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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Andrea Meyer
Spring 2002

Revelations in Guanajuato

My experience on the service-learning trip to Guanajuato, Mexico was one where I connected information to experience to gain true wisdom and knowledge about the people, culture, and world view of Mexico. When I began the class portion of this experience, I was unsure of how the background information on the history of Mexico we were required to read would influence my service-learning experience in Guanajuato. What I expected of the trip was assisting in and teaching some English to a class of preschoolers—all other experiences would be extraneous and `touristy.' I poured over the readings and classroom information anyway, assuming that even if it would not be useful on this service-learning trip, it was interesting information that I could apply to my Spanish major. I quickly found out once in Guanajuato that the information learned in class would apply in nearly every way to my experience, and the synthesis of it with my experiences would change my opinion of the volunteer work I was doing, throw off my understanding of myself and my goals, make me reevaluate the motives of my future students and my country, and develop a greater understanding of the Mexican perspective.

I think the point at which everything I learned in the course previous to my time in Guanajuato formed from information into knowledge and paved that road for all the rest of my experiences there was during a meeting with some Mexican University of Guanajuato students. One student, who I later came to know as Adán, during our conversation asked our group why we study Spanish. After a few of us gave answers listing our hope to forge friendships with Mexican immigrants in the US or to be able travel in Latin and South America, we were blown away by the answer that Adán believed was the real reason in all of us—to come into their country to dominate and take over. First of all, this blew my mind! I had never thought of that as a motive for learning Spanish, but apparently this Mexican student believed it was Americans' number one reason! After first being appalled at his stereotypes of Americans, I realized that I wanted to uncover the reasons behind this strong and real belief and to change his mind about all Americans being this way.

A few of the girls in our group and I started a small conversation with Adán and two of his friends. The things they spoke of amazed me. One of the students, Luis, had lived and worked illegally in the United States for a year, and had hated the way he was treated and stereotyped there. He spoke of the low wages he made there and his difficulty actually getting into the United States, but he stated that at that time there were no other options. I immediately thought back to our course readings about the economic crisis in Mexico around 1994-95, and this was no longer information from a text it was someone's life. Adam continued to tell us that much of the work Mexicans have now come from American owned factories where Mexicans workers are paid so much less than if these factories were in America. He also asked us how much being neighbors with Mexico was influencing the American culture. When we could think of hardly any circumstances, the students were quick to point out all of the economic, familial, linguistic, and societal changes that have taken place in their culture and lives as a result of American influence. The students we spoke with were very conscious of the huge GM plant right outside of Guanajuato. This was one of the reasons for Adán's concern and assumption about Americans learning Spanish—and rightfully so, for most of the American factory managers there did know Spanish and used this skill to dominate the livelihood of many Mexican workers. Adán stated he had no interest in learning English, the language of dominance. He actually called those in the north of Mexico who more readily adopt English customs and phrases "less Mexican." Adán and his friends made me realize that they as Mexicans were sick of being marginalized and taken advantage of by more powerful cultures and, rather, wanted to take pride and strength in their own identity. However, I would not learn until the next day's history lesson how deep-seeded these resentments and convictions were.

The next day, two of the students we'd spoken with, Luis and Alan, personally guided us through the city's most historical museum, el Alhóndiga. Luis who was a history major and employed by the museum library, spoke with passion about the huge mural in the museum staircase that depicted the Spanish conquest and huge massacre of the Mexican indigenous people. After proudly showing us some of the indigenous art of the area, he spoke with melancholy in his voice about the way the indigenous people were used in the Spaniards' silver mines there in Guanajuato—risking their lives and becoming slaves for an unknown people whose only concern was wealth. No longer was this merely history information we had read—this was the background of a friend who knew fully that the trend continues today in a different form. Next he told us the bittersweet story of the independence movement—in which the rich criollos rallied the poor indigenous and mestizos to fight against the Spaniards for control of Mexico and all its silver. Though Luis's ancestors bravely prevailed, and though he was proud of the fact that the criollos who led the independence movement did ban slavery in the country once they defeated the Spaniards, mestizos would continue to be pushed off their land and marginalized by the rich for hundreds of years. This history formed a people, formed the view of the world that the students we now considered friends held—it was no longer mere information.

After learning so much about the true feelings of a young population that lived their history of marginalization to this day, I started to question my service in Guanajuato and my goals in life. My job in Guanajuato had been to teach some basic English to preschoolers in the DIF preschool, but suddenly I felt like just another dominating and presumptuous American, wishing to `help' these students by forcing on them knowledge in the `more important' language. Of course I continued my service there, but I started to take more pride in how well I could fit into their classroom environment and help the order of their day. When I left, my hope was not that they had learned about me, my language, and my culture, but that they had learned that some Americans could have good intentions and are interested in their Mexican culture more than pushing the American culture onto them. During this time, I also started to question my future goals as a Spanish and ESL teacher. I started to consider that many of the American high school students I teach Spanish to will use it in just the way Adán had mentioned, to dominate and invade economically. As an ESL teacher, though these students would come to learn English by their own will, I would still be perpetuating the myth that learning English and living the American lifestyle are the only way to succeed in life. I have much more to decide and consider about my future, but at least I am now armed with this knowledge and the conviction to help stop the marginalization of Mexico rather than perpetuate it. I hope that I can somehow use my fixture occupations in a manner that I originally thought them to be—a service to society as a whole. I hope to share with my future students the things I have learned in Mexico and the history of that people that shapes them so fully today so that they may share with me goals of mutual coexistence and cultural understanding to our neighbors to the south in their futures.

Overall, this experience in Guanajuato was amazingly influential in forming my current views on the world and perception of myself and my goals. I am truly appreciative to the Honors College for allowing me to enjoy it without too many financial worries. I cannot wait until I can embark upon another cultural study abroad experience to add to my understanding of the world around me.