Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stereotypes (Are Fun)

For those of you who were wondering: Yes, I am finally back in Oaxaca now, and teaching again. My long vacation ended, after all. I am pretty excited about this semester because instead of having mostly Level 1 English classes (and Level 3 classes that seem like Level 1), this term most of my classes are at least Level 2, including one Pre-TOEFL and one TOEFL class, in which most of the students are legitimately advanced! Finally, the chance to talk about real things in English!

One professor suggested I create a "pronunciation course" for his students (once a week over the course of the term), but since I think focusing solely on pronunciation is boring, frustrating for students, and unnecessary, I suggested it be a pronunciation AND American culture course. This week, I found I didn't even have time for the pronunciation exercise I planned (whoops) because I was too busy with my activity about American and Mexican stereotypes. I repeated this lesson with several advanced and intermediate groups during the course of the week.

The first part of the activity was have students brainstorm what they thought were stereotypes Mexicans have of Americans, and stereotypes Americans have of Mexicans. But, just to be prepared, I wrote down some stereotypes of my own before I came to class:

American stereotypes (copied from a sheet taken from Peace Corps training materials):
-Americans are always in a hurry to get things done.
-Americans always have to say what they're thinking.
-Americans always want to change things.
-Americans don't show very much respect for their elders.
-Americans insist on treating everyone the same. (I quickly crossed this one off the list, because a Mexican friend told me that NO ONE in Mexico believes this about Americans. Maybe it is true in cultures where hierarchies are more important--age hierarchies, caste hierarchies, etc.)
-Americans always think things are going to get better. They are so optimistic!
-Americans are impatient.

...and a few more that I came up with:
-Americans are superficial.
-Americans love McDonald's and other fast food.
-Americans don't have time for family.
-Americans are ignorant/racist/don't know anything about other cultures.

Mexican stereotypes (that I came up with):
-Mexicans are lazy.
-Mexicans don't want to learn English.
-Mexicans love to eat tacos, burritos, and nachos.
-Mexicans are always drinking beer and Tequila.
-All Mexicans wear sombreros.
-Mexicans are always late to everything.
-Mexican men are machista.
-Mexican women are submissive.
-Family is more important to Mexicans than anything else.

So, you might think that it would be easy for Mexicans to come up with lots of stereotypes they have about Americans. Actually, this part was much more difficult for them than identifying stereotypes that Americans have of Mexicans. The only two stereotypes anyone thought of that I also had on my list were "superficial" and "racist" (hmm, what does that say about us??). Many of the things they came up with were not really stereotypes, but rather things they had observed about American expats and tourists in Oaxaca.

According to my students, Americans:
-dislike Latin Americans
-get sick from Mexican food
-like Mexican beaches
-can't dance Latin music (hey!)
-like to dance salsa (that's more like it!)
-don't eat tortillas
-don't like spicy food
-don't like to eat "chapulines" (grasshoppers--well, duh)
-like mezcal (yeah!)
-like nutella (hell yeah!)
-always have ice cream at parties.
-always have parties with alcohol at home (young Americans)
-like drugs (young Americans)
-are tall
-wear sunscreen every day
-like to travel
-don't shower every day (??)
-like baseball (men)
-are blond, blue-eyed, and white-skinned
-are spring break-ers (and are out of their minds)
-are precocious
-wear Nike
-love Mickey Mouse

When it came to Mexican stereotypes, the students' lists were almost identical to my list, almost every time (with the exception of "Mexicans don't want to learn English"--which I'm sure they would have thought of if they lived in the United States). Some additional ones they came up with were that we think Mexicans:
-are happy all the time
-are fat
-are short
-have a mustache
-wear cowboy boots
-like sleeping under cacti
-like mariachi
-sing serenades (men)
-are horny (ALSO men)
-like to block streets in protests (well, maybe that's just Oaxacans!)

In the second part of the activity, I gave the students my two cents (and my cultural-anthropological theories) about the American stereotypes. I then asked the students, working in groups, to pick one stereotype of Mexicans, decide if it is true or false, some of the time or all of the time, and try to explain why Americans might have this idea about Mexicans (in other words, did the stereotypes come from movies, recism, direct observation...?). The last part was pretty difficult for some of the groups, but it led to some interesting discussions.

What did I learn from all this? Most notable, that American (exported) media paints a more vivid picture of Mexicans than I had realized before--or, maybe by some other means, Mexicans are extremely aware about what the rest of the rest of the world thinks about them. Perhaps the image they have of gringos from the movies is a bit more nuanced (since the movies are made by gringos), albeit still somewhat false.

And for the record, my two cents about the Mexican stereotypes:

-Mexicans are lazy: Absolutely not. From what I've seen, Mexicans might be among the hardest-working people on earth. The Mexicans I knew in Philadelphia worked long hours, sometimes at two or three jobs, in order to send money home to their families. Likewise, several of the English professors where I work have two or three jobs, and/or are studying at the same time.
-Mexicans don't want to learn English: Also not true--but English not that easy to learn! Why is it that we always criticize Mexicans in the US for not knowing English, but when Americans travel to Latin America they also want everyone THERE to speak English? Besides, if it is so important that Mexicans in the US learn English, why don't we stop calling them illegal and encourage them to pursue a quality education?
-Mexicans love to eat tacos, burritos, and nachos: Tacos, yes. But maybe not what Americans living in the U.S. think tacos are. Burritos, no. This seems to be more of a Mexican-American food than a Mexican food. Nachos, yes; they are commonly served in restaurants the way we would serve bread, as an appetizer with green or red salsa.
-Mexicans are always drinking beer and Tequila: Beer, yes. Although, this is much more true for men than women. Tequila? Maybe. In Oaxaca, we just drink mezcal. ;)
-All Mexicans wear sombreros and cowboy boots/have mustaches/sleep under cacti: Obviously, no.
-Mexicans are always late to everything: Well, yes, and they themselves will admit that. It is a result of a culture that puts less value on rushing around to get things done, and more on enjoying life. That doesn't mean they're lazy; in fact, you can pretty reliably count on things starting 15 minutes to 2 hours late (depending on the type of meeting or event).
-Mexican men are machista: Yes, many are, but this is rapidly changing, especially in the cities (according to my students).
-Mexican women are submissive: To an extent, many women still live in the shadow of "machista" men, but this is also changing and is obviously not true for all women (if they were all submissive, how would Mexican women ever have won themselves any rights in a male-dominated society?). Also, as a couple of my students pointed out, this stereotype tends to be reinforced in the United States because many Mexican women who come to the states work as nannies or maids.
-Family is more important to Mexicans than anything else: Compared to people in the United States, family is much more important to Mexicans. In the U.S., we place more value on individual achievement, are more likely to live far from family, and chosen companions are more valued (friends, spouse).
-Mexicans are short: This is generally true for Oaxacans, comparatively. The Mayans and other related ethnic groups of Southern Mexico are known to be some of the shortest people in the world. That said, I also know some pretty damn tall Mexicans.
-Mexican men like singing serenades: This has never happened to me. :(
-Mexican men are horny: Isn't everybody?

This is Naomi Harper, stereotype expert, signing off.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fiesta hopping: Chiapa de Corzo, Chamula, San Pablo La Laguna

My month of travel through Chiapas and Guatemala began January 14th, when I got on a bus headed to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. Unwittingly, I have been just in time for a series of fiestas patronales in all the places I have stumbled across. And by stumbled across, I mean almost literally: in particular I would never have ended up in San Pablo La Laguna, Guatemala, if I hadn´t made a new friend on a crowded bus on the way there. This is what I love about low-budget traveling.

In Chiapa de Corzo, a town in between Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas, the big "Fiesta de Enero" is celebrated, as you might have guessed, almost the entire month of January, culminating in the 21st and 22nd. This festival features lots of dancers dressed up as "Parachicos" in traditional indigenous costume, white masks, and strange round white fuzzy hats. The legend goes that years ago, a Spanish woman was looking for someone to cure her sick son. No one could seem to help him, until she found a local curandero that treated his illness by dressing up as a white woman and doing a little dance for the kid (hence the name "para-chico"). Apparently this miracle warranted a giant party for three weeks in January in which the men sometimes dress up as women. In addition, on the night of the 21st there was a reenactment of a naval battle that took place at some point between the Spaniards and indigenous people. My friends Kevin and Eduardo and I sat and watched the reenacted naval battle from the shore of the river--an impressive hour-long display of fireworks, fake gunfire, and boats floating around. To top it all off, there was a fair including a ride simulating riding a bull. I held tight on the back of the bull for several minutes and thus discovered a new talent of mine.

Meanwhile, on February 20th in many towns was Dia de San Sebastian. I don't really know anything particular about this fiesta, but I was lucky enough to pass through San Juan Chamula, a small town outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, on the day it was happening. The fiesta, as most here do, involved loud music, dancing, and firecrackers. There was a band playing on the bandstand in the town center, and around it danced costume people, some wearing masks of the faces of former presidents. But the real attraction of Chamula is the church, unlike any other I have ever seen or heard of. The attraction of this church isn´t the stunning architecture or decor, but rather the lack thereof. There are no seats inside the church, only leaves and pine needles scattered all over the floor, with tall wax candles sticking up out of it. Immediately when you enter the church, you were struck with the overwhelming smell of burning incense and the sound of music: harp and accordion. On this particular day, perhaps because of the festival, the church was packed with local people in their traditional wooly black skirts and tunics. Many people sat on the floor in front of shrines burning their incense, lighting their candles, chanting and singing. The sides of the church were decorated with saints in indigenous attire. Giant bouquets of colorful flowers hung fron the ceiling. Obviously, there is no traditional mass in this church: instead people kind of hold their own individual worship sessions and sometimes perform healing and purifying ceremonies that involved being wacked by herbs and/or having an egg rubbed over you.

After pushing our way through the crowd, my friend Eduardo and I peeked into a side room with some more lit candles and decided to go in out of curiosity. No sooner were we about to return to the main room when we were scolded by a local, who demanded to know who had given us permission to enter that room, saying that "foreigners" were not allowed there (to him, my friend from Mexico City was evidently no less of a foreigner than myself). He made us leave the church immediately and we had to re-enter through the main door. So I discovered that Chamulas do not like foreigners--but really, can you blame them?

The most adventurous of my adventures so far was getting from the ruins near Comitan, Mexico, to the tiny village of San Pablo La Laguna, Guatemala, in the course of one long day. A couple days before, I met up with Kevin, another Fulbrighter, who joined me briefly on my journey. We stopped to rest for a night in Comitan, a city between San Cristobal and the Guatemalan border, and decided to make an early morning visit some nearby ruins before heading to Guatemala. By the time we crossed the border, it was 2 PM and we discovered that we had missed the one daily direct bus to Lago Atitlan, our preferred destination. After asking several people including an immigration official, it became clear that there was no one best way to get there and that it was not certain we would even get there that same day at all. Befuddled, we hopped on a bus that we told was going to a place called Xela, but actually just overcharged us and dropped us off before that in a place called Huehue (both of the full names of these towns end in "tenango"--about fifty percent of Guatemalan towns seem to have long names that end in "tenango", meaning "place of", which doesn't make things easy for foreigners to begin with). From there, we got on another bus that was actually going to Xela, with the intention of getting off at a place called "Cuatro Caminos" and then taking one or two more buses to Panajachel, if the buses were even still running at that time of the evening. We were half expecting to end up spending the night in Cuatro Caminos--kind of a middle-of-nowhere crossroad town. The buses were both school bus style and packed with people--three to a seat and sometimes people sitting in the isle with their butt partly on one seat, partly on another and partly in mid-air. I was nervous about getting to some random sketchy place after dark, and started sipping a water bottle containing mezcal to give me strength.

But alas, our good luck began when Kevin misplaced a flip flop somewhere on the floor of the bus, and turned around to ask the guy behind him to look around for it. The guy quickly found it, and Kevin thanked him, starting up a conversation about how we were trying to get to Panajachel by the end of the day. Just as the generous fellow was calling up some friends in Cuatro Caminos to see if buses were still running from there to Panajachel, another guy on the bus overheard us and chimed in that he was from a small town on Lago Atitlan called San Pablo La Laguna, which just coincidentally was having its yearly Fiesta Patronal at that moment, and if we wanted to go there we could come with him. We accepted, obviously, and got off the bus with our new friend, Juan, in Cuatro Caminos. Two hitch-hiked rides from dark street corners later, we were in the back of a truck bed with a bunch of rowdy, indigenous language-speaking friends of Juan, heading down the last stretch of road leading to San Pablo La Laguna. We entered the town via a winding road through the mountains, and as we got closer could actually see fireworks going off in the town from above. It was a totally surreal, spectacular sight.

When we arrived in the town my jaw must have been hanging open and adrenaline rushing through my body from all the color, movement, sounds and smells surrounding us. Fireworks and fire crackers were still going off everywhere, loud music was playing, the market was bustling. One of the first things we saw was an entire recently slaughtered cow. Juan took us to his house, where he lives with his parents, his wife, and seemingly about five or six more adults, in addition to a bunch of adopted orphan children. His father leads a small project to raise money for school materials for children in the town of San Pablo. The house was a pretty bare-bones, dirt floor hut, but the centerpiece of what I guess you could call the livingroom was a pretty nice TV that Juan said a Canadian friend had donated for the kids. I never saw the TV turned off at any point when I entered the house during the three days I staid in San Pablo. A few feet away from the kids sitting in a hammock and watching TV were some women making tortillas on a comal. When I tried to make a couple, I was evidently doing it all wrong and they laughed at me.

Virtually no tourists go to San Pablo--most stick to the more developed hang-out spots around the lake--and therefore there are no official hotels. But Juan took us to the home of a friend of his who has kind of an unofficial hotel. Cramped rooms, no extra keys to the building (you have to ring the bell to get in), a very small and unpleasant shared bathroom, no hot water, not very much running water at all in fact--but beggars can't be choosers. After Kevin and I had installed ourselves in our "hotel" room, Juan took us to a local corner store to get a couple beers and chat with his buddies. We then watched part of a beauty pageant that was going on apparently to pick this year's town beauty queen. We missed most of the beginning, but were in time to see a long speech by last year's queen, accompanied by music and many creative hand motions, spoken first in the indigenous Mayan language of the town and then in Spanish.

I decided to stay a couple more days in San Pablo until Tuesday, January 25th, which was the main day of the festival. All day, there were traditional dances taking place in several different parts of the town at once, involving people dressed up in elaborate costumes with masks and dancing mainly to marimba music. There was also a small fair, including a rickety ferris wheel which I decided to try my luck on. It wasn´t that big but was actually pretty scary due to its speed and questionable supports. On the ferris wheel I was sitting next to a 13-year-old girl named Anna, who was very friendly. We got into a bit of a girl talk in which she told me that she didn´t have a boyfriend, but her father's best friend was always bothering her and wanting to be her novio. But, she said she wanted to wait to get married and I said that sounded like a good idea. We rode around the ferris wheel twice and then walked around the town for a bit with her little brother, Pablo Fermin (maybe the best name ever for an 8'year'old), watching the different traditional dances.

A little later, I met up again with Juan in his house and we went to get some drinks before going to watch the much-anticipated marimba band from Colombia along with Juan´s wife and brother-in-law. There was much dancing (although I discovered that Guatemalans just dance a slow version of merengue instead of bothering with cumbia), and as you might imagine, many drunken males. Actually, there were more drunken males stumbling around and wrestling with each other than there were dancing couples. But what can you do? At around 1 am Juan and his wife walked me back to my "hotel," but there were some big speakers playing cumbia music full blast right across the street, and we rang the doorbell at least 500 times but there was no answer. Juan offered me a spot to sleep in a hammock in his house, but finally I got into my room by climbing up onto the roof of an old lady´s house (we got her permission first) and from there onto the balcony attached to my room. I then discovered that there were a bunch of Guatemalan tourists in sleeping bags covering the floor of the hallway, and I had to step over them to get to the bathroom. I then attempted to sleep with the music still going full blast right below my window, only to be rudely awoken at 6:30 AM by the "hotel" owner unlocking the door to my room, poking his head in and saying, if I heard him correctly: "Are you done sleeping yet?" Seeing that I was still in bed, I suppose he considered his question answered. He grunted and closed the door again.

My eventful stay in San Pablo culminated with a morning walk with Juan up to a mountain peak called "La Nariz del Maya", so called because seen along with the surrounding mountains, it really does look like the nose on the profile of a person. The hike included some gorgeous views of Lago Atitlan, and was a great way to say goodbye to my newfound friend and to Lago Atitlan. More adventures soon to come...