Trading Margaritas for Maize: A New Perspective on Mexico

by guest bloggers Olivia Schott and Emily Silvius

Our names are Olivia Schott and Emily Silvius, and we are both sophomores at the University of Cincinnati. Olivia is studying fashion design, and Emily is studying urban planning. We were fortunate enough to be invited on an educational jaunt to Southern Mexico with a group of wonderful ladies.

The purpose of our trip to Chiapas, Mexico was to learn about small -scale Mexican farmers and how they’ve been affected by NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement. We stayed in a little town called San Cristobal de las Casas. The buildings were colorful, the streets narrow, and the people (and stray dogs) welcoming. The small bits of information people our age get about Mexico make you think that the only places you could want to visit there are the ones where the servers are shirtless and handing you XXL margaritas while you lay poolside. And we won’t lie, before our journey, we hoped to get to do some of that. However, this trip ended up being far more than we could ever have asked for. San Cristobal is a beautiful, culturally vibrant town where we learned things fundamental to the Mexican people. All taking place below a beautiful mountain backdrop, which doesn’t hurt.

On day one, we took a van from our little town about two hours out. We arrived at a sprawling, panoramic cornfield, and as we piled out of the van our farmer host welcomed us into his rustic abode. After sitting down and talking to him and his family, (with the help of our translator, Mario) we couldn’t help but notice how fulfilled they seemed. They smiled, and ate delicious food, accompanied by delicious melon drinks. And best of all, they took such a pride in their crop, just the sight of their maize made them beam. Maria, the daughter of the farmer, told us that the colors and patterns on the wonderfully vibrant ensemble she was wearing communicated her role in the family, and that her outfit was different than her mother’s and younger sister’s, which did the same for them. This singular garment was more valuable to her than having a mountain of clothes big enough to allow an outfit change every two seconds (guilty). It occurred to us that people with our same background look at people like them and feel pity. Feel sorry that they don’t have the comforts that we’re so reliant upon, or the technology that inundates us. Maybe our excess is actually our limiter; we’re afraid of discomfort, or to get left behind.  We’re afraid to slow down long enough to learn about people that we deem less fortunate because it makes us uncomfortable.

The most valuable lesson we learned is that “poor” people aren’t poor. The people we encountered had completely different priorities than stockpiling their money. Having enough to support themselves day by day was perfectly fine. They had a roof over their heads, food to eat, and each other. Instead of being monetarily wealthy, they were rich in culture, tradition, and relationships.

While there wasn’t necessarily a singular, cloud-parting, epiphany moment, the trip was definitely revelatory. Every day our eyes were opened more and more to life outside of our myopic little world. Though we’ve travelled abroad on vacations, there were never true experiences of immersion like this, where we could make genuine connections and truly feel the heartbeat of a culture. We can’t express our gratitude to have been included in this trip, and also how important it is for people our age to start acquiring perspective  about life in different parts of the world. We learned things we never even knew we never knew about- things that can’t be learned from watching a documentary or reading a textbook. It’s something that needs to be felt to truly understand, and how grateful are we to have had the opportunity to understand.

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