Our Neighbors

Most Americans wintering on the beach in Mexico probably wouldn’t go beyond learning how to say, “yes,” “no,” or “can I have another drink,” in Spanish, let alone the fact that the local Spanish teacher was tortured four times for asserting his beliefs about indigenous rights.

It would have been easy for our friends to make fun of Tali and I if they had wanted to because spending time in Mexico has become almost cliché for American youth. But they didn’t; they recognized that we were interested in more than the pristine beaches, the abundant alcohol, the endless parade of attractive men-not that we noticed.

What was readily apparent to anyone who wanted to see were the terrible inequities of a society that is torn by racial and cultural divisions as potent as any in the world. We wanted to see.

When we arrived in Cuernavaca, we met our host families. Then we toured the Experiencia School. Like all architecture in Mexico, it’s a surprise to see what is behind the colourful exteriors. Here, we felt like we were walking into our own secluded refuge. The school was a Gaudi-inspired structure with beautiful plants surrounding the area and students, on their 15-minute break, swimming in the large pool. The school was owned and operated by members of one extended family. When we were there, we felt as if we on one big family vacation.

In fact, the school offered us a choice of either spending the first week in Cuernavaca or traveling to Playa Venturas, a beach, two hours south of Acapulco which was insulated from that tourist hub. We chose camping on the beach. The days were spent under palm huts, studying Spanish grammar; the afternoons were spent under the sun in the pummeling waves of the Pacific Ocean. At night, we would eat magnificent seafood dinners and practice our Spanish with other Mexicans vacationing for the New Year week. It felt like one of those places that vacation ads depicted but nobody ever found.

The second week began with a trip to Mexico City, where we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Thousands of people gathered inside and outside to participate in the Mass. It was incredible to see the many Mexicans and pilgrims who had gathered to worship or observe this miraculous site. I felt as if my journey was complete after being there. There was such a sense of peace in me. The rest of the week was spent in Cuernavaca. We continued our intensive Spanish program, but the nights were full of salsa dancing and heated debates on Mexican Politics, specifically on the Zapatistas, Vicente Fox and indigenous culture. We were surprised to find ourselves having these debates in Spanish after less than two weeks.

We went to Mexico. We weren’t drawn. Both of us felt that there was something that we already possessed inside of ourselves that would be enhanced or even exalted through the cultural exchange that our trip could be. We decided that we wanted to learn Spanish. We may not be fluent yet, but we were certainly able to function more completely within Mexican society than the average tourist. When we had those political debates we were surprised that issues to which we were so new were capable of evoking such strong emotion.

Most importantly, our trip allowed us to pursue those individual interests that led us to Mexico in the first place, an interest in immigration and civil rights, or a devotion to religion and a desire to be able to communicate with our neighbors here in Chicago.