Queen's University

Mexican love affair

Family and friends wondered aloud about her decision to settle in Mexico, but this young grad is happy that she did so. It’s a move for which her Queen’s education prepared her well.

Mexico is a scary place. My younger brother insinuated as much a few years ago when he questioned the safety of bringing my nieces to visit me. In Canada, it seems that whenever Mexico is mentioned in the news, it’s to list off the number of dead in the cartel wars or to mention some incident of corruption within the government.

Speaking frankly, people’s concerns regarding Mexico’s safety are understandable. I’d be lying if I told you that corruption and drug-related violence don’t exist here. They do. Many police officers prefer to accept a “mordida” – a bribe – rather than issue a ticket. National elections are always rife with accusations of vote tampering. Since 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón ­began a military assault on criminal cartels, more than 60,000 ­people have been killed in drug-related violence (a statistic that my father brought to my attention).

Caroline LeBlanc in Mexico

However, while a certain level of apprehension is justified, Mexico is just too beautiful a place to pass up. The country I’ve called home for seven years is far more complex, far richer, than what a few negative headlines would have you believe. Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge Mexico solely by what you see on the 10 o’clock news.

As sad and real as it is, drug-related crime in Mexico is predominantly a border issue. The violence occurring in Ciudad Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from the U.S., has little to no effect on the personal safety of people living in central Mexico. It would be like saying that a forest fire in Alberta has a direct ­impact on the safety of people living in New Brunswick. With few exceptions, the rest of Mexico remains largely unaffected.

Queretaro, the city in which I live, is about 200 km northwest of Mexico City. It has remained a neutral zone with regard to the drug wars. Rumour has it that this is due to a strictly-enforced truce between the drug cartels or “familias,” who have established Queretaro as their home.

There are other risk factors, of course. Everyone I know has a personal anecdote about being robbed in Mexico City or being on the target of a kidnapping or extortion plot. What sets ­Mexicans apart is how they respond to such events. And while they ­acknowledge that their country faces certain challenges, they ­refuse to let those challenges dictate how they live their lives.

The truth is that bad things can happen anywhere. You might get “taken for a ride” by a taxi driver in Mexico City, just as you might become the living target of a mass shooter in rural Connecticut, of a bomber in Boston, or of a stray bullet fired by a gang member in Toronto. Mexicans ­understand this.

I challenge anyone to come to Mexico and not be absolutely transfixed, as I am, by its charm and warmth. Mexican culture is a feast for the senses. Celebrations such as the Day of the Dead, regional costumes, and the artwork of Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are visual explosions of colours and textures. Looking at the panorama of houses in Guanajuato is like looking at a box of Crayola crayons. Walking through the streets, you’re ­often serenaded by mariachi music spilling out the open doors of crowded cantinas. The Spanish language itself sounds like a love song, melodic and romantic, as it rolls off the tongue. And do Mexicans know how to cook!

A smoky tortilla soup, enchiladas, chilaquiles, the original hot chocolate, tamales Oaxaqueños … Mexican cuisine is a mix of the sweet and the savoury, of the subtle and the (often very) spicy. As for smells, the nose delights in the fragrance of blossoming gardenias in the trees that line the streets, in the pungent, earthy smell following a much-needed and very welcome rain storm, in the aroma of fresh tortillas being sold in a market stall.

Queretaro, like many Mexican cities, is a study in contrasts, a seamless blending of the historical, and the modern. Delicately ­intertwined with Mexico’s rich cultural heritage is what could be defined as its economic revolution. While the rest of North America continues to experience the repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis, Mexican industry is growing by leaps and bounds. In Queretaro alone, multinational corporations such as Kellogg’s, Daewoo, GE, Samsung, and Bombardier, have set up shop, with more companies arriving every day.

And Mexicans are industrious, hard-working people. The long-standing stereotype of the Mexican worker, his sombrero shielding his eyes from the blistering sun while he takes a lengthy siesta after lunch, is a thing of the distant past. Many of my Mexican friends easily work 10- to 12-hour days, plus weekends. Which isn’t to say that they are all work and no play.

Caroline with two "statuesque" Mexican amigosCaroline with two "statuesque" Mexican amigos

Mexicans live passionately and know how to have fun. Whether it’s cheering on their local soccer club while throwing beer and yelling profanities, or spending 12 hours seated at a carne asada – a Mexican BBQ – drinking tequila and eating cuts of grilled meats with their closest friends, Mexicans know how to live life the way it should be lived.

Part of this Mexican philosophy is a deep-seated sense of ­family. In Mexico, reverence to your family is more than a social custom, it’s an obligation. Even in modern Mexico, many Mexicans continue to live with their families until they get married. Sundays are sacred days, when families go to church and spend the day together. As someone who considers herself part of a closely knit family, I continue to be impressed by the importance placed on family in Mexican culture.

I think the family bond that’s prevalent in Mexican society has helped shape how Mexicans treat one another; you’d be hard-pressed to find a kinder people. The greeting kiss, saying hi to strangers on the street, saying bless you when you sneeze … ­Mexico is a place where simple courtesies have never gone out of style. Once, while visiting a small pueblo near Morelia, Michoacán, my friends and I stumbled upon a Quinceañera – the Mexican equivalent of a “Sweet 16” party. Not only were we invited to join the festivities, we were given food and a bottle of tequila to share.

Since arriving in Mexico, I’ve worked at the John F. Kennedy American School of Queretaro, an international school whose mission is to impart the knowledge, skill sets, and values needed for a future in an increasingly globalized world. This innovative ­approach to teaching mirrors the experience I had at Queen’s.

My four years at Queen’s laid the foundation for the life I’ve chosen to lead. At Queen’s, students are taught to look beyond the surface of things. We learn to look at life from new perspectives, and to broaden our horizons by exploring that which we don’t yet know or understand.

Caroline with some of her young chargesCaroline with some of her young charges on the last day of school in the spring of 2013.

Ultimately, that’s what visiting Mexico entails. It’s about putting aside preconceived ideas and arriving with an open mind and the willingness to learn and grow from our experiences.

So yes, there are risks involved when one comes to Mexico. ­Living and traveling here is largely about using common-sense precautions. It’s about being safe and making good choices. But traveling to Mexico, like many things in this life, is worth the risk. Seven years ago I took that risk, and I’m infinitely glad I did. ­Mexico has since become my home. As they say here in Mexico, “Mi casa es tu casa” – “My house is your house.”




Queen's Alumni Review, 2013 Issue #4Queen's Alumni Review
2013 Issue #4
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