The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!
My summer began in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the southeastern-most state of Mexico. The intention of my trip was to learn more about the women of the Zapatista movement and how this movement has changed over the last twenty years. Although the actual research that I had planned did not go quite as smoothly as I had hoped, I learned more than I possibly could have imagined just by being exposed to the many cultures, languages, and incredible people that exist in Chiapas.
I was staying in a seminary whose primary goal is to provide resources and opportunities to various Indigenous communities in the surrounding area. Everyone that worked at the seminary was Indigenous and although they did not consider themselves Zapatistas, they had very interesting perspectives on the movement. As I befriended those who worked in the seminary, they began to open my eyes to the many other movements and efforts of Indigenous people in this region to fight for justice within their communities completely separate from the work of the Zapatistas. This incredible group of people that I was able to live with, helped me understand Indigenous life in ways that books never could. I had done a fair amount of research on Zapatistas previous to my trip, I had read many books that discuss life and culture in Chiapas and yet none of them could in any way compare to being able to experience these cultures that are so incredibly different from my own. The many books that I read did not expose me to the music, food, and clothing that make these communities so unique. They did not properly allow me to understand the extreme pride that people have for their Indigenous heritage and tremendous influence that they have on the more mainstream Mexican culture of the region. I in no way claim to be an expert on the Mayan communities of Chiapas, but even this limited amount of exposure helped normalize Indigenous life for me and allowed me to see just how complex the issues at play are. This trip helped me realize how often Indigenous cultures are romanticized and simplified. I was forced to recognize how even I, who have tried to be so intentional about being respectful and knowledgeable about cultures different than my own, am guilty of making unfair assumptions about Indigenous life. It was really valuable to me to hear them talk about the United States and the “backwards and complicated” ways that American culture values technology and science and comfort in ways that take away from life. My American perspective has caused me to assume that Indigenous communities are simple, that they have less technology and live old fashioned lives, because they cannot afford access to the technology and modern amenities that are so important in my life. And yet I was forced to come to the understanding that, although sometimes it is a lack of access, often it is simply a different set of values that cause some of these cultures to put more of an emphasis on actual human interaction, on living closer to nature, to causing less destruction to the earth.
The second part of the summer I did an internship in Mexico City. The first few days in Mexico City were difficult for me because of the extreme differences that exist between the parts of Mexican culture that I was experiencing in Chiapas versus what I saw in the capital. The extreme Indigenous pride and presence that surrounded me in Chiapas was almost completely absent in the city. The university that I was working with was a very expensive private school whose student body consisted of mostly wealthy and privileged students. I was staying with host families so I saw the extreme wealth that they were living in. It also became clear the patterns of oppression that are so similar to those from the United States. In Mexico City, those that were students at the university and those that they associated themselves with, were all of a much lighter skin and hair color than those who rode the metro with me or served me food. It was very clear who was of Spanish decent and who was of Indigenous decent purely based on their role in society. Their skin color almost directly correlated with how much wealth they seemed to have. This is a correlation that I am very aware of in the United States but was not expecting to see in Mexico. It was also surprising to see the lack of knowledge that Mexicans in the city had about Indigenous groups in Chiapas. When I would talk about my research, most of them had little to no idea what the Zapatista movement was or what it was about.
Most strikingly throughout the summer, I was surprised to find how often my American perceptions of Mexico were proved wrong. I have always known that Americans don’t represent Mexico fairly (as is true with our representation of most cultures), but it was shocking to see just how wrong I was about Mexico. My knowledge of almost everything from the food, to the climate, to the politics was completely off. Very consistently throughout the summer I was surprised at how different Mexico was from what I had imagined and yet I still fell absolutely and completely in love with the real Mexico. I had a life changing experience that caused me to rethink the main premise of my thesis and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be Mexican. However I also gained a better understanding of what it means to be American. It was difficult to walk around as an American in Mexico with the current political climate as it is, however it was a very valuable tool that allowed me to see American politics through an international lens, a lens that I will never be able to shed.
Olivia Jackson-Jordan is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Global Studies and Political Science. She grew up in Huntersville, NC with her parents, David and Beth, and her two older siblings Christopher and Catherine. She is currently working on her Senior Honors Thesis for the Global Studies department at UNC about the Zapatistas and their impact on the Indigenous rights movement in Mexico. Olivia’s time in Mexico was partially funded by a grant from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz’s Williamson Peace Action Fund, and we also provided the connections that made it possible for her to spend time at the seminary.