Expressions from Puebla: The Value of Likeness

Undergraduates study abroad because they want to experience something different.

They want to to learn a different language or learn about a different culture.

They want to eat different food, party with different people, improve their Instagrams (@rodrendel) with pictures of different places.

I arrived in Puebla City, Mexico, three weeks ago.

In that time, I have learned that America includes more than los Estados Unidos—that Puebla and Chicago alike are American cities.

I’ve learned that their similarities extend beyond nomenclature (though “Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza” and “the Windy City” both have several nicknames).

They both have unpredictable weather. They share a population of about 2.6 million people. The cities have a lot of traffic.

Puebla has a lot of churches, too: 365, or uno por cada día, as the Poblanos say.

It feels like Range Line; you cannot walk two blocks here without seeing a steeple.

In several other ways, Poblanos remind me of Joplinites. They love their food and family. They are open and kind.

They embrace each other on campus, plant kisses on cheeks with the same frequency that strangers say “hey” in Webster Hall.

Poblanos are homebodies—besides the international students, nearly everyone I have met has lived here their whole life.

My host university (Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla) and my home university (Missouri Southern State University) both have an international mission.

UPAEP andMOSO alike are easier spoken as acronyms. They have hard-working faculty and winning basketball teams.

In Puebla—as in all American cities—there are Starbucks, Subways, and Dominoes. Uber and Netflix.

Problems with political corruption, underfunded education, a fear of violence.

Before coming here, I heard warnings like, “be careful,” or, “I would never go somewhere so different from America.”

Here there are trees, streams, and streets.

I find worried comments worrisome because they prove that the differences are easier to see.

They show that—whether we are discussing gender, political parties, or bordering countries—our conversations fixate on just a handful of distinctions.

We rarely acknowledge that, if we drew our two subjects as a Venn diagram, they would resemble a circle—not a pair of wide eyes.

It’s the slim outer edges, those little bits of difference, that I want to learn and write about in Puebla.

But first I must try to look, really look, at everything that is the same.

Every day I learn new Mexican expressions. Quemar las naves (to burn the boats) describes throwing oneself into something completely.

 It describes the emersion I hope to experience this semester. But the expression has a horrible, imperialistic history.

Shortly after landing in Central America, Hernan Cortez ordered his men to scuttle their ships (they weren’t actually burned). He stranded them in this “new” world so they would have to follow his orders: conquer the indigenous people, exploit them for gold, and replace their culture with their own.

What would have happened if Cortez had looked, really looked, before beginning the burning? What if he had seen the all the similarities between himself and the people he imagined to be savage, disposable, usable? Could he have better appreciated their differences?

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