steep dips in the streets felt like rollercoasters and were not the most comfortable for me. There were palm trees all along the way and the sharp curves along the mountain gave me a beautiful view of the intense green of Mexico’s nature. In Cuernavaca, the air was warm and tropical. The entire time I was there the weather fell between high 50’s and 70’s. It was perfect. It also rained almost every night which helped a lot with humidity.
The second day after arriving, the members of my program went to Cuernavaca’s Zocalo. First we toured the palace of Hernan Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, and then we were able to go to the markets. Vendors are a little more aggressive there. In the U.S., if a salesperson asks you more than once if you want to buy their product, it is considered rude; but, in Mexico, it was just a part of the business. My teacher and program director urged us to bargain at all of the different markets we went to. Throughout the market, within Cuernavaca and other areas of Mexico we would later travel to, we were often greeted with smiles of curiosity and kindness.
On my first day of school, at Universidad Internacional, I immediately noticed the diversity present. There were people from the Bahamas, France, Austria, Germany, Japan and other parts of the world. “In the summer, and all year we have many people of all colors and flavors,” professor of culture and Spanish as a second language, Francisco Álvarez said. “The professors at this school are multilingual, multi-cultural and we are very sensitive to, and very understanding of many cultures.” Álvarez said there can often be misconceptions on both sides when there are visitors from other countries. Some things we do could be seen as rude to Mexicans and vice versa. Little girls and boys, bathroom attendants, shopkeepers and strangers on the street often complimented and sometimes touched my braids. One girl on the trip was a little taken aback when a woman came up to touch her smooth darker toned skin, but she smiled and thanked the woman for the compliment. As if we were celebrities, our pictures were also often taken and some girls were asked by residents if they could take a picture with them. While some of the African American girls visiting the country were frustrated by the attention they received for their hair and, or skin, I found it flattering.
In the U.S., if we see someone with darker skin, smaller eyes or a pointy nose, we do not automatically think they are from a different country. However, when they start speaking and we hear a dialect unlike ours, many often question them and their homeland. It is curiosity, which is why I was not offended. Curiosity is natural and questions that feed our curiosity is natural. As I walked the streets with my very diverse group, we were often asked where we were from, especially the students with different styles of braids in our hair. I felt as if in Mexico, they were observing and admiring.
People of African Descent and their International Influence
From stories I have heard from other people’s trips abroad, I know that Mexico is not the only place where this exists. In places in Asia, I have heard of the people being intrigued by tourists with darker skin and different hair. However, in both Asia and Mexico, they are also curious about people with blond hair, red hair, or just anyone who looks like a tourist. Although many Mexicans were curious about our differences, Álvarez said there is a large African influence on Mexico and Latin America. “Africa has a strong influence on literature and music,” Álvarez said. “People of Africa still have strong influences in places like Cuba and Puerto Rico, it’s a mix of rhythms.” In places such as Vera Cruz, Acapulco and other places on the coasts, he said it is very common for some Mexicans to be of African descent.
Álvarez did not see their curiosity as racism, and neither did I. Unlike the U.S., in Mexico he said there is less racism based on race. Examples of discrimination in the country are between indigenous people and people of European descent. “The Spanish brought many slaves, but in Mexico there was not slavery,” Álvarez said. “Yes the indigenous were treated poorly and yes their life was bad, but they were not slaves exactly.” This can be compared to what the Native Americans in the U.S. experienced and still experience. He said there is also discrimination based off of last names. It is important for them to keep noble last names within the family. This could be compared to people with the last name of Rockefeller in the U.S.
Kindness to Tourists
Despite the interest in my group as tourists, in my opinion, people there are more “accommodating” to tourists than in the United States. For example, whenever I met new people, no matter how well they spoke English, most tried to communicate in my native language. When I passed someone on the street and said “hola,” many would respond with “hello.” I am not sure if it was my accent or the way I dressed that let them know I spoke English, but they always knew. Of course I always insisted others spoke to me in Spanish, because I was there to learn, but I also found this flattering. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say, if you are in the U.S., speak English. It is very difficult to guess someone’s native language by their appearance in this country, and I highly advise against it. However, the fact that they wanted to make sure I was comfortable in their country was a kind gesture.
Educational and Cultural Lessons of Studying Abroad
Though my family was worried and I had a few concerns about my trip, I must say it was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned so much about the culture and my Spanish has definitely improved, but I got more than just educational benefits. “Traveling breaks stereotypes because you learn about the culture,” Álvarez said. “Knowing different types of people and cultures can help with work, because if you know other people in other countries, there are more opportunities.” I agree with my professor. I met many other Mexican students and young adults during my short stay in the beautiful country of Mexico. As my generation does, we connected and found each other through Facebook, which can make it very easy to keep in touch. International traveling allows for stereotypes to be broken, and international friendships to be created.
I observed many similarities and many differences in the people and in the government. Interviews were conducted in Spanish.
Next week we will look at challenges in Mexico’s education system.
Photos by Janeal Downs.