A Semester in Mexico
by Stephanie Aguilera
As a Mexican-American Political Science major with a Latino Studies minor, I knew my study abroad experience would be different than it typically is for students who are not of Mexican descent who study in Puebla, Mexico. I’m a first generation American-born citizen; both of my parents lived in northern Mexico until they were in high school. I’ve taken classes on Latino identity and studied the politics of the United States’ relations with Mexico. I chose to study abroad in Mexico because I wanted to practice Spanish in the Mexican dialect and because I wanted to experience Mexican culture first-hand. Although my Mexican parents raised me, I knew it would be different from what I experienced as a child in Texas. I was also very interested in the political science classes offered at the host university. I knew it would be a great opportunity to learn about my identity, heritage, and the complex political situation in Mexican society.
I learned about my heritage everyday through interactions with my amazing host family. My host mom took care of me as if I were her own child and my siblings were only a year younger than I am so I spent a lot of time with them. As is typical for Mexican culture, we ate every meal together and talked about each other’s days at school and work, watched the news, and discussed the upcoming elections. My host mother cooked delicious meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While my classes were very interesting, my interactions with people taught me more about Mexico and myself than I could have ever learned in a classroom. The classes were great for presenting a scholarly background and history, but my discussions and visits to different regions in Mexico complimented the lessons taught in class.
I learned about Mexico’s ancient cultures and the Spanish conquest from articles I read in class and the lectures professors presented. We read Aztec codices and discussed how the consequences of the conquest continue to affect Mexican society and politics. I learned about the bloody battle in Cholula through the codices and was fortunate enough to visit the ruins afterward. I saw the impressive pyramids in Tenochtitlan, Calakmul, and the Mayan ocean-side ruins of Tulum. Cholula is home to the biggest pyramid in the entire world, in volume. I’d seen pictures of these ruins in my American classes, but living abroad in a city that is located 40 minutes away from the world’s biggest pyramid is an experience I had to leave the Notre Dame bubble for. Out-of-classroom lessons were also very personal.
I wasn’t an obvious “international student” in professors’ and students’ eyes. I blended in well physically, and it wasn’t until I had a full conversation with others that they recognized my American accent while speaking Spanish. I remember them complimenting my Spanish, saying it was better than the American’s that had visited in the past, and they asked about my ethnic identity. I found myself responding as I would in the United States when asked by other Americans, “I’m Mexican,” because I’ve learned that people believe me to be racially ambiguous. They responded, “No eres Mexicana… eres descendiente Mexicana,” which translates to “you aren’t Mexican… you’re of Mexican descent.”
My first lesson in identity came when they told me I wasn’t Mexican. In the United States, I’m not “American” either. They called me “gringa,” something Mexican-Americans call Anglo Americans. I’d never thought of myself as a “gringa” before. The labels placed on Americans with Latino backgrounds is a complicated subject that is more complex for Americans of Mexican descent, who can identify as “Mexican American,” “Chicano,” “Tejano,” etc. I’d studied it in my Latino Studies and Political Science classes and been asked what my “real” identity was in the United States, but it was different to hear it on the other side of the border.
My immediate reaction was where do I belong? Neither side of the border will accept me labeling myself as “Mexican” or “American.” Neither culture is completely accepting of “Mexican-Americans.” In Mexico, I’m “American” and in the United States, I’m “Mexican.” I’m proud of my background and embrace American culture and Mexican culture. My parents raised me on tortillas and pork chops and we spoke both languages in our household. Still, my identity is questioned by both cultures. Even outside of the North American continent, people question my American nationality. I spent the summer in London where I was constantly asked where I was from. I’d naturally respond, “I’m American,” to which I was asked, “No, really… where are you really from?” I’d tell them that I was born and raised in Texas, which made me an American. They’d continue to ask me where my family was from. It wasn’t until I told them that both of my parents were born in Mexico that they understood my identity. These experiences were great real-life lessons to what I’d learned while at Notre Dame in classes that questioned race and ethnicity in the United States. Studying abroad made me think about who I really am, and while the identity question may never be answered for Latinos, I’m glad I came to question it in a real-world context.
The political science classes I took were also complimented by reality in Mexico. I took “Mexican Political Systems” and “United States Politics and Society.” I chose these classes to learn more about Mexican politics and to learn about U.S. politics and society from an outside perspective. Both classes were very interesting and helped me to understand what was going on in Mexico and how they viewed the United States’ system in comparison. I was surprised by the structure of the Mexican Political Systems class. We began by learning about how the Spanish planned Mexico and Latin America to be the “ideal” state, with perfect grid-like organization. On first glance, one might believe Puebla’s downtown looks very European because of the architecture. However, I learned that the zócalo, the main point downtown, is very different from what the Spaniards had in Spain. They made the zócalo the heart of the city, with a Cathedral on one side of the square and the governmental palace on the other side. The state and church had a complicated struggle for power after the conquest, and the zócalo reflects it.
We also discussed the presidential elections in class and a candidate visited my host institution to speak. It was the perfect time for a political science major to study abroad in Mexico. The political ads that portrayed their distinct methods of campaigning and my family and friend’s reactions to the ads taught me about how the Mexican public reacted to them. I saw ads painted on public walls and citizen-made graffiti ads as well (as shown below). The people were very passionate about their approval of the candidates or their disgust with them. Discussions with peers showed more approval for the leftist candidate and disgust with the current president, who was elected this summer. They all predicted corruption would happen and some said they wouldn’t be voting because they didn’t believe their vote would matter. Others told me that if they were going to vote, it’d be for the “least worst” candidate, to them there was no good candidate to vote for.
Citizen disgust for the political process and presidential candidates made me understand why the professor of U.S. Politics and Society and the students in the class felt the United States was so impressive. They were surprised by the accountability our politicians feel, the entire electoral process, and benefits like social security. Of course they highlighted the holes in American politics and the continual racism years after slavery was abolished, but they were generally pleased with the United States and yearned for Mexico to follow its example.
My semester abroad was an unforgettable experience. I obviously learned about Mexico, but I also learned about the United States. I questioned my position between both nations and cultures, and ultimately felt more passion for both. I’d been to Mexico with my parents many times, but displacing myself and traveling the country was unbelievably amazing. Yes, my Spanish improved and I ate delicious food, but a fire burns within me to continue to study the politics and society.