Mexico shares a border with the United States and a large portion of our vast country was once a part of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Given our proximity, it is hard to believe that many Americans are ignorant to Mexico’s enduring history, distinctive cultural makeup, and welcoming people.
Likewise, many Mexicans find themselves knowing little about Americans. Thus stereotypes are born and in the cultural ignorance and misinformation that inevitably follows, stereotypes thrive. Last summer I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico with Experiment in International Living. During the 36-day-long stay, I was able to break through common stereotypes, create enduring friendships and improve the conditions of a community in need.
Growing up in Miami, a city with a substantial population of Mexican immigrants, I am aware of many of the stereotypes our neighbors to the south are labeled with. It wasn’t until I reached this neighboring yet remote country that I was able to see the damage that is created by these labels and in most cases how inaccurate they are. I realized shortly after entering the country why some Mexican stereotypes exist. Yes, I heard wolf whistles on a daily basis; yes, I was careful about drinking the water; yes, not a day went by when I did not eat a tortilla with every meal.
All of that aside, I was never in danger of getting molested and never did I feel particularly uncomfortable around a group of men. I was not hospitalized during my stay and I certainly savored the Mexican cuisine and enjoyed preparing meals with my host mother — so much so that I worked in a Mexican restaurant upon my return. In the five weeks I spent in Mexico I learned more about the country’s culture than I could have learned in any classroom.
Perhaps more importantly, I discovered aspects of my own culture that I had never before considered.The bulk of my summer abroad consisted in a community service project where the goal was to improve the conditions of a primary school. We literally laid the foundation for two new classrooms: shoveling rocks, pick axing, mixing cement, and laying bricks. We also improved the remaining classrooms and surrounding area by sanding and repainting desks and chairs, planting trees, restoring the fence, and thoroughly cleaning the premises.
The most rewarding aspect of the community service was not just knowing that we were making a difference, but rather that the locals realized this too. I honestly believe we succeeded in challenging several stereotypes that are often made about Americans in most parts of the world. The Mexicans that lived in the area would pass by and see us — American youths — performing strenuous and selfless labor.
Small crowds would form as they commented from one to the other on how surprised and impressed they were to see us working in the scorching afternoon sun without complaints. It wasn’t rare for them to walk up to us and ask if we wanted help. I can’t describe how meaningful it was to be a part of the collaboration that was taking place.My experiences this summer made me a less parochial person.
The advances we are provided as citizens of a developed country are often overlooked and it’s not until we experience life in a developing country that we fully appreciate all of the comforts of home. Little things like potable running water, affordable and accessible transportation, reliable law enforcement, and safe, well-maintained schools are so commonplace in the United States that it is easy to forget how rare it is to find them in third world countries. All of those things are considered luxuries in places like Mexico and taken for granted in more developed nations.
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