Even though as human beings we tend to generalise, we urge travellers to avoid stereotyping – and instead make an effort to connect with a culture.
Recently, at a seminar, I heard Mexican novelist Rosa Beltrán talk about the difficulties of answering the question: “Where are you from?”
“It’s exhausting,” she said, “having to constantly and unexpectedly answer questions about drug cartels”.
I’ve always been proud of stating my origins and being able to clear up doubts and combat Mexican stereotypes. But I understand Rosa’s point. It’s tiring to feel like you have to persistently educate strangers on how to talk about your country.
Because of my own experience with these moments, I have tried – and it is a long but rewarding process – to eliminate stereotypes in my conversations, and educate myself in order to do so.
Generalising vs. stereotyping
Human beings generalise. I am not talking about the normalisation of labels and stereotypes, but merely stating a fact. Our minds are unable to name every single thing they come in contact with, so we must categorise and make do.
But it is important to make a conscious decision to not be rigid with these categories, and to not label what we can’t instantly categorise. That’s the first step we must take to avoid stereotyping.
An over-generalised belief about a group of people, and an oversimplification of these believed traits, results in a stereotype. When we travel, we don’t have as much time to get to know a culture, making it particularly easy to fall for these labels and apply them as if they were true about each particular person of a group. This can lead to prejudice and discrimination.
To illustrate, I will debunk two examples of common and unfavourable stereotypes about Mexico.
Stereotype 1: Mexico is a never-ending desert
Your sombrero is about to blow away in the desert wind, your poncho is covering your face and your donkey refuses to start walking. Shade is nowhere nearby. The heat is unbearable. What are you gonna do next? You can either wake up, or exit that Hollywood movie.
This is exactly the type of stereotypical Mexican scenario people imagine, and it’s an unlikely one!
I live in Mexico City, where it never reaches high temperatures. In the north, like the state of Chihuahua, it snows all winter long. The Mexican southeast is insanely hot, but the last time they’ve seen a donkey was in a movie, and Mexican sombreros are reserved for the Mexican airport and mariachi costumes.
Mexico is a country with dozens of different ecosystems, and since it consists of such a large area of land, it’s impossible for our climate to be homogenous.
Just like our land has great differences, Mexican people differ greatly in physical features, personalities and even accents.
Men don’t act like Latin lovers and women aren’t all loud-mouthed and voluptuous. We must be critical of these Mexican stereotypes in film and mindful of the media we consume.
Stereotype 2: Mexican people are criminals
I have been asked about El Chapo and Pablo Escobar (who is Colombian), while travelling abroad, and if I know anyone involved in narcotráfico. It’s clear that it’s common to buy into this stereotype.
Mexican immigrants have been unfairly linked to crime in the US, even though there is no evidence that supports these statements that flood the international media.
The Mexican drug war is a real and serious conflict between the Mexican government and the drug cartels that dominate the illicit drug market in the United States. But the belief that the general population is involved in or condones it creates a prejudice against honest and hardworking people trying to get by in a country where opportunities are not always easy to come by.
Asking Mexican people about cartels, criminality, or their involvement, is unfair. It is, as the Mexican expression goes, “tossing lime in the wound”. Empathising matters, but using tragedies as topics of light conversation feels insensitive.
The importance of cultural immersion
As travellers, we have the chance to make an impact. Either we are alienating and constantly othering, or we’re speaking to local people and making an effort to understand the nuances and complexities that are inherent to the way countries operate.
There is something so beautiful about knowing that someone took their time to read about the country they’re in, listen to your voice as a local person, and look beyond the surface.
Let’s strive to be that someone! Volunteer in Mexico for a chance to see for yourself.
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Daniela Boullosa is an intern at the GVI Writing Academy. The Writing Academy is a skills-development program that pairs development editors with budding travel writers.
Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.