Until June 1 of this year, I had never left the United States. I’d spent my whole life living in upstate New York, and I’d been across the Mississippi River once and only as far west as Minnesota. This made me upset. I felt that I hadn’t ever seen a place that really interested me, that I was inexperienced. Furthermore, as someone who studies international development, I had spent the last two years of college learning things that made me almost embarrassed to be an American. Like that it was the United States who began all the jargon and politics of “development” with its policies following World War II, that we had designed the goals to which we said other countries should aspire as well as the process by which they should achieve them. I had begun to feel that it would be wrong of me to know only life in the US any longer.
I didn’t want to remain effectively ignorant of my country’s effect on the rest of the world. And then there were the other reasons that we all travel for. We all want to put ourselves out of our comfort zone, to continue evolving our points of view. Without doing so, we will never really grow. We all like to learn, to see and do new things, and to experience places and cultures that are not our own. When I learned about the CornellUniversity department of International Agriculture and Rural Development’s study tour-internship program in Chiapas, Mexico, oh did I jump at the chance!
I believe I can speak for my peers in saying that we all felt that the study tour of Chiapas was one of the most unique opportunities we had ever had. It packed an immense variety of visits into just two weeks, and I learned more in those two weeks that I perhaps ever had before. In both volume and complexity, it impressed greatly; we visited everyone from maize farmers to indigenous theatre groups, human rights activists to coffee and honey producers, government officials to artisanal craftspeople, and more. Every day was a journey through something new.
Where to begin reflecting is hard to decide. The degree of difference everywhere was staggering at times; some of it has been difficult to express in words. I think, however, that out of all that we learned during the tour and all that I learned while working there for the rest of the summer, three lessons have stood out among the rest: the importance and impact of history, the importance of critical thinking and innovation, and last but not least, the significance of the tremendous opportunity of education.
Let’s start with history. What first comes to mind when thinking about the historical context of Central America is probably the story of the European conquest of the region in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Without it, Christianity would not be the predominant religion in the region, the people would not speak Spanish, and civilization on the whole would surely present itself very differently. Still, reminders of the way things were are everywhere, from the array of Aztec and Maya ruins sites to the eight indigenous languages that are still spoken in Chiapas, to the very way that society organizes itself—around small communities that share a common ethnic background, manner of dress, customs and traditions, and often a language other than Spanish. But what’s most important, and perhaps even most obvious, is that the European conquest of Latin America was the beginning of centuries of suppression and injustice for an entire race of people. They massacred and enslaved populations. They incited warfare between tribes. They conquered and flattened cities and forced assimilation into the Spanish Empire and conversion to Catholicism. They began the systematic extraction of biological and natural resources from the region for importation and use in Europe. Not to mention the fact that they brought along destructive disease that on its own killed hundreds of thousands. Obviously, Mexico is no longer a Spanish colony. However, there is a lot of evidence among the indigenous communities of Chiapas that suggests the story has not changed much. The people that identify as indigenous in Chiapas usually live in small, dispersed, agricultural communities, where they scarcely, if at all, make an income. They often live in houses made of adobe or cinderblock with corrugated metal roofs and dirt floors. Many suffer serious under nutrition, which manifests itself in growth stunting that is most visible in children—it’s not uncommon to meet an eight-year-old who doesn’t look more than five. Meanwhile, the gravity of their situation persists within one of the most biologically diverse and productive areas of the world. Mexico’s federal government, almost entirely in the hands of white people, has historically done little to help its poorest state. It took the violent uprising of the Zapatista Rebellion in 1994 to even get Chiapas’ indigenous peoples on the popular political conscience. Still, the influence of history goes further than the colonial history of the region. Oppression of women, for instance, has been such a pervasive trend within indigenous communities that, for many indigenous women, the role of being a victim is now an internalized aspect of personality. A history of corruption in politics has led to a seemingly endless cycle of hypocrisy and deceit among elected officials. Mexico’s free trade policies, land policy reforms, and other efforts to achieve USA-like economic superpower status have led to a growing number of social and environmental conflicts, all of which appear more strongly in Chiapas than in any other state. The human migration to the United States from all parts of Mexico and Latin America, which has ravaged so many communities, appears to be the result of these policies.
This brings me to my next point: the importance of critical thinking and innovation. If anything, the biggest lesson that this history can teach us is that there is no one way of “developing” a country, that there is no one idea of progress. The whole reason why we travel, perhaps, is for this to be visible to us. But beyond exposing the problems that exist, traveling in a place like Chiapas ought to teach us to look at areas of failure as a welcome opportunity for success. This is hard to do, of course; history also shows us that people who put forth outside-the-box ideas are usually denigrated for their willingness upset what is normal, even if the normal isn’t working. It is necessary in places like Chiapas to free oneself from this grasp of convention and adopt innovative new strategies to achieve what the people themselves think constitutes progress, and eliminate any aspirations to a set of standard goals whose design came from elsewhere in the world.
With this mindset, the current story of Chiapas actually appears quite hopeful. For example, I worked for the remainder of the summer after the tour with an organization that is investigating new approaches to water purification and diet diversification in the highlands of Chiapas through technological advancements and certain production strategies. Furthermore, they are encouraging producers to organize as cooperatives, as well as to implement certain cultivation techniques prevent soil erosion, and eliminate the need to expand agriculture and destroy more of the already decimated forest. In doing so, I got to live a dream of mine, having my mind blown on a regular basis. I would not have ended up in that situation had it not been for years of hard work in school, teachers who helped me understand things that made me curious, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for experiential learning that Cornell handed to me on a silver platter.
What I want to convey at last is the sentiment that we all need to continue being students as long as we live. There have of course been many times in my life when I took my education for granted. It took me a great deal of time to figure out what I was passionate about. I’m just glad I never gave up. Spending this summer in Chiapas has shown me how valuable my education has been to my life. It has made me a firm believer that the key to success for everyone, regardless of one’s background, resources, or age, is a quintessential student’s attitude of curiosity and willingness to understand things from different points of view. When you keep an open mind, take risks, ask questions, and pursue the things that you find interesting and get you excited to learn more, your attitude will give you your education, and it will reward you by changing your life forever.