Tasting Culture in Mexico

272“Venido con mí,” or “come with me” in English, were the first words my host mother said to me at the bus station. The ride home felt like forever. Every car owner in Morelia seemed like they were on the street. Traffic was heavy and countless pedestrians wandered the streets. This marked the beginning of my transformation to living in another country, Mexico. For the first time I was immersed in a different country’s culture for several weeks, and living in someone else’s home. Part of me felt as if I became a part of their culture, and I began to think I was in some ways acting like the people who lived there. Studying and exploring Mexico was an experience unequal to any textbook chapter or classroom lesson for it created opportunities for life long lessons.

We reached my host family’s home and the same nerves I earlier had quickly returned. I had only met my new host mother but I had yet to meet my new father, two sisters and brother. Butterflies swarmed inside my stomach. They immediately wanted to know about my home is Washington D.C. and my lifestyle. All I wanted to know was about theirs. I shared about my passion for basketball, attending an urban boarding school and about being an African-American living in the capital city of a predominantly Caucasian country.

My host family’s home was in a residential neighborhood of the Mexican city of Morelia. The city’s population is slightly larger than my city with about 700,000 people living there. Like Washington DC, Morelia, which is located in the Mexican state of Michoacán de Ocampo, similarly has an abundance of history and is characterized by the magnificence of its monuments recognizing different historic periods and people. However, what I noticed most was that Morelia was filled with caring and friendly people, which is something I noticed first-hand through my host family.

That car ride home was a first eye-opener because it made me realize that I had been placed under the care of someone else, a stranger. I didn’t know this woman but I would be living in her home for several weeks. I impatiently searched for something to talk about with my new host mother. Then it hit me. Food, Mexican cuisine! This is something I wanted to know more about, and surely a topic I knew she had mastered. “Qué usted tiene gusto de cocinar?” or “what do you like to cook?” I asked. She responded, “En el país tenemos gusto de comer enchiladas, el tacos, el mole, quesdidillas, y muchos de aguacates,” she said, which means, “We like to eat enchiladas, tacos, mole, quesedillas, and a lot of avocadoes.” I knew from this point on we would get along very well, and I also learned how important food was to Mexican culture.

As I explored the city of Morelia, I noticed people to be very hard working. The people most connected to my host family worked in many different types of jobs. It also seemed as though everyone was constantly working, from sun up to sun down. Meals were squeezed into busy schedules, but also so was relaxation and play. It just seemed different from home.

My host family seemed typical of their surroundings. They didn’t have a car, were always working and didn’t have the “finer” things in life that I thought to an average American citizen meant having a nice family-sized house, car and abundance of money. My Mexican host family had their own definition of the finer things in life, although they considered them to be running water, food on their table, money in their pockets, a job, and a caring family. I started to think how I took these very things for granted back home.

My 18-year-old host sister took me on a tour of the hot spots in Morelia and introduced me to her friends. We went to the local shopping mall, the movies to see Shrek III, and I even experienced a “party bus” for the first time. The hot spots in Morelia reminded me a lot of the hot spots back home in Washington D.C. Everywhere we went there was a constant swarm of teenagers, music thumping through speakers of passing cars and a lot of laughter and fun. I was reminded of home and as the day grew old and I grew tired we went home where I wrote in my journal.

Journal Entry I:

I’m finally here. I can’t believe it. I cried today when I heard my name being called as the next person to be picked up by their host families. I was nervous. But my family seems very friendly and happy to have me here. I’m afraid to not speak proper Spanish, to reject something that they offer, or even to practically be myself. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells, but I’m pretty sure this feeling is only temporary, I hope. The conversation that my host mother and I had earlier was an icebreaker. She glowed when we were talking about food and her culture. I can tell that my host mother really likes cooking. Today she offered me food every second I wasn’t already eating. Even though it seems small and nothing like D.C., I like Morelia. My host sister is named Maria but they call her Kenny. She is very popular. All her friends seem nice and fun. I wonder what I’ll be doing tomorrow. –Talia, 11:32 p.m. ET

I started to know people in the neighborhood, play soccer with the young children on my block, walk to the local stores and I even caught the bus a few times. I felt like I had become a part of the Morelia culture, but one thing kept reminding me that I wasn’t entirely a part of their culture. It was the constant reminder that I was an African-American. In Morelia, African-Americans, like myself, weren’t seen on the streets, only TV; it was an unrealistic sight for the Morelians. In Mexico I experienced no racism, but I surely felt I was the reason for a lot of people’s curiosity. I felt that I made a connection with my new family and friends that was deeper than race and skin color—a connection not made outside of my new “home”.

Everywhere I went people were staring at me, yelling “Morena.” Even though Mexico is recognized as home to the largest number of U.S. citizens abroad, I was still looked at differently. People also always asked if I had any money. Many Mexicans think Americans always have money and bad budgeting skills, and that we’ll buy anything we wanted, whether we need it or not. It somehow felt that the vendors who wanted me to buy their products also based their prices on the buyer’s ethnicity, but I never asked anyone about this.

In the middle of my trip I knew that returning to America would be challenging. I knew that I would have a clearer view of these totally different cultures because of my experiences living in both. In both of my “homes” I roamed streets with friends, prayed in churches and lived what I thought were common lifestyles. What awakened me was that I started to associate negative feelings with my American identity because I was now an outsider looking in at what I perceived was my identity. I questioned myself as to why I had begun to think like this. There was only one answer. I had changed. I started to think how careless and ungrateful I had been. I noticed that I had a good life back in America, and yet I constantly complained and yearned for more. As an American, I thought, I couldn’t easily distinguish between my wants and needs.

Experiencing another culture in Mexico caused me to reevaluate myself and my actions. In America, I had constant access to a vehicle, money, clothes, and other items I recognized as necessary. But in Mexico I had constant access to fun with new friends, an extended love from my host family and access to things different from home. My outlook on life had changed. When I returned to America I noticed changes in my thinking and actions, and so did others around me.

My experience in Mexico has since added more depth and meaning to my view of success in America. When I accomplished tasks they became more worthwhile because I now knew many people who probably didn’t even have my opportunity. I owed this insight to my Mexican experience. When I returned to school I worked harder because I knew many other young people had to work to live comfortably instead of pursuing an education. Most importantly, my awareness and consciousness toward understanding how my environment influences the way I think has greatly evolved. I have changed into a better person—one who is more aware, less ignorant, and more open to a global view of our world.