La Raza Class Makes Connections
November 21, 2004 7:25 PM
A group of eight students and one professor from SF State traveled to Mexico City last spring to learn about political and social movements in that country. The connection made between the American students and the Mexican people became more than simply an educational experience.
Professor Teresa Carrillo’s U.S.-Mexico Connection class, a course in the La Raza Studies program at SF State, had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City and put what they learned in the classroom to use. Mexico City is the second largest urban area in the world with a population of 18 million, according to a National Geographic survey in 2000. Comparatively, New York City comes in fourth with almost 17 million.
The students left San Francisco the day after graduation and spent 11 days in Mexico City and the nearby state of Morelos meeting with community-based organizations, political groups, independent and governmental agencies, and individual activists.
On Nov. 16, the group held the fifth annual "The Other Side of Mexico: Report Back From Mexico Solidarity Study Tour" meeting, showing pictures and sharing information about the trip. The U.S.-Mexico Connection class prepares students by conducting research on Mexican community-based organizations and contacting those organizations to arrange face-to-face meetings. The class is required to raise $2000 in donations to give to the organizations. Each student is also responsible for raising $900 to cover expenses for the trip, including airfare, transportation, housing, and meals.
During the meeting, students shared details about the trip and the impact it made on them individually.
"In the United States we often think of the Mexican people as being apathetic when it comes to social and political issues in that country," said Yvette Flores, a graduate student at SF State who traveled to Mexico.
"It’s just not true," said Flores. "They are active people with active voices who understand political and social issues in a very meaningful way." Flores also said the trip made her analyze what it means to be a Mexican American.
“They had hard questions for us too,” said Flores. “Like what are we doing in the United States to change things, and when are we going to get Bush out of here.”
Professor Carrillo had the idea of creating a class that focused on the many ways the United States and Mexico are connected after reading textbooks about Mexico, but experiencing something different when she traveled there.
“The opportunity to travel to Mexico and experience the culture brings the materials to life in the classroom,” she said. "There is such a rapid, intense history of Mexico, and the students are able to experience the contemporary rapid changes going on right now in that country."
Each student picks an organization that is involved in political or social change in Mexico. They are then required to write an in-depth paper about that organization, contact them, and raise money to take donations to them.
The students were taken to an underground special collection area to view Mexico’s historic international treaties, including the original Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
"We just felt really special to be seeing those historic documents, they're national treasures protected in thick glass cases," said Monica Garcia, a senior majoring in international relations. "The artistry and detail that went into the treaties is amazing."
Carlos Torres, an ethnic studies student interested in immigration law, researched the Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (FZLN) and got to meet with two of its organizers who talked about their accomplishments working with sex workers in Mexico City. The Zapatistas work hard educating the Mexican community about safe sex, health issues, and reforming the way the police in Mexico City respond to the sex workers. Torres described violent and scary incidents between the sex workers and the police to a crowd of almost 30 SF State students who came to the report back session. Torres said he was mostly surprised by the practical way the Zapatistas work with the community.
"In the media, especially in the United States, we see the Zapatistas wearing their masks and carrying guns, but in Mexico City they are approachable, peaceful, and very practical in the methods they use." Torres said they work closely with the community and try to diffuse information.
The students visited a primary school in the tiny village of Cuentepec in the State of Morelos where the children speak both Spanish and Nahuatl, a native and ancient Aztec language. The children and the SF State students were equally intrigued with each other, since many of the children had never heard the English language and the SF State students had never heard Nahuatl. The students said they were impressed by the way the small village keeps their Nahuatl culture alive despite massive out-migration, discrimination and poverty.
“This is where I think many of the students saw what our policies are doing to Mexican families,” Carrillo said. “Many of the kids haven’t seen their fathers for awhile because one or both parents are working in the United States.”
The students donated a brand new Apple computer to the school.
Comercio Justo, a fair trade establishment that sells coffee and guarantees fair prices to the producers and fair wages to the workers, met with the students and explained how their organization promotes a fair trade seal on products that are certified to comply with these stringent requirements.
The organization claims that about 17 percent of coffee in Denmark and other European countries comes from fair trade establishments, whereas less than one percent of coffee in the United States comes from fair trade establishments. Organizations like Comercio Justo are looking to recruit American students with business and technical skills to help develop potential fair trade markets.
“This meeting opened up new possibilities for students who want to work in business without selling their souls to capitalism,” said Carrillo. It also made many of the students think about commerce in general.
“We don’t usually think about where our money goes politically,” said Loren Micalizio, a graduate student working on a master's in cinema studies. Micalizio took the class to correspond with the research she is doing on the representation of the U.S.-Mexico border in cinema.
The students talked to organizers from the Frente Civico, who fought hard to keep a Costco out of a small community near Mexico City. There were ancient trees, which many community members considered ancestors, cleared to make room for the Costco. Although they did not succeed in keeping the American corporation out, they continue to fight other huge corporations from trying to build in these small communities.
“There are a lot of people standing up against the government,” Flores said about these activists. “They use some of the same methods, like tree sitting, but the police have guns aimed at them, and that’s deep,” she said.
The students were surprised by the Mexican people's incredible openness to talk, especially about politics, and their ability to separate the American people from the American government. They all agreed that by going to Mexico they were able to get a better view of the imperialistic power of the United States by gaining an awareness of what other people think about us.
“It was intense,” said Stacey Carrasco, a second-year graduate student in ethnic studies. “It served a lot of purposes.”
The students were able to learn, network, and now spread that knowledge to fellow classmates.
“Knowledge built upon knowledge pushes you into more growth,” said Carrillo. “Each individual will take the information and hopefully put it into action.”
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