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.