I’m home, as of midnight Monday night! First I want to thank ALL OF YOU who encouraged me to go on this trip when I was hemming and hawing about it. The fact that I went may very well be one of those Ultimate Decisions That Changed My Life Forever, so brace yourself for a long post.
First-- Why I Went:
I just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from University of Michigan. Since as long as I can remember I’ve been passionate about Spanish and Latin America, and my experience teaching immigrants English in Detroit demonstrated a very concrete way that I can help others using my greatest passion. I want to be a Spanish professor and I want my research to focus on social justice and immigration, and my teaching to focus on hands-on applications of service work. So, I figured the best way to learn about the incredibly complex social and economic situations that lead to this phenomenon was to actually go to Mexico and talk to people who live there.
So, I did.
I went by myself, through a for-profit volunteer program called Global Crossroads.
I lived for approximately one month with a family in Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico (4 million in GDL proper, maybe 8 million including the metro areas.) During my time there I primarily did two things 1) taught English in a Girl’s Orphanage; 2) got food poisoning. Fortunately for me I lived with doctors… though I got to tell you receiving an IV and two injections at 3 in the morning from a woman you just rolled out of bed is not what I would call ideal.
Highlights from GDL:
**Discovering the Mexican version of America: The Book (http://www.amazon.com/Mexico-ciudadano-quisiera-saber-patria/dp/9707704012)
(rough translation: Mexico: What Every Citizen Would (Not) Like to Know About His Country), lent to me by my host father when he figured out my real purpose for being there (I was asking so many questions they suspected I might be a spy.)
**Hospicio Cultural CabaNas, an old orphanage eventually decorated with AMAZING mural work by J.C. Orozco.
**Guadalajara Philharmonic Orchestra recital in the historic Teatro Degollado
**Shooting pool in the local pool hall with my host auntie (fun fact: a pool stick in Spanish is called a taco.)
**Late night conversations with my host family… economy, history, politics, culture, family, friends… you name it, we covered it.
**Lizard walking on the kitchen ceiling. Best moment ever!
Once I was well enough to travel, I then left the city, about three hours west, and settled in with a second host family in Los Guajes, which is a farming community of 850 people. Quite a change from the big city, I can tell you! I then proceeded to teach 8 classes a day for one month–elementary in the mornings, high school in the afternoons, and adults in the evening. It was exhausting but my teaching skills improved immensely with all that practice.
Highlights from Los Guajes include:
**Being invited to BBQ on Father’s Day with a family who noticed me passing by their house on my way to town. Spent the day in their front yard lying in the shade, sipping margaritas and chatting with the Lucky Dad about everything from The Simpsons to racism.
**Riding in the back of a giant truck with 15 teenaged boys (and their instruments) who were going to give a concert in a neighboring town. I’m sure standing on the rail hanging over the side of the truck while we sped through the mountains was immensely dangerous–but damn, was it fun! I am bringing my trombone back next year to play with them instead of just watch.
**Second concert in an extremely poor town with incredibly friendly people who made me realize just how lucky I am to have things like, say, running water and a roof that’s NOT made out of cardboard.
Before I returned to GDL I took a school field trip with the 5th and 6th graders out to Tequila to tour the distillery, then we went to a water park in Teuchitlan. Next day I took a bus the 4 hours out to the Pacific Coast and stayed in a hotel for 5 days in Melaque. It was beautiful, but lonely. The highlight of Melaque was meeting a family on vacation from Guadalajara and spending the night with them north in Barra de Navidad, where they bought me dinner and generally kept the lonliness bug from biting too hard.
So I mean, I couldn’t be more pleased with the experience as a whole. All in all I visited about 12 towns within the state of Jalisco (racks brain: Guadalajara, Tonala, Tlaquepaque, Zapopan, San Jose de los Guajes, Juchitlan, Tecolotlan, Autlan, Teuchitlan, Tequila, Melaque, and Barra de Navidad.) And they ran the gamut from the inconceivably urban to the inconceivably rural and everything in between. I found every person I met willing to fight my ignorance about the way their lives worked, the social problems they faced, their experiences living in the United States, their opinions on history, politics, economy.
It was… it was FANTASTIC in that regard. I think I actually experienced firsthand or encountered or discussed just about everything I had learned as a student. I never really at any point felt like a tourist (well, except in Melaque) because I was living with families, sharing their daily experiences and doing my own daily grind with transportation and everything. Best of all, the experience was total language immersion and I think my vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds while I was there (my head still wanted to explode occasionally, though.)
A LOT has changed about me. I went to Mexico with an open mind and just wanting to learn, but of course I had some general leanings in terms of political opinions and socioeconomic theories. I definitely found these leanings tempered by counterevidence in support of other claims. For example, my final undergraduate Spanish paper was about NAFTA and the significant changes that free trade policy had brought to the country–generally speaking, I’d say I had it pegged as a bad thing. But with regard to NAFTA I found a broad range of opinions and I guess I’d have to say now that whether NAFTA is good or bad for Mexico depends on who you are.
Additionally, those ‘‘exploitative’’ jobs in the maquiladoras generally speaking seem to be the most luxurious your average Mexican can get. It’s crazy that I’ve spent years in the U.S. fighting about the injustice of minimum wage here, and to a Mexican that job is like a miracle.
Well maybe all this is stuff for Great Debates (though I’ve proven myself to be a not so master debator), but what I’m trying to get across is that I’m completely passionate about all of this, and I got to actually talk to people about all these things I care about, and I know that will make me a better person, a better graduate student and ultimately a better professor for having had the experience.
I also have so much more appreciation for my country than I ever did before. I was highly critical of the social injustices here. I will of course continue to fight for equality in every way that I can, but after experiencing such a different environment I realize I was living with the delusion that I had ever been poor. And I haven’t. I have never been poor. I have always had a roof, and clothes, and food, and toilets with seats on them and TV and telephones and jesus christ I’ve even had carpeting all of my life!
I may even be developing a tiny little seed of appreciation for capitalism, or at least hope for what capitalism can be with a little temperance. It’s just amazing all these little blessings I didn’t see before. It’s amazing how much people have in the United States without even realizing it. It’s kind of sad how so many people are miserable anyways. The people I met on the farm, poor thought they were, were about some of the happiest people I’d ever met. I think it has to do with their strong sense of interdependence, but that’s just my theory.
And I’m going back. Well, ‘‘going back’’ is contigent on me getting a good job when we get back from Europe. (Europe? Remember Europe? We’re doing that on Saturday, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate that luxury cruise all the more after living for 2 months in a country where finding a seat on a toilet is your lucky day.) This summer really has been one of extremes.
Well, at least I warned you this would be long. Just be grateful I didn’t write it in Spanish. It’s hard to boil down 2 completely life-altering months in one li’l thread.
I am so completely… grateful. That’s all. I’m just so grateful.