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Cuernavaca — Visiting the Frontlines of Globalization

What happens if you take a group of U.S. college students to study in Mexico for a week?

October 3, 2003

What happens if you take a group of U.S. college students to study in Mexico for a week?

Cuernavaca, Mexico has always been a crucible of globalization — even before the term entered into common parlance.

Cuernavaca is presently home to over 40 language schools. During a stroll about the Zócalo (central plaza), you will hear English as well as German, French and Italian — all from visitors who have come to the city ostensibly to work on their Spanish.

To accommodate all those visitors, opening one's home to foreigners has become, quite literally, a cottage industry. At the prevailing rate of $16 per person per day, a "host mother" — and they are disproportionately widows and single heads of household — can make ends meet rather comfortably.

Just two paying boarders can provide over seven times the minimum wage of 44 pesos — about U.S. $4.25 — per day.

In May 2003, I accompanied eight undergraduate students from Adrian College to Cuernavaca on an 18-day study trip. The students stayed in local homes and took classes at a small business college — the Universidad Cuauhnáhuac (UNIC).

For a number of years, my college had sent students to Cuernavaca on a semester-long program that was geared primarily toward Spanish-language majors. But this shorter program was inaugurated to offer students who otherwise might not participate in study abroad at least some exposure to Mexican life.

In short, the students get a taste — instead of a full meal. The "snacking" metaphor was revealed in the new program's name, "México en mayo" (Mexico in May) — with its inadvertent condiment pun — as well as its earlier working title: "Cuernavaca lite."

But can "lite" satisfy as much as a full meal? The goals for our brief program were ambitious: To provide students with the equivalent of a semester's worth of language study in two and a half weeks, to immerse students in Mexican domestic life and the elusive commodity known as "culture" and — most ambitiously of all — to better prepare our undergraduates to become global citizens.

Did the outcomes meet expectations? For the program participants, the homestay became the first point of contact in the globalization game, a microcosm of the now intimate, now uneasy presence of the global economy to be witnessed in Mexico.

To make it all work, we carefully screen prospective host families in order to ensure both a nurturing and "authentic" experience. I happily observed that the majority of our students bonded with their families. Still, the commercial undertones of the homestay experience are never far from the surface.

Each day at home, the students were forced to reflect on how much of Cuernavaca's centuries-long open-arms attitude towards foreigners was genuine — warm and fuzzy so to speak — and how much could be reduced to the allure of Gringo "dólares."

After all, located 90 minutes south of Mexico City, the "City of the Eternal Spring" has attracted out-of-towners for centuries.

Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma was ceremoniously carried to his summer quarters here. Then, upon conquering the Aztec city, Conquistador Hernán Cortés, constructed a palace on the city's Zócalo. This imposing stone fortress now houses the city's principal museum — and a famous Diego Rivera mural.

And in the 1860s, Cuernavaca became Emperor Maximilian's preferred place to "go native." Escaping from the pressures of managing his crumbling empire from the capital, the soon-to-be-executed Austrian prince spent his last two summers in Cuernavaca. He rode about the city in Mexican garb — and spent furtive nights with his indigenous mistress, "La India Bonita,” in her garden estate on the outskirts of the city.

In a sense, Maximilian shows us one of history's more notorious examples of a foreign-study program run amuck.

I could also observe how the students' grappling with globalization followed a specific trajectory. Perhaps due to the challenges of language and the overall foreignness of the setting, the early adjustment phase tended to be spent in seeking the comfort zones of the known — the McDonald's, the Domino's and Coca-Cola "Lite" ("Lite" has taken on lexical duties for "diet" in today's Mexican Spanish).

Yet, within a matter of days, these islands of Gringo familiarity were rejected almost as a matter of course. The more empathic of our students reacted against the most blatant aspects of Yankee cultural and economic imperialism.

We learned of the crass efforts of the soft-drink multinationals to elbow the local producers out of the public schools — and of Costco's construction of a mega-store on one of the downtown's remaining green spaces.

One student lamented on "how big a part the United States has played not only in the building of other countries — but in the tearing down of them." This attitude, I would suggest, is a self-conscious response to what could be termed "foreign privilege" — a phenomenon so prevalent in the developing world.

Another student was deeply upset when her new friend, a Mexican man of working-class appearance, refused to seek entry past the bouncers at the fashionable discotheque that had enthusiastically welcomed our group on a number of occasions.

Even when of brief duration, the power of foreign study lies precisely in the ability of students to see globalization in such personal terms.

No longer a classroom abstraction, globalization is encountered in the home and on the street — most markedly so in a city that survives largely through "study" tourism. In such a setting, the familiar becomes charged with new meaning.

Students saw that the newly constructed Wal-Mart on the sprawling outskirts of town was not merely a Wal-Mart. It symbolized the encroachment of U.S. culture — a threat to the "genuine" Mexico.

What the limited time frame of "Cuernavaca Lite" did not allow was for students to synthesize this "embrace-reject" dynamic to form a deeper appreciation of Mexico’s endless capacity for the cultural appropriation of foreign influences — its syncretism.

A nation whose mestizo origins have become the linchpin of its official history, evident in museums and monuments and public murals, Mexico has always been adept at absorbing globalization — and making it "genuinely" Mexican.

Note, for example, the Volkswagen "Old" Beetle, discontinued at the massive Puebla plant only in July 2003. To a 19-year-old American visitor, the ubiquitous "vochito" connotes neither Hitler nor hippies — but rather an icon of Mexicanness.

In the same vein, Woolworth's of Mexico — orphaned by its once-mighty U.S. parent — will appear in a few years to American college students as just another Mexican store with delicious pineapple "pai" — and a Gringo-sounding name.

I believe that the students' snack-sized encounter with globalization will remain a powerful presence even after their español skills fade away — at least for those among the group who do not continue active study and practice of the language.

"Cuernavaca Lite" will lead new students to better understand how the flapping butterfly wings of a trade agreement can alter the lives of real people in other countries — or at home. To be sure, a teacher directing such a trip has the responsibility of helping students to "see" the manifestations of globalization that might otherwise be overlooked.

Questions are asked: How will the opening of a Wal-Mart affect this community? How does Costco's retail model of paid memberships and jumbo portions exclude the hand-to-mouth consumer?

What social class predominates among the client