Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Week 3: Changing my Game Plan

It definitely feels like a month has passed in Aguascalientes since my last blog post. Time here moves so slooooowly! No problem though, because I'm thoroughly enjoying myself each and every day. I left off last time the night before I was to perform two songs in the UAA auditorium during a mystery event. It turned out to be an Award Recognition Ceremony for outstanding students in the Languages Department, and it was kinda fancy (they didn't warn me about that part, so I had no choice but to reinforce the casual Californian stereotype). No matter, everyone loved my trilingual version of "The Blower's Daughter" and I even got the crowd to sing during my rendition of "Waiting on the World to Change." After the performance, I was congratulated by a lot of budding groupies and took a bunch of pictures with Mexicans who subsequently added me on Facebook.

I'm almost done with my first full week of classes, and they're going splendidly. I like getting to know all the students, fielding their thoughtful questions about me, and surprising them with Mexican slang when they least expect it. I dislike starting class every day at 7am... But I guess that's the price I pay for three-day weekends, right? So far in most of the classes we're continuing with the Q&A set-up to learn about each other, and traveling has come up in a fair number of questions. "Mateo, how do you pay for all these trips? You must be rich, right?" Something I struggled with frequently in Brazil was the need to combat the assumption from peers that because I came from the United States, I automatically came from money. My new Mexican friends are no different in that regard. Because our school systems are vastly different and financial aid to the extent of Harvard's doesn't exist in Latin America, it's hard for them to grasp that students from low-income households can study in such a prestigious institution and travel extensively on its account. When they ask, "Is it true that you've visited thirty countries?" a simple yes is a dangerous answer. If I'm not careful to explain how all that traveling occurred, the students are liable to instinctively place me in a class separate from themselves. "It's cool that Mateo has seen the world, but that will never be me." I strive to explain that despite our distinct backgrounds, there's no categorical difference between them and Harvard students. Mexican students are accepted yearly at Harvard, just like Brazilian students. It comes down to how much they want it, and how many obstacles they're willing to overcome in order to achieve their dream.

Wait a minute. We're not talking about Harvard anymore- now we're talking about 24-year-old Diana's ultimate wish to visit the coast of Jalisco. It's only seven hours away from Aguascalientes, and the round-trip bus fare is 750 pesos (around 57 dollars). I had asked the students a hypothetical question: "If you could go anywhere in the world for free, where would you go?" Diana's answer reflects a philosophy shared by a huge percentage of the population, not just in Mexico but also in the United States and most places around the globe. Indeed, it was my philosophy before I got to Harvard and met amazing people who changed my worldview. It's the "Must Be Nice" philosophy, which I have come to thoroughly despise for the way it holds people back from conquering their dreams. "It must be nice to travel the world, but that will never be me. I don't have the money/time/language/courage/freedom to do it, so I'll live vicariously through you."

I'm a humble 23-year-old who doesn't claim to know much about anything, but allow me to give a quick life lesson to all you readers: DON'T EVER LIVE VICARIOUSLY. You only have one life to live- why on earth would you spend it watching others do things you wished you could be doing yourself?! There aren't enough obstacles on the planet to successfully deter someone with a genuinely resolute desire to reach a personal goal. At this point in my life, it's unthinkable that 57 dollars and an overnight bus could keep me from realizing my ultimate travel goal. But I'm discovering that my students and many of my friends and family members are held back in much the same way, albeit with bigger costs and greater distances. Think about this for a minute: If you save two dollars a day for two years, you can buy a plane ticket to any destination on earth. Most places cost significantly less than that. Lots of people spend that amount (or more) daily on coffee or parking. There are ways to overcome every obstacle keeping you from your dreams, and now I'm not even talking about traveling anymore. Do you want to learn how to play guitar? Have you always wished you knew how to sail? No more excuses- start working towards your goal today! YOU CAN DO IT.

When I started this Mexico blog a few weeks ago, I said that one of my main goals for this year was to get Mexicans pumped about learning English. From now on, I'm putting English grammar and phonetics and listening comprehension on the back burner. They'll learn those skills throughout the semester regardless. Now my focus is to transform their worldviews. And I'm not talking about breaking down stereotypes of rich Ivy League students- I'm talking about drastic outlook expansion. You want to go to Paris someday? Let's break it down and see how we're gonna make that possible in the next two years. You want to learn how to dance salsa? Let's research local dance studios and figure out how to fit the classes in your schedule between school and work. You don't have money to visit Oaxaca? Show me your daily budget and in three months we'll figure out how to pay for the flight without you having to starve yourself or work two jobs. I'm passionate about using my unique background and experience to make my students' dreams realities this year. I've encountered people along my life path that have done that for me, and so I'm looking at this ETA experience as a chance to start paying it forward. LET'S GO!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Week 2: Chilling Out in Hot Waters

Today marks one week that I’ve been living in Aguascalientes, where I’m spending my Fulbright year as an English Teaching Assistant. I’ve met a ton of awesome hidrocálidos (the name for Aguascalientes natives, literally “Hot Water People”), explored most of the city by foot (I’m still too cheap for buses), and found a marvelous semi-permanent place to live (¡gracias a Dios!). This city is home to around a million Mexicans, but it definitely has a small town feel. After spending most of last year fighting for space on the São Paulo metro with 20 million other people, that’s a welcome change. Aguascalientes boasts a lot of gorgeous architecture, including impressive churches and sprawling plazas. I got lucky and found a private room connected to a grandma’s house right on the corner of Jardín de San Marcos, a tranquil garden in the middle of downtown. The kitchen is not much to look at, nor is my humble room, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a faster Internet connection here than at my house in Santa Rosa… and it’s not even stolen from the neighbors!

After arriving to Aguascalientes last Monday evening, my UAA (Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes) tutor took me out to dinner and delivered me to another teacher’s apartment, where I stayed a few nights as I looked for other housing options. On Tuesday I went to the university and met all the teachers in the Foreign Languages department, plus most of the students. I’ll be working with students who are studying to become English teachers, extension school students who are pure beginners, and everyone in between via English conversation clubs at the library. The best parts of the job, besides molding the minds of young scholars and eating tacos daily for lunch, you ask? I’m legally only permitted to work 14 hours per week, and my contract entitles me to three day weekends every single weekend. Oh baby.

Tuesday night I went out to a pizzeria with several of the other university teachers and watched the Rieleros de Aguascalientes pro baseball team play Game 6 of the Mexican championship series against the Rojos del Águila de Veracruz. Our team lost, but it was exciting to support them in their first championship appearance since 1978. The rest of the week I was free to spend my time getting to know the city, which I absolutely did. My favorite things about being back in Mexico largely relate to food: cheap pan dulce from panaderias on every corner, chili-covered lollipops, aguas frescas from street vendors (especially horchata and jamaica), TACOS, chaskafrutas (fresh fruit frozen yogurt covered with chocolate)… I also love hearing banda music everywhere, running into mariachi concerts in the middle of the mall food court, and the daily “¡El gaaaaaaasss!” cry from the dude who refills home gas tanks (haha people who have spent time in Mexico will recognize that call).

Thursday night I went to a Mexihco Babel meeting downtown, which is a biweekly encounter for polyglots. We met in a café and split into small groups to practice speaking whatever foreign language we’re learning. My group played Pictionary in English (ok, in Spanglish) while another group played Uno in French (or Un, I guess). On Friday night I was invited to a welcome party for the first-year English language students. Most of the university language teachers attended as well, and it was at the house of one of the students. I admit that culturally it seems kind of strange/dangerous to have students and teachers partying hard together, but that’s what happens here and who am I to judge? I had a blast meeting lots of my students and surprising everyone with my ability to dance banda (“No manches, I told you I was Mexican, didn’t I?”).

My weekend was very relaxing, in part due to heavy rainfall in the afternoons and evenings. On Saturday night an English assistant from outside London arrived at the house; she’ll be staying in one of the extra rooms until she can find a more permanent place. I’ve enjoyed hanging out with her a bit and introducing her to Mexican street food. This morning we went to the university early so I could start my first day of work on the right foot. I led a two-hour Q&A session with students in a Listening and Speaking class, and it went perfectly. It was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other, and I hope it got them a little more excited about the doors English will open for them down the road.

Tomorrow morning I’m playing and singing two songs in the university auditorium for a school-wide welcome event. Those are the only details I have at the moment, but you’ll hear more about how that goes in the next blog. I’ve been working on becoming a “Yes Man” when it comes to performing my music; agreeing to play at this mystery event was a direct result of that. Cross your fingers for me! Until next week, lovely readers. PEACE.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Week 1: Lesson in Faith

I’m officially back in the Blogosphere, and this time I plan to stay for a while. Allow me a quick introduction: My name’s Mateo and I just arrived to Mexico on a 2012-2013 Fulbright – García Robles scholarship. After an amazing week of orientation in Mexico City, I’m currently on a bus heading north to the capital city of Aguascalientes, where I’ll spend the duration of my grant as an English Teaching Assistant. Goals for this year include eating lots of tacos, playing lots of soccer, and getting lots of Mexicans pumped about learning English.

My flight from Oakland landed early in the morning last Monday, and I took the red Metrobus to our hotel in the historic center of Mexico City. It was a bit of a trip to be back in the DF (“Distrito Federal”) for the first time in six years, but my arrival didn’t have quite the psychological impact I expected. After all, this was the start of a new adventure, the turning of a fresh page, the first day of the rest of my life… all that jazz. Ironically, I had flown nearly five hours to land in a place that reminded me explicitly of home. From the bus I saw several painted advertisements for Lupillo Rivera’s upcoming concert (I saw him two weeks ago at the Ventura County Fair). On a corner near the hotel I ate some late-night street tacos (just like I did in Santa Rosa the night before I left for Mexico). The bellboy who showed me to my hotel room was from Tumbiscatillo, Michoacán (the same town as my friend Jesse, with whom I went to Lake Mendocino a few weeks ago).

One stark difference from home, however, came up heavily during the last day of our orientation. All of us Fulbright grantees attended a seminar on violence and safety hosted by a representative of the US Embassy in Mexico. State by state, he outlined everything we should try to avoid during the next nine months: kidnappings, identity theft, assaults, compromised ATM machines, certain buses and taxis, tap water… The list was very long. Despite his closing reassurances (“That said, Mexico’s great and I’m sure you’ll all be fine!”), we all walked away a little overwhelmed. How are we supposed to stay away from tampered ATMs when the criminals are so good that even technicians can’t see the rigging? When cartels create their own highway checkpoints to rob travelers, will taking a more expensive bus keep us safe or put us more at risk? How can we tell when the bottled water sold on street corners is just tap water bottled at a fraudulent plant? ß That actually happens!

The answer to those questions came unexpectedly, but I’ll get to that in a moment. When orientation finished on Friday, all of us English Teaching Assistants were left to fend for ourselves in Mexico City over the weekend before our host institution representatives picked us up Monday morning. Most stayed in a hostel in the city center, but a lucky few of us benefitted from having a family member who lives in the city. I stayed over the weekend with Tía Bella, one of my best friend’s aunts whom I’ve adopted as my own (in reality, I’m the one who has been adopted by Martín’s entire incredible family). Always an angel, she fattened me up over the weekend with delicious dishes, brought me on a canoe ride in Xochimilco, and refreshed my memory of the gorgeous Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The best part of our weekend together, though, was attending a sunrise service yesterday morning. 

I’ve been going to church my whole life, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been more directly influenced by a message than Sunday’s. After prayer requests and a bunch of uplifting worship songs (two of which were originally written by SonicFlood and Salvador, bands that I’ve seen perform live at my home church in Santa Rosa), the pastor stepped up to deliver his message. He started with one of my absolute favorite verses, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), then went on to tell a story from his first week as pastor of the church. The congregation had kindly offered him and his wife a place to live; unfortunately, it was behind Plaza Garibaldi in a rough neighborhood, on a street frightfully nicknamed La Calle de Los Muertos. The first time they walked outside their new house, two tough-looking guys stopped them and hassled them for money. His wife immediately began to cry; her nerves had gotten to her. The pastor kept calm and told the meaner one that he didn’t have any money. He offered, however, to pray for the would-be thief, beginning by saying that God loved him. At that, tears started running down the tough guy’s face. “Nobody has ever told me that before, that God loves me. Nobody.” The pastor assured him that God does indeed love him, and soon he and his wife were on their way. Suddenly someone grabbed him by the back of the neck. “Uh oh,” thought the pastor. “I think we’re getting robbed anyway.” He turned around as the second tough guy released the grip on his collar and stated, “You’re not going anywhere until you pray for me too.”

There was nothing special about the pastor that first time on the Street of the Dead. He wasn’t intimidating, the men weren’t beginning thieves, he and his wife didn’t simply get lucky. His put the situation in the Heavenly Father’s hands and walked by faith, in the knowledge that God is always in control. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). At that moment in the service, I had an epiphany. Why live in fear when God is by my side? We spend so much effort worrying about how to keep ourselves safe, ignoring the fact that all the precautions in the world pale in comparison to the security we find in Him. So often we as Christians run away from the very places that most need our light. How can a region plagued by fear and violence overcome the Devil’s grasp when many Christians are doing their utmost to keep a “safe” distance? Jesus walked among the broken- among the prostitutes and drunkards and beggars- yet I often find myself crossing the street to distance myself from these same people.

The pit I felt in my stomach after listening to the US Embassy representative rattle off all the dangers of my new home disappeared completely after Sunday morning’s message. That doesn’t mean that I’m throwing caution to the wind and looking for an apartment on the Street of the Dead, but it does mean that I’ll be doing my best to live in the knowledge that God can protect me better than I can protect myself. In the coming weeks and months, may we each learn to walk in the glorious peace that He alone can provide, and may we approach each situation not with fear but as an opportunity to share His light.

I am so blessed for the opportunity to spend this year in Mexico, and I can’t wait to see what awaits me. In the meantime, let’s get some tacos!