Thursday, February 26, 2009

Week 4: Progress or Conquest? : The Importance of Perception

This week we’ve mostly just focused on Spanish classes, but the few speakers and events we have had have been very thought-provoking. On Wednesday Betty Ramos returned to speak to us about more concepts from her book The Geo-Context. One of the key concepts she discusses in her book is how people from one culture perceive people of the other culture. The example she gave for our discussion was that Mexicans generally place more value on praise or support, while those from the U.S. often place more value on criticism. Due to this difference in values, if people from the U.S. offer constructive criticism to people from Mexico, Mexicans may find them rude and may disregard their advice[1]. On the other hand, if a Mexican were to offer undeserved praise to a person from the U.S., he or she may think that that person is lying and won’t take them seriously[2]. Therefore perception plays an important role in the interaction between Mexico and the U.S., and between any other divergent cultures.
Betty Ramos Talking to the Class about Cultural Differences

The differences in perception were emphasized further on Sunday with a trip to a largely indigenous village in the municipality of Tepotzlan in Morelos. There we spoke with Benjamin[3], who serves as the secretary of commerce for the village and also works with members of other indigenous communities. Benjamin told us much of the history of the village, most of which is considered a story of conquest. This history began with the Aztecs, who brought the god of war, followed by the Spanish who brought disease and greed, and continues with U.S. corporations under the guise of NAFTA[4]. Benjamin emphasized that though NAFTA is purported to be beneficial for everyone, he said Mexican farmers can’t compete with the U.S. “when we…don’t have access to education, a working health system and dignified housing and when some women and children only eat tortillas with salt.”[5] Benjamin said that the people of the village have written to the state to ask for loans to buy a tractor, but the state insists on helping in other ways. For instance, the government wanted to start a fish farm in the village, a village that is largely without water for five months of the year. When the people in the village and other similar communities point out the impracticality of these projects, the government officials or businessmen claim they don’t want to develop.[6] Where one group envisions development and progress, the other suffers the familiarity of imposition and conquest.

Walking to the base of a mountain as part of our introduction to the village and its cultural and spiritual history
It is hard to know how our presence in Cuernavaca and Mexico in general has been perceived. In some cases we are welcomed with open arms and tables laden with food. At other times we are told through words or actions that our presence is undesirable. We hope that our presence will be perceived as beneficial for all, rather than a repetition of the systemic inequality within Mexico.
Ending of an ancient Nahuat ceremony
by hugging each person around the circle

By Meg Hennessy

[1] Betty Ramos, experienced cultural intermediary and author of The Geo-Context; presentation on February 18, 2009 in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Name was changed at speaker’s request.
[4] Benjamin, secretary of commerce for indigenous village, member of Nahuat people and defender of indigenous rights; conversation on February 22, 2009 in Morelos, Mexico.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

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