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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Mexico

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • The ways Mexico reminded me of the U.S.

  • The ways Mexico differed from the U.S.

  • Some of the Mexican history I learned and how it colored my view of the U.S.

  • Reflections on my art education as a minority in the U.S.


I'm not even sure what part of the city I'm in when I took this photo

Even before Trump popped a squat in the oval office, America wasn’t accustomed to a positive portrayal of Mexico. The general American consciousness underfstands Mexico to be a bizarre hodgepodge of drug cartels, avocados, and taco Tuesday, coupled with a vague interpretation of Cinco de Mayo. America also tends to distance itself from Mexico as though it is some far, foreign land wholly separate from the U.S. in terms of culture, geography, and history, while simultaneously dialoguing about “The Wall”.

People forget that Mexico is in North America (not Central America). People forget that a big chunk of America used to be Mexico. People forget the many Mexicans who worked in the United States over a century ago, how America kicked them out, and then asked them to come back when we needed them to do something for us. And many people don’t even know how many American words are derived from Spanish, like “mustang” and “tornado.” And in the context of art education, the people in charge—be it educators or textbook authors—forget that there is more to Mexican art than just Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera.

In short, America comes across as having a uniquely selective memory when it comes to our southern neighbor.

So, what was it like visiting Mexico as an American? What did I think before I entered Mexico and what did I think after? What did I see? What surprised me? What made me excited and what made me mad? That’s what this post is about: What I learned about Mexico and how it affected me.

How Mexico reminded me of the U.S.

An old Chevy in front of a park near the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco Memorial 68

I feel the need to start with the similarities I found between the U.S. and Mexico because of the way the U.S. frames Mexico as being so “other” in so many ways. Keep in mind, though, that I only experienced Mexico City, just one city in a big country. Mexico City is different than Oaxaca, which is different than Cancun, and so on. Funny thing is that that in itself—having so many cities with such distinctively different vibes—reminded me of the U.S. from the start.

Alright, so what else did I notice?

Mexico City reminded me of New York City

One difference I feel obliged to mention, though, is that New York City is built upward whereas Mexico City sprawled outward

Mexico City indeed had a concrete jungle kind of vibe, a place with tons of people piled on top one another, living and working together in close quarters. The kind of place with tight traffic and intersections where 100 people cross the street from every direction simultaneously. There was a boldness to Mexico City, an edginess that I feel a lot of major metropolitan cities have.

That said, I found myself feeling the same way in Mexico City as I did in New York City, as in to say, I felt unhappy, stressed out, annoyed, and more than a little overwhelmed. What can I say? Even though either city has countless things to appreciate about it, my personality doesn’t vibe well with big, loud, crowded, busy cities and, coming from Richmond, I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of environment anyway.

But you know, therein lies my point: I felt the exact same way in Mexico City as I did in New York City, that’s how similar they were.


Radio music is one of those little details of a country that can simultaneously sink into the background and shed light on any given environment. For example, the U.S. has a poor track record of exposing its residents to music from other countries on popular radio stations (no matter how popular the song may be), but in many other countries this isn’t the case. When it came to Mexico City, I heard quite a variety of music on the radio, everything from folk music to Spanish pop, plus plenty of American music and some international hits. Much to my amusement, I distinctively remember hearing “Electric Avenue”, “Stitches”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, and lots of Queen.


I remember taking a picture of this ad specifically because I was surprised to see a model with natural hair

This is another one of those subtle things that give a foreign city character. Does a city have billboards and where do they put them? Are there flyers nailed to street poles? Posters taped to alley walls? What kind of events or products are advertised? It’s this kind of visual language that can really say a lot about a city in a very subtle way.

Well, there were a ton of ads in Mexico City in the form of posters, billboards, and place settings. In fact, the first photo I took in the city itself was a (seemingly extra large) billboard advertising an art show. I also saw ads for things like local liquor, $4 taquitos, Calvin Klein, Les Misérables, a symphony performing Pixar scores, and even an ad for the Harlem Globetrotters. Even the visual style of the ads—the use of text and images—was familiar to what I was accustomed to seeing in the U.S.

I hadn’t realized how deep the visual language of the U.S. was ingrained into my understanding of visuals until I saw it repeated elsewhere. See, because in other foreign cities I had visited the visual language had just been different, but in Mexico City it was same-same different. Being an artist, this whole experience—initiated by a collection of outdated billboards—was surprisingly impactful.

Businesses? Entertainment? Vibe?

I was so amused to see scratch cards in Mexico City, especially after having spent so much time in Qatar

I’m not even sure what to call this subcategory because it’s just too familiar, like trying to describe something you’ve grown up with your whole life. Mexico City had things like Walmart, Chuck-E-Cheese’s, plenty of 7-Eleven’s, a city scooter share program, and stickers on the back of stop signs. It was all more than familiar to an American eye, so familiar that there’s not much more I can even say on it.

Lucha Libre at Arena México

Of everything, though, I’d say that my favorite same-same moment was the lucha libre match. It was very similar to pro wrestling in the U.S. (in part because U.S. pro wrestling has often been inspired by aspects of lucha libre). Now, I’ve never described myself as a fan of wrestling—be it American or otherwise—but I did genuinely enjoy aspects of lucha libre. I enjoyed the performance, the personas, the acrobatics, and the way it triggered distant memories of ¡Mucha Lucha! and El Tigre.

How Mexico was different than the U.S.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on here

I’m gonna be honest with you guys, many of the things that were different about Mexico compared to the U.S. are pretty lame because, all in all, my experience in Mexico was not that different than my experiences in the U.S. I suppose the lameness of these differences speak to that larger point: Mexico and the U.S. have more in common than what we see on television.

However, I’ll still list for you the differences I noticed, lackluster as they are:

  • Apparently, Mexico City has a lot of stray dogs, and apparently, they’re quite large. There’s documentation of this on the internet and I even wrote down a note that literally says, “big dogs just a’roamin’.” However, I truly don’t remember seeing any, which means that they must not have left a significant impression on me (unlike the big dogs I saw in Athens and Istanbul).

  • Signs reminding you not to talk on your cellphone while driving, insisting that drivers must either use headphones or some other means to keep their hands free while driving. It’s funny because the cellphone-driving laws in the U.S. vary by state and I had never come across signage like this in Virginia. My interest in something so trivial surprised even myself.

Oh, here’s some differences that might be ever so slightly more exciting if you’re into these topics like I am:

  • The popularity of 80’s music. There seemed to be a higher affinity for 80’s music in Mexico City than what was present in the U.S. as of 2019. I thought this was cool because 1) It gave Mexico City a unique character (especially when checking out traditional clubs) and 2) I love 80s music.

  • The art deco art & architecture in Condesa was pretty exciting. I talk about this more in the post devoted to my experience in Condesa, but I thought it was worth a mention here too.

Ah, wait, I’ve got a good one for you:

  • Affordable healthcare. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the Mexican healthcare system, but I do know that when I got sick while in Mexico City I was able to get a physical and two prescriptions for $25 without insurance. I also had the option of getting bloodwork done for $40 right across the street and that was also a little mind-blowing.

Now let’s talk about Mexican history (and the way it’s not talked about in the U.S.)

I mentioned earlier how America’s idea of Mexico is severely limited, and a lot of that has to do with the media, but you know what else is has to do with? The things America prioritizes when it comes to education. It’s no secret that the U.S. has problems acknowledging its own history, it’s role in world history, and other countries in general. We’re an individualistic, somewhat narcissistic country to the point where the U.S. often seems to have the mentality of, If it makes us look bad, why teach it? And if it doesn’t involve us at all, really why teach it?

The most patriotic plane I’ve ever seen

So, I see Mexico as just one on a list of hundreds of countries that the U.S. doesn’t feel the need to bother mentioning despite its ties to American history, significant history in its own right, or at the very least its ability to offer useful compare/contrast examples of what goes on in the world.

That said, the amount of information I learned about Mexican history and art history while in Mexico City astounded me simply because I was in disbelief over the fact I had never heard about any of what I was being taught. Everything from politics to artists to massacres was news to me and it shook me to the core.

Some of the things that were discussed include:

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

  • 2014 mass kidnapping of 43 college students

  • 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, which happened 10 days before the Mexico City Olympics.

  • For reference, this is the same Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos did their iconic protest with the black power salute

  • Guillermo González Camarena, a Mexican engineer, invented a version of the color television and, apparently, is responsible for color television going global.

  • The 1968 Olympics were the first to be internationally broadcasted in its entirety in color.

  • “America couldn’t get avocados and Mexico couldn’t get Nikes” until sometime in the 90’s. What the lecturer was referencing was some kind of NAFTA agreement that opened up trade between the two countries fairly recently.

  • Elizabeth Catlett, a printmaker and sculptor known for making art about the black female experience. Born in Washington, D.C., she spent much of her life living and working in Mexico as an artist. Her human rights activism eventually barred her from reentering the United States, after which she dropped her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen.

  • Here is a link that showcases her work. It’s technically a site that’s selling things, but it’s the most comprehensive collection I could find on the internet.

That’s just five of the things I learned and that barely scratches the surface of Mexican history, culture, identity, politics, and art.

Want to guess how it made me feel?

Oddly, I feel like this awkward photo of me beside a giant aloe plant describes how I felt in the moment

At first I felt guilty about not knowing these things, but then I remembered something I actually did learn in high school: You don’t know what you don’t know until someone points out that you don’t know it. What this means is that you aren’t aware of your ignorance until someone offers you new information, be it a recipe for purple sweet potatoes or knowledge of a mass atrocity. Your initial state of ignorance wasn’t your fault and it only becomes your fault if you choose to stay ignorant on a topic after it’s been introduced to you.

So, once I cut myself some slack for not previously knowing the things I was in Mexico to learn about, I asked myself how the heck that happened. How the heck had I lived for twenty-two years in the U.S., spent sixteen of those years in school, and spent eight of those years studying art to not have ever heard about anything I was now learning about in Mexico City?

That’s when I got mad. I was mad at the United States: Its news, its entertainment, its educational system, its priorities, everything. I was mad at the United States for putting me in a position of ignorance.

While leaving a grocery store one night, I came across the Plaza de los Compositores with has collection of busts celebrating Mexican musicians and composers.

And when it came to my art education, my experience in Mexico stirred up old grievances, issues that I knew were wrong but had never been solved. Issues of racism within VCUarts. Issues of not listening to the outcries of minority students, or even just their thoughts on an assignment. Issues of being neither critiqued nor challenged nor encouraged quite clearly because I was black. Issues of offering only one class on black art, one class on Islamic art, and one class on Latinx art within an entire art history department. Or the “little big” things like devoting only two hours in an entire semester to black art around the world and having that entire lecture be on the shoulders of just one black student who had to choose between rushing through the information or cutting the presentation short in the name of spending a respectable amount of time discussing an artist’s work.

And it was really . . . meta, for lack of a better word, to be experiencing all these things as an alumnus of VCUarts on a trip with my old major, Painting & Printmaking. At the time, I didn’t say anything. After all, what would I say, who would I say it to, what would be a good time to say it? I was still in the midst of processing all these things for myself. So, I put a pin in it. I didn’t forget about it and I didn’t bite my tongue, I just held off until I had processed and felt capable of not only acknowledging it but doing something to change it. And right now, this blog post, my art practice, and all the goals I have to change the art educational system is me finally acknowledging and changing it.


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