Category Archives: Alex in Mexico

A Different Flavor of Normal

It has now been well over a month since my passage through Mexico and its rich cultures. With that time, I’ve been able to reflect, decompress and once again integrate myself into my home society of the University of Washington. The sense of a new year, new beginnings, it coincides well with the end of such a life changing month. Yet with all this reflective thought, claims of new roads to travel, and new frames of view to see the world through, I can’t stop asking myself the question which has proven most difficult to answer. What has really changed since Mexico? Am I a new different person, changed for better or worse? Have these self proclaimed prophecies of a changed life really taken root or even shown evidence of themselves in my daily life?

That’s why this final return post comes so late, nearly a month and a half after my return. I look back at my field journal and see all these bright hopes of bringing back all this learning and yet I feel I’ve made no effort towards any of these goals. It’s almost disturbing when I think about how fast I returned to my seemingly complacent self within the first couple days back. I’ve heard all these stories of “reverse culture shock” and feelings of loneliness in your knowledge but to me, it seems just like “normal” life.

So after exhausting observations of my physical actions through the world, I turned to focus more on my psyche. It was there that upon closer examination which I could notice the subtlest of changes. These new thought patterns lay deep, where Mexico has embedded itself in my most routine and closely held behaviors. It’s in how I make an active effort to use less water, taking shorter and less showers, trying to wash dishes faster. It’s in pausing for the smallest moments to consider my every action from the lens of an outside observer. The reason I’ve been having so much difficulty with seeing the change is because that change has been so ingrained as to seem natural.

So the way I see things now is this. I’m a busy college student. I can’t expect so much to change so fast. I’m not alone in this experience either. It’s a quest to be taken with classmates and others who dare to journey abroad. A month and a half ago, seeds were sown. These seeds today are only just beginning to take root but given time, they will grow into the most beautiful of orchards. Plans are being made. Work in migration, queer activism, abroad, all seem within the sphere of my future when before, not even a field of work was clear. Not all change is apparent even when given time. I’ll just have to trust my gut to tell me what the future holds, how to take action, and that this trip really has registered new thought. In the end, it really is just a slightly different flavor of the everyday normal.

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A Coming of Gender: the Birth of Motivation through Fear

How does one describe such a life changing experience. I’m sorry to bring out such an overused term when it comes to this subject arena but I have no other means to grasp the intensity nor the momentum of this past month. Everyone has a time in their life where they “come of age” so to speak. However, when you are a transgender youth, that changes into something more profound. I call this phenomenon a “coming of gender” to signify the shift in personality through my experience in La Ciudad de México. And I know I haven’t discussed this aspect of my identity much so I’ll give some context before I really get into the meat of my experience.

Over the past year, beginning in June 2017, I went through a process of coming out, predominantly to myself. In January, I finally got the confidence to reveal that process to my family after only being out to select friends. That same month I also began to shift how I dressed. Upon April 2nd, I began hormone replacement therapy to look more androgynous and I’ve been loving the results ever since. Going into this trip, I was a few months into my full blown transition which would be drastically affected by my time in Mexico. So to really begin this post, I’d like to share a video of my gratitude presentation to our teachers and mentors throughout the program.

So yeah, that was a lot. This whole program was a lot, far more than I can describe in a single post, but one can try! Themes of fear, maturity, changes in behavior, I’ve felt it all. When you spend nineteen years of your life perceiving your identity as a straight white man and shift to one of the most abused and mistreated groups of the queer community in a matter of only a few months, well, it’s a lot to take in. I suppose I’ll elaborate with one of the many experiences that inspired that poem.

Throughout this month, I’ve taken up the practice of field journaling to track my experiences. Upon a tranquil city night, I chose to walk out around eleven to write in a local plaza, just two blocks from our hostel. Back in Seattle, it was a common practice for me going on late night walks to parks and such, without issue. On this night however, things changed. I was approached by a man who found an attraction to me. He had a friend with him. I, wearing a dress and flower scarf unconsciously, chose to respond and strike a conversation not realizing intentions. Nothing horrid came, what did happen was he tried to hook up, I denied him, we both went our separate ways. Yet I walked away in fear realizing how things could have turned. Remember the poem? That line, “being called señorita in the dark streets,” was a marker of that night. I dressed masculine for the next couple days, quietly unhappy with how I was suppressing part of my identity.

Jean Tshirt

Isn’t it odd how when we are internally upset, we don’t allow ourselves to show it, especially in photos?

Never in Seattle has a stranger referred to me as a woman or even addressed me as a femme person yet in Mexico, this changed dramatically. With that has come “a new sense of fear.” My identity has melted, becoming fluid and ever changing in reaction to my environment. But I now realize, it’s not that reaction that necessarily defines me. As I put in in my final field journal entry last night, “Fear is a precautionary reality, not a part of identity.”

So I won’t let that fear deter my action, rather, I’ll flip it on its head. Fear is a motivation, a driving force for me to pull up its cause by the roots. But fear comes out of more than just gender and identity. We live in a turbulent world with many, many deep rooted issues. Being trans has spawned fear that will push me to revolt against sexism and patriarchy. The concept of the Anthropocene, climate change, and a generally grim looking future has gripped my conscious as if to yell “HEY! Do not lie idle in the face of disaster!” Most of all, my fear of overwhelming guilt, my life as a United States citizen, living luxuriously off of the marginalized work of foreign countries (cocoa for chocolate out of poor farmers from West Africa, the slew of products from factories all over east Asia from phones to shoes), it’s motivated me to spend my life working to pay back my gifts to society. So I will say to you just as I said to my mentors. I don’t know how or even what I’m going to do. I’m just a privileged white college student living the rich life in Seattle, what do I even matter to those farmers in Africa who likely help make my afternoon chocolate bar? The truth is, I don’t.

Battle Pic 2

What I do know is that with this privilege comes a power, a responsibility. I want to give back lest I succumb to guilt. Wait… No, guilt serves no purpose. It’s not a guilt, it’s a fear. Yet something seems almost wrong about this concept of giving back. What I’ve learned from our workshops on human rights is that you need to work horizontally with victims. To stand with them, not for them. The mere idea of giving implies this slight form of hierarchy where one has excess that they must pass down to others. No, I won’t give back. Rather, I will stand with those that suffer in the world and contribute to their recovery and well being.

Okay, let’s step back a second. Wow I sound pretentious! These are massive concepts and I am but one person saying I’m going to take it all on! This is why I don’t know where the future will take me. All I have is a direction. Out of all the human rights issues we discussed, there is but one I grew most passionate toward, migration. In my mind, I think of a future where the ocean has risen enough to sink only just a few cities, but enough to force many millions from their homes. So again, I’ll ask, what can I do? Learn. Continue my journey through academia with new clarity of intention. And through that learning, I will find my niche in society to help others. I will find that niche where I can balance self care for identity while paying my tribute to the wonderful yet ominous world we live in.

Journal pic

I leave you with my final journal entry before leaving back to the states. A sketch visualizing fear and gender together as one. Thank you for reading my entries thus far. They were as fun to write as the experiences they express.

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Lessons about Learning, Taught through Teaching

Being abroad is an opportunity to learn so much about the world we live in, and while I haven’t yet talked much about what I’ve learned with my program’s workshops and partners, I’d like to use this space to talk about how I’ve learned. What I’ve learned comes next post and ho’ mama, it’ll be a big one! My trip to Mexico City is through one of the University of Washington’s “faculty led” programs. My program director Anu and her staff Panch, Rafa, and Sasha have designed this trip with intentional placement of lecture locations and more importantly, a wide variety of experts in every topic. While some of Anu’s partners use standard lecturing, some have gone above and beyond with the most wild forms of pedagogy. Most of which involved me crying in the end.

Just this week with an expert on migration, Dani used what he called “the pedagogy of the oppressed.” It began simply, as most do, with us writing a couple things. It was two lists of five items each, the first being things most important to us, and the other being people and ideas in the same category. These were my lists to start:

Okay, still simple. At this point in the workshop, we were all still laughing and having a fun time getting to know Dani a bit more. Then came the imaginary scenario, which consisted of three stages. We all sat down and closed our eyes to listen to Dani speak a scenario of a calm night at home.

“You have your nighttime cup of tea, read a book maybe, all is calm. You go to look at the tv and drop in horror to realize that your city has just been bombed. The United States has been attacked and you need to leave. You grab what you can and leave your home. At this point cross off two items off either list. Hurry, you have no time to think, just do!”

He ran around the room ushering us to cross our items as quickly as possible making it hard to think. It was a bit of a shock, especially when I was feeling so immersed. I frantically glanced at my lists taking away internet and safety. Feeling a little startled but still okay, we continued to stage two.

“You begin walking in search of a new home, avoiding conflict and strife. After walking for many weeks, your feet sore, hungry, maybe not having showered in a while (I was thinking to myself how I kept water access in my lists so I was good, just imagining walking with my family). Finally, you arrive at the border to Mexico, thousands of people waiting to get through. Please all of you, make two lines side by side facing forward.”

The ten of us students did as he asked, unsure of what was to follow. Dani then got up to stand in front of us all. He said something in Spanish at this point (I don’t know Spanish) but I could tell he was acting as a customs officer. “Papeles! Papeles!” The officer gestured to our lists in hand, which I guess acted as entrance forms. He began working his way down the line, looking at each list. I was near the back. “Yoooouuuuu… (*looks at papers*), you can go in. Welcome to Mexico! And you, hmmm, family huh? You can’t go in, turn back to the city being bombed behind you, you’re dead.” Us in the back were shocked at what we saw, some breaking out in emotion as they found their supposed fate. He claimed one could go in if they did him a “favor” with a disgusting grin and look in his eyes. “I’ll let you think about the decision and come back.” Finally, he came to me. I was terrified. He takes my papers by force, looking at both lists. “You can come in, but only if you have to cross out everything on these lists, only you get in.” My heart skipped a beat. It was on the next beat when a quiet “no” found its way out. “Are you sure? You will die in that city being bombed behind you.” Still unable to think, a more muffled and nervous “no” tumbled across my tongue. “Alright, turn around. You’re dead.” After a few seconds of shell shock I thought to myself, I couldn’t leave my family, my friends, everything that made me feel like me and then some. I couldn’t leave it behind. I’d rather have died than lost it all for a chance to continue. It was at that point I realized, I likely would have committed suicide if I had gone through. Having gotten through depression earlier this year, I knew it would resurface far worse. Either way I would have died…

I was a ghost in a shell for the rest of that presentation. A third stage had a happier ending about rebuilding a future for those who got through but I was too distraught to fully participate. Dani took us through just an inkling of the emotion and struggle that comes with migration. I was in tears for over an hour, far after the exercise was over and well into the lecture section. This was some of the most powerful learning I’ve had on this trip.

Another workshop was on gender and violence. After a lecture about the horror of Mexico’s feminicides, we were all asked to split into two groups, “men” and “women.” There were more women than men so we improvised. Each group had six people (some staff joined in) and were given simple rules for the exercise. The “women” could not talk. They had to sit down and try to swap seats with each other in the circle of chairs. They had to use eyes to communicate. I was placed in the “men” group. We had to prevent the “women” from standing up by any means necessary. That was our only rule. You could tell by the discomfort expressed by all of our faces that no one wanted to grab them by the shoulders to hold them down. Instead, we rushed to block them by crowding the middle of the circle but they could still swap side by side. So we started blocking their vision. I took my raincoat and held it in front of my colleague Maana. After a minute, she began to look frustrated and upset, not being able to yell at me either. Every passing second built my guilt up higher and higher, pillar by pillar into a mental Burj Khalifa. The exercise ended, “men” being victorious with their obvious advantage in the rules. The prize was nothing.

It was time for a debrief and our instructor, Marcela asked a very simple question. “Why didn’t you work together?” Then it hit me, there were so many possible workarounds. “Crouching isn’t standing!” I thought. We weren’t inherently against each other or anything like that. I was wrong, there was a prize. The Burj Khalifa of Guilt becoming a tower so tall that it pierced the stratosphere, a sight to surely see. After the debrief, I walked out and just sat alone. It was so easy to just stop the “women” with our advantage that we didn’t think to help them. We just wanted to win so to speak. The metaphor to society was clear yet also the most foul, disgusting thought you could come to. Far more powerful than just saying that society has a patriarchy.

There’s one more practice in pedagogy I’d like to share. Don’t worry, I realize this is long but this one is far simpler than either of the previous. We spent a day shopping! We left at ten to visit La Mercede, the largest public market in the city spanning many warehouses full of small stands. They sold everything from fruit to anti-witchcraft soap. It was crowded, smelly, unsanitary in some places like the warehouse full of animal cages filled with pigeons, chickens, puppies and chickens. You could smell the animal rights abuse. We rushed from section to section to section following our group leader, Rafa. The ground was cracked in some places causing me to trip several times. The day had no lecture, just observing our surroundings.

After a few hours at La Merced, we left to for a second unannounced market located in Polanco. Polanco is one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico, containing the most expensive strip in all Latin America. After a short walk, we arrived at El Palacio de Hierro, a single store designed to look like a mall holding stalls for each and every high end brand like Louis Vuitton and Coach. It was built with the intention of being the very best for the very highest class. Upon going inside, I could feel the inequality as a pit in my gut. It was like walking inside a diamond with how fancy it was set up. What was worse was the whole area felt like home in Seattle. I found myself split between wanting to buy things and protesting the blatant waste and classism. They had a TV in the ceiling acting as a sky or stained glass window depending on the time! Shame? Guilt? No, it was pure disgust that I felt in the end. I couldn’t stand being in the area any longer. I was glad to leave and never return.

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Each of these methods in teaching have something in common, feeling. So often in the classroom we have facts and theories spat at us from a distance. How often does a teacher let us learn through experience or emotion? It may be more difficult but the power of these more personal pedagogies is easily worth the trouble. These lessons may be the most painful to experience, but they are easily my favorite moments in my time abroad thus far.

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A Politics of Whether

In my last post, I left off with concern over the sponge-like capacity of my mind in the wake of multiple 2+ hour lectures and workshops everyday. While the knowledge is fascinating, covering topics ranging from issues of the LGBTQ+ community in the election to local human rights organizations, it’s mentally exhausting. It’s the kind of depletion that requires more than sleep to recover. You need activities that feel refreshing to the soul.

church

This was the church mentioned in the next paragraph. Its slanted due to over extraction of water from the aquifer below the city, causing it to sink unevenly in certain areas.

It was with that thought that I left my hostel with Morgan (a roommate) to do some field journaling at a local park. Sitting on a bench, admiring the slanted church, the sky beginning to grey. Whether it was a storm or just the setting sun, I had yet to find out. Thunder cackled, laughing at me from a distance as if to signal impending doom. Then it began, a downpour so violent that it rivaled the typhoon summoned by Jumanji. Yet I felt no sadness, anger, quite the opposite, immense joy. Morgan seemed to share my sentiment despite not bringing their umbrella. All around us, people ran like godzilla was in the streets yet we stood there, faces tilted up, watching the gods fling bolts at each other in the recently crowned night. We must have stayed there for ten plus minutes in the torrent of water just observing.

alex and morgan

It was home. Back in Seattle, it had been months since it had rained due to an unusually hot summer. Everything from the feel of heavy drops hitting the skin to the sound of cars racing through a deep puddle, it felt home. A clarity of thought came from that night, trying to piece the first week together. I’ve been rethinking a lot of my future and how to find a place in it. Things like lessons on gender violence, trips through the Museum of Memory and Tolerance*, or even just those late night conversations with fellow students. It’s destabilizing, decentralizing my vision for a future. A continuation of a thought process beginning Fall 2017. Back then, I was sure that I would be a physicist, working in labs, publishing research and teaching classes. Now I wonder, does the world need another physicist? Where do I fit in to this jigsaw puzzle that geologists are debating to call the Anthropocene?

It seems to me to be a question of whether. Whether or not I should stick to the path I originally sought. I wonder every night now whether or not I should be afraid of this future with climate change, ocean rises, mass migrations, economic destabilization, you name it. I feel like a child lost without their family, the sinking feeling in the gut where fear hides. Yet in all this fear and anxiety, at least I have the sweet smell of rain, roaring booms of thunder, the rugged weather feel of the Pacific Northwest to soothe my nerves.

puget sound

View of the Puget Sound at sunrise from the ferry.

 

*The Museum of Memory and Tolerance is a museum dedicated to genocide, its causes, and ways to prevent it. I spent almost two hours learning about how much we kill each other and how we do little in the way of stopping it.

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Initial Thoughts from Distrito Federal

The passage from home to foreign land is more than just a change of geography, it’s a change of mode. It’s a shift from the relaxing yet somewhat dull confines of a lonely summer break to the exciting yet slightly frightening experience of foreign study. Hi, my name is Alex and today marks my sixth day in Ciudad de Mexico. I’m a genderqueer identifying, Interdisciplinary Honors student at the University of Washington and during this trip I will be studying queer communities, public health and migration throughout our southern neighbor.

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Me at the National Autonomous University of Mexico standing in front of the Central Library

Coming into my program, I had one expectation, to learn. I wanted a blank slate and knew that too many expectations sets one up for disappointment. Surely enough, by day one, I knew I would not be let down. The culture here is so peculiar to someone who is so accustomed to the Seattle freeze*. The people are immensely more social in ways that can be interpreted as both good and bad. It’s the small things I notice most. People walking tight corridors, pushing past each other rather than waiting, street vendors both in the form of stands and standing salesman walking person to person requesting purchase. In the taxi from the airport, I noticed an interesting phenomenon I dubbed reverse window shopping. At a red light, vendors carrying boxes of goods would walk window to window between cars for potential customers. I should also note that it was barely 7:00 AM! Greetings are much more active with all the face kissing, hugging and ‘buenos dias’es you could hope for. Meal times shift from 8:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm for breakfast through dinner respectively to 8:00 am (no problem) 3:00 pm (okay a little late now) and 10:00 pm (I’m starving).

Yet almost none of this registered as a cultural shock as it was defined in all my orientations and pre departure meetings. Besides the meal times, I enjoy many of these changes. I’m already thinking about how I can bring back the lessons I’ve learned in activism and population health. One of the most impactful projects I learned about were the Las Patronas. This was a group who lived near a train network often used by migrants known as ‘The Beast.’ When these railway adjacent residents found migrants who hadn’t eaten in four days, they jumped at the opportunity to provide them sustenance. Since then, they’ve formed a group that constantly makes food for the passing travellers.

What astounds me with these people’s work is their dedication to charity without return. In the United States, we always have such a focus on some return as if charity is an investment. The return comes in many forms, both physical and psychological. It can be a T-shirt, keychain, virtual adoption of an animal, etc.  It can even be as simple as getting an update letter on how your money was used. Yet these people would give up large portions of their wealth and time to feed these people for the simple reason of it being the right thing to do. They never found out if these migrants made it to their destination or what they thought of the food’s quality. Yet Las Patronas will go as far as to say they’ll be doing this work the rest of their lives.

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My class discussing reflection exercises at Casa de Los Amigos, the hostel we are staying in

It’s so inspiring as to make me wonder about the nature of the exchange in our country, the hyper emphasis on “the art of the deal,” so to speak. How selfish must we be to expect a return on charity? It has left me wondering…

How do I integrate these practices in my own life?

How can I bring these lessons back home?

How much more knowledge can I absorb during this month when this is just a small inkling of my many experiences over the past five days?

More to come in further writings.

 

*Seattle Freeze is a term used to describe the antisocial and often introverted nature of many residents in the city.

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