A decade ago, I had absolutely zero desire to vacation in Mexico. Other than a brief visit to Germany in the 1980’s, and a few visits to Canada, I had never been out of the United States. Why go elsewhere when there’s so much of this country to see? Besides, living in Chicago, I had access to every conceivable ethnic cuisine and exposure to people of all races and nationalities. Why look any further?.
I never really thought of myself as being xenophobic. It wasn’t that I felt “fearful of foreign lands and cultures”, and I was certainly never driven by hatred. I just didn’t want to spend my vacation seeing (or carefully trying to avoid seeing) people living in “poverty.” But to be honest, I never spent much of my non-vacation time here in the U.S. seeking out people living in poverty either.
Looking back on my actions now, I suppose there was no other way to define my behavior than to call it xenophobia. That term seems to only be thought of to define the most egregious behavior – hate groups, radical racists, and the like. Behavior that merely ignores others because of being too preoccupied with one’s own people and environment? Well that seems to be just fine and dandy here in America. It couldn’t possibly ever be considered the least bit xenophobic….could it?
It wasn’t until I traveled to Mexico this past winter that I fully realized how misfortunate I’d been to isolate myself in that way for so long. But the first few days and weeks in Mexico didn’t immediately lead me to that revelation.
The US media painted a pretty powerful picture of the drug wars in Mexico over the past few years. So powerful, that many of the frequent snowbird travelers to Mexico chose to avoid the country for the last couple of years.
When I first crossed the border into Mexico and began seeing the stark contrast in living conditions between the US and Mexican border towns, my mind immediately began to conjure up images of those who might occupy those simple homes.
I’m sad to admit that my first thought conjured up an image something like this one (this photo is of Mexican gang members in Nashville):
(Photo by John Partipilo / The Tennessean)
But, as my days in Mexico went on and I began to meet and interact with the Mexican people on a daily basis, my perceptions quickly began to change.
Road signs, restaurant menus, gas stations, bank ATMs, and corner grocery stores all gradually became more familiar (and thus less “foreign”). Modest, simply concrete block homes on the Isla started feeling normal (as the more ostentatious homes of the U.S. began feeling uncomfortably abnormal!).
Now, to be honest, I still was living a pretty “gringo” life in Mexico, cocooned in the uniformity and relative opulence of my motorhome in a foreign tourists’ RV park. But there was sufficient daily interaction and immersion into local Mexican life, that I was able to be transformed by it at a comfortable pace in a very welcoming and positive way.
My memories now (of those who I encountered in Mexico) could not be further from the photo above! In over 90% of my experiences, the people I met were consistently polite, courteous, friendly, hard-working, and (without fail) genuinely welcoming. Completely impossible to maintain any preconceived fears after 3 months in such a beautiful country!
Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’ve discovered something when driving through some of the Hispanic-dominated (and less economically affluent) neighborhoods—I’m no longer as eager to avoid them! And that makes me feel very pleased to have broadened my internal horizons as much as the geographic ones.
If you’ve followed the blog for the past few months, I hope my images and stories have, in some small way, expanded your horizons and sparked your curiosity and enthusiasm to grow as well! If you’ve not traveled beyond the U.S. border lately (or have not lately visited a neighborhood within the US where English is a second language), give it a try!
Your life may just be forever changed and enriched by the experience!