Large families, devout Catholics, modest clothing, very poor – these are some of the common preconceived notions about Mexicans from a rural eastern Oregon perspective. However, such a view is limiting and hides the rich variety that abounds in the Mexican culture and among Mexicans from both the United States and Mexico.
People who hold a traditional eastern Oregon view are able to recognize that there are drastic differences in various areas in the United States, and it would be logical to realize that Mexico or any other country is not any different. Yet, the little information we do have dominates our perceptions.
Even when we see another side of Mexico, through, for example, an exchange student, it is common to disregard that perspective on Mexicans and revert back to the narrow stereotypes based on what they see and hear most often.
It was not until I went on an exchange to Michoacán, a state located to the west of Mexico City, that I realized the extreme gap between the perception that I grew up with and reality. My host mom made me consciously think about this from the beginning when she mentioned within the first week of my exchange that she likes it when people decide to go to Mexico on exchange so that they can see another type of Mexicans.
For example, she commented that a recent exchange student did not bring a blow dryer because she was not sure if there would be electricity or not. My host mom seemed offended as she said she did not know where the student thought that she was going!
When people do not know what to expect, the decisions that they make rely on what they have heard in the past. This student probably grew up hearing many comments about the dire poverty in Mexico with few people in the upper class, which led her to such a conclusion.
In the same way, my study-abroad adviser told me many different things about Mexico in order to prepare me for my exchange. Don’t bring shorts with you; they think it is very immodest. You will be going during Holy Week, and it is going to be so interesting to see the culture of devout Catholics, since almost everyone in Mexico is Catholic. My friends also made comments telling me that I had to learn salsa and merengue dancing while I was there.
However, when I arrived to Mexico I saw many people in shorts and tank tops, and the only celebration associated with holy week that I saw was a procession from a taxi. Although many Mexicans are devout Catholics, I was surprised to see many non-practicing Catholics and the presence of other religions.
Even though I went to a dance club, there was not any salsa, merengue, or even cumbia. Instead, most of the songs were in English. Needless to say, I learned quickly that Mexico was not exactly what I expected. The interactions and experiences that I had in the United States relating to Mexico and Mexicans only showed me a very small part of the reality.
In the urban area of Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, I heard the vocabulary of the chavos, the younger generations. My classes in the United States never included vocabulary such as ” ¿Qué onda guey?” or “¡Qué padre!” However, I had expected to see a difference between the formal language of textbooks/classroom settings and everyday casual language.
I did not expect, however, many of the other changes. My perceptions were deeply ingrained, and I often caught myself being surprised with what I saw because it did not fit my idea of what Mexico and Mexicans are like. These little surprises came in all forms.
For example, I was shocked to see a student in one of my classes with pale skin and curly red hair, which went against my stereotype of a typical Mexican. Even though I quickly recognized this limiting perception of what Mexicans should look like and tried to expand my view, I often found myself having similar first impressions.
The expanded view that I saw in Morelia did not tell the whole truth either, only another piece to the puzzle. One weekend I went to a rural area of the state. As the bus rambled along the dirt road, the music shifted to bandas and rancheras, more traditional and regional Mexican music. This was a deep contrast to the pop music, similar to music I heard on the radio in the United States, that I heard in the city.
My impressions of Mexico are not limited to those I gathered while there on exchange. I continue to learn even now that I am back in the United States. This summer I went to a Mexican dance in Oregon, and when I told someone that I met in Mexico the names of the bandas, he replied with, “You were in Mexico for a long time, and you know that we do not listen to that music!” And that was true; most teenagers from the city did not listen to it. Instead it was the music of the more rural areas or people who were originally from rural areas.
Another rural eastern Oregon student had a similar experience when she went on exchange to Oaxaca, a state located to the south of Mexico City. Growing up she formed a perception of Mexicans as “less educated, lower-class manual laborers.” This was the popular belief in her community, despite the fact that the few people of Mexican origin who lived in her community did not fit the stereotypes.
Of her reactions to her experience in Oaxaca, she said, “I was surprised at all the people I met who were professionals in business clothes.” This was in contrast to her old idea of Mexicans as manual laborers. In addition, she said, “The number of art galleries, shows and museums amazed me. I guess I just never imagined Mexico had any modernity to it. I thought of Mexico and Mexicans as much less sophisticated.”
Through her exchange, she realized that she needed to question the stereotypes that she grew up with and instead look at everyone as an individual before making judgments.
I continue to learn to broaden my perspectives about Mexico and Mexicans. I will never be able to fully understand and see all aspects of Mexican life in every region, but an awareness of its rich variety helps me to see the spice of the Mexican culture. Travelers to Mexico should try to throw out any perceptions that they have which classifies all Mexicans into one category. Doing that will allow them to fully embrace and experience everyday life in Mexico with its plentiful diversity.