Samantha Pak/staff photo
                                Two indigenous performers embrace during a break in their dancing in Plaza Coyoacán in Mexico City.

Samantha Pak/staff photo Two indigenous performers embrace during a break in their dancing in Plaza Coyoacán in Mexico City.

Lessons from our neighbors | Windows and Mirrors

Traveling abroad is an easy reminder to check your ethnocentrism.

When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad for an academic quarter in Rome. And during those three months in Italy, I visited a few different countries in Europe.

That was all it took for me to get bitten by the travel bug.

But just because I’d been bitten, doesn’t mean I can always indulge. Every now and then, however, I’m able to go somewhere I’ve never been before.

My most recent trip was to Mexico City at the end of February.

While I was only visiting our neighbors to the south for a few days, the experience definitely made an impression.

First of all, I do not really speak Spanish. I took a trimester of the foreign language in middle school — opting to learn French for two years in high school and Italian for a year in college in preparation for the aforementioned quarter abroad.

This made for some interesting interactions with locals as I attempted to communicate with people. But between my very poor and broken Spanish and others’ very poor and broken English, I managed to get to where I was going and find the things I sought. Despite these successes, it was still a frustrating experience and I found myself exasperated at the fact that it was so difficult to find someone who spoke even just a little bit of English.

Then I checked myself (before I wrecked myself).

Here I was in another country, complaining to myself about people speaking a foreign language. When in reality, I was the foreigner. With this in mind, I made a concerted effort to leave my ethnocentrism at the door as I continued to attempt to communicate with people.

These experiences made me think about people who come to the United States from different countries and speak different languages.

When I was in Mexico, my minimal (and I do mean minimal) grasp on the language put me in a position in which I could easily have been taken advantage of and this left me feeling vulnerable. While nothing happened, my ability to even just ask for help would have been limited.

My visit south of the border also highlighted how little I know about Mexico — and really, the rest of the world (that’s a whole other column, for another day).

A view of the Pyramid of the Sun (background) from atop the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, just outside of Mexico City. Samantha Pak/staff photo

A view of the Pyramid of the Sun (background) from atop the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, just outside of Mexico City. Samantha Pak/staff photo

While I was there, I went on a tour of the pyramids at Teotihuacan, just outside of Mexico City. We saw the Feathered-Serpent Pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Our tour guide explained that there is actually not much known about the pyramids because archaeologists have not found anything written in the ruins. We also received a crash course on ancient Mexican civilizations including the Mayas and Aztecs.

I remember learning a bit about these peoples in either middle school or high school but only in a short unit — not nearly enough to cover the centuries worth of history they spanned.

Something that also struck me during my visit was the presence of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. I randomly came across a festival celebrating indigenous peoples in Mexico City’s main square, Zócalo, on my first night in the city. And later on my trip, in another neighborhood of the city, I happened upon an indigenous dance performance of sorts, featuring performers of all ages — from young children to seniors.

These events stood out to me because I can’t recall having ever seen anything like that here in the Pacific Northwest. Here in the PNW, where cities are named after local tribes or are words derived from the local tribes’ languages — Snoqualmie, Issaquah, Sammamish, Snohomish and Seattle, just to name a few.

In Mexico, the people are proud of their indigenous roots and culture and celebrate them. Whereas, in the United States, our country’s forefathers did their best to wipe out American Indian tribes and relegate these peoples to reservations.

These stark differences really made me stop and think.

Many may think the modern Western world is where it’s at, but it shouldn’t mean at the expense of forgetting our history and those who came before us.

Nowadays, any mention of Mexico inevitably brings up the topic of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. And while it never came up in conversation during my trip (probably thanks to the language barriers I faced), my visit with our southern neighbors just reiterated the question I’ve been asking since the wall was first mentioned on the campaign trail: Why do we need a wall?

The goal of Windows and Mirrors is to provide you, the reader, a glimpse through a window into other cultures as well as to see yourselves reflected back in the pieces I write.

My trip to Mexico City — and really, any trip to somewhere you’ve never been — was the ultimate window. And while just like the United States, Mexico is not a perfect country, there are definitely some things we can learn from our neighbors to the south.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.

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