My students always ask. Every semester. Without fail. They all want to know how I became interested in Mexico and Latin America. So, here is an incredibly self-indulgent response to my students on why I chose to make Latin America part of my life.
My interest in Latin America developed while I was living in the San Gabriel Valley of LA and East LA, fresh out of Montana and a year of college. Sure, some people take time off of school and go to Europe to find themselves. I ended up in LA.
At first my new neighbors represented the exotic other: the plucked and plucky cholas, the vatos with the shaved heads and the dickies, the old men that talked about Chihuahua and tried to teach me norteño swears, and, of course, the food. It was Edward Said writ small, mestizo style. Then I met a guy from El Salvador with screwed up thumbs - from where he had been hung up all night after breaking a curfew. I may have been from Montana, but I had never had my head in the ground. I knew my country sponsored what went on in his, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to throw up or scream. I guess I did nothing, which is what most of us do.
After that, the similarities came fast and furious. Plates of barbacoa and tacos de chivo drew out conversations about the goats I had raised for milk and meat on our small farm in Montana. Small, for Montana, at almost 200 acres; a respectable rancho for some of the folks I met from Oaxaca and Guerrero. Growing up I'd worked packing mules, bucking hay, building fence, janitorial, car part sales ... all the jobs that helped keep me in St. Vincent DePaul's (and at times K-Mart's) finest, and ones that connected me to the rural people I met turned urban service workers. Conversations with Chileans about mining and smelting connected them to the mines and smelters of my own state - the home of the great Anaconda that had strangled both our families and had led us all to new homes. At the end of the day, I found myself having more in common with the migrants from Latin America than I did with the middle-class Anglo families that I rented rooms from.
When I returned to Montana I couldn't shake the memories of the people I'd met. I connected to classes on Latin America, solidarity groups and movements - the usual suspects. Frankly, I've never been sure if all of those activities to try and "save" Latin America ever did much for Latin America, or if it did more for our own consciences. I knew that we were programmed to a particular response to "save" the other when one solidarity group brought campesinos and free trade zone workers - yes, real campesinos - for us to talk to. For good reason it felt like a zoo or a circus, and I certainly had to question all that we were up to. Latin American Ishis on display - trying desperately not to share his fate. I grew up a campesino. My father lost his job to free trade. Did I need to see these brown faces to avoid looking at my own story?
And so before me, I thought, were two paths: one to look at Latin America as the kitschy exotic playground for my escape from anglolandia or, the destitute child of poverty crying for my saving graces. Ever at the periphery - first as escape or second as pleading subaltern - I had come to an inability to see two continents as human.
With time and travel, I learned to drop both of those paths. Mexico, and Latin America in general, have become something of a home. I know I don't "get" everything that goes on, and I know better now that the region needs nothing from me except to be a good neighbor - a thing that we all need from each other. At times that might mean I need to get involved with a cause (neighbors help each other out), and at times it might mean I need to keep my yap shut. But at the end of the day, there are no pretexts or fantasies about our co-existence.
I've found that probably the best thing I could do was to try and help other folks in the United States develop an appreciation of Latin America (an understanding might be too tall of an order for the class room), not as a place that needed saving or as a place to play out escapist fantasy, but as a region of "carne y hueso" with creative and intelligent ways of navigating the vagaries of this world. So, students, the next time you ask me why, I'll invite you to know more, and then you'll understand - but only for yourself.
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