The view from the roof of La Casa del Hijo del Ahuizote
This is the last post in my collection about Mexico City. How do I wrap this experience up? Where do I begin? And how do I say it nicely? Alright, how about this: I’ll use the same format that I use for my intro posts! I’ll address the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” of the trip. But this time, I will flesh out those categories with the reflections I have.
Alright, let’s start!
Where did I go?
The giant flag at The Zócalo
In my first post of this collection I mentioned that it had recently been brought to my attention that Mexico is considered to be a part of North America, not Central America. This meant a lot to me because it reminded me of how much the U.S. promotes an “us” vs “them” kind of atmosphere. Politics, race, national identity—it’s like the U.S. defines itself through embracing what it isn’t instead of what it is—and the fact that I subconsciously cut off the southern border of North America as ending at the U.S. is a symptom of that American mentality.
That said, being able to literally cross the border into one of the only two neighborhoods we have was really helpful in breaking out of a mindset I didn’t even realize I had. To add, observing the similarities the two countries had felt extra special because even though the other transatlantic countries I’d been to felt familiar in some ways, none of them were similar to the U.S. in the way Mexico was. In short, Mexico is our next-door neighbor and it shows.
Posing in front of the Tenochtitlan model in the center of Mexico City
Mexico City is one of those cities that is hard to compare to other places because there’s nowhere else in the world with its unique history and geography. Remember, Mexico City was founded by the Aztecs in 1325 then colonized by the Spanish beginning in 1521, a colonization that lasted three hundred years. Just these two historical highlights alone inform major aspects of cultural identity like architecture, language, religion, and social norms (including issues of race and class). Now, couple this history with its environmental history. The original city founded by the Aztecs (called Tenochtitlan) was essentially an island sitting in the center of a large lake. When it the Spanish destroyed most of the city in their takeover, they also destroyed the dams that controlled the whole “living on a lake” situation, which left the city prone to severe flooding for centuries. The problem was officially solved in 1967, but there was a catch: Mexico City became reliant on its underground aquifers for water and the more the aquifers are drained, the more the city sinks into the ground. To add, it’s a sprawling metropolitan city 7,000 ft. above sea level, which means it’s easier to dehydrate, there’s lots of air pollution, and the air is already thinner to begin with. These environmental factors color the atmosphere of the city and definitely effected my experience there (for better and worse).
How long was I there?
At La Casa del Hijo del Ahuizote
In my notes I wrote “One very long week” and nothing else.
How did I get there?
A United Airlines airplane
I entered Mexico City via two airplanes: A 50-seat United Express flight to New Jersey and a 126-seat United international flight to Mexico City. I returned to Richmond the same way, but I was made to check my carry-on luggage at the last minute, which resulted in some of my things getting stolen. I’ve written more about that in other posts, along with the weird way Final Destination kept popping into my head and the uncanny number of plane disasters that happened the weekend I returned home. For now, just know that my reaction to all these things can be summarized with various combinations of “Damn” and “Yikes”.
Walking, Ubers, and public transport
When it came to travelling around the city itself, it often felt impractical. Like when it was decided that we would take the long route to a restaurant no one knew the name of in order to view a middle class neighborhood just doesn’t make sense when it means we have to walk 35 minutes up a hill in midday heat. Other things, like the Ubers, were figured out in the moment, meaning that the students weren’t told to factor transportation into our personal expenses prior to arriving in the city itself and ultimately had to be reimbursed a few weeks after returning to Richmond. And the public transport, well, I write more about my experience with this in my post about transportation, but for now I will say another student and I were left behind by a trolleybus and the subways were anxiety inducing.
Who was I with?
Some of the group in front of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco
There were twelve VCUarts Painting & Printmaking students and faculty: Two faculty members, nine active students (primarily juniors and seniors), and me, a recent alumnus. Whenever you stick this many people together, often strangers, into a new environment with a jam-packed schedule for seven days straight, there is often drama. It’s hard to avoid because the entire situation becomes a pressure cooker as everyone works to adapt to a dozen different things in a short amount of time, coping in different ways and working through different anxieties.
Some of the drama was interpersonal while other drama concluded in being an hour late for scheduled activities, but drama is drama and I wasn’t surprised by it. I’ve experienced group drama on all of my short study abroad trips and this one was no different . . . well, it was kind of different. You see, the difference is that our group was split between two different houses and none of the drama occurred in the house I was staying at. This meant that, for the first time, I didn’t actually have to deal with the drama. The funny thing about this situation, though, is that my original plan was to stay with the other mini-group because I knew some of the students, but there were no more rooms in their apartment when I went to sign up. This is how I ended up in an apartment with complete strangers who wound up becoming the best part of my entire trip.
One of the new friends I made
Overall, though, the group just felt kind of disjointed. The faculty members were very hands off and some of the students were more individualistic than I’d anticipated. I know we were all adults and many of us were strangers, but I expected more communication at the very least. I remember moments of students being left in sketchy neighborhoods at night or in an unknown part of town right before a storm. The faculty always announced when they were leaving, and in theory a collection of adult students can easily figure out what to do next, but we were also tourists who couldn’t speak the language, stood out in a crowd, and could barely use our cellphones without WiFi. I kept trying to brush it off, relying heavily on the We’re all adults rationale, but the reality is that I have been in a group of adults on every other study abroad trip I’d been on and the faculty leading the expedition made a point to make sure we were good before they departed. They made sure everyone was on the same page and had adequate access to things like working cellphones. There was never a dynamic of, “This is a sketchy part of town, maybe don’t eat dinner here, bye!” which often felt present throughout the trip.
And the thing is, stuff like this kept happening throughout the week. For example, we all know not everyone walks at the same pace, especially in a large group. On past trips, our group leaders made a point of looking back to see if they had everyone, and if they didn’t, they would wait a few minutes for people to catch up. In Mexico City, the person in the front never once looked back, leaving our group spread out over three blocks and feeling easily lost (especially because there often wasn’t clear communication about where exactly we were going). Another time was when I and another student got separated from the group when the trolleybus left us. By the time we caught up to the group, they were ready to keep on truckin’ having already used ATMs and bought water at a nearby mini mart, not giving us the opportunity to do the same because we were already running late.
Why was I there?
The goal of the trip was to learn about contemporary and historical printmaking in Mexico City. Was that goal accomplished? Sort of.
Lectures . . .
An abandoned, sawed, uprooted tree in Parque México
While there, we attended all-day lecture courses for three or four days at SOMA, an arts nonprofit organization. I’ll be honest with you: They were boring. The content itself was rich, but it felt like we were being taught Mexican Printmaking 305 when we should have been in Intro to Mexican Art 101. We just didn’t have the base knowledge of what the instructor was teaching and without a base it was difficult to retain the new information that’s meant to be built upon it. When you can’t keep up with the information, the topic quickly becomes boring. This was a bummer because I could tell the topic was really cool and coming from a knowledgeable source, but I—and seemingly every other student—just couldn’t engage. I felt bad for the lecturer because they were clearly passionate about the information and disappointed that we seemed so disinterested.
One of the students brought up a possibility that could explain why there was such a disconnect between what we were expected to already know and what we were being taught. This student suspected that the lecturer—and perhaps everyone we were involved with at SOMA—wasn’t briefed properly about our artistic and art historical backgrounds. The student pointed out that the teacher kept referring to us as “printmakers” which wasn’t entirely accurate. Yes, all of us had experienced about nine weeks’ worth of etching, screen printing, lithography, and digital printing as part of the curriculum, but that was it. Most of us hadn’t made a print since sophomore year because our emphasis was in painting and even those who did continue with printmaking may not have been exposed to the dozens of other printmaking methods that exist beyond the four we’re briefly taught in the program.
I can say, though, that the information I was able to retain is really valuable to me. I learned things about Mexico’s history and art history that I doubt I would have encountered in my education as an artist in the U.S. and I list some of those things in my post about art in Mexico City.
. . . in Mexico City
The Plaza de las Tres Culturas
One of the biggest disappointments of this trip was how it felt like I wasn’t experiencing the country or even the city. I often had the thought of Wow, I could have done this at home, and I wasn’t the only student who felt that way. In fact, some of the student openly lamented over the fact that it was going to be their last day in Mexico and they hadn’t gotten any memorabilia because there truly had been no opportunity to do so, which resulted in the schedule getting shifted around so that we’d have the opportunity to see some local crafts and buy things to remember our trip by. I later heard the teachers say that next time they would make it clear that this trip wasn’t actually about Mexico, to clearly state that there wouldn’t be designated time to do things outside of class lectures, studio tours & lectures, museum lectures, and a mini workshop or two.
I understand that this trip was an abbreviated version of a program that is weeks long, so it naturally wasn’t going to offer us the same opportunities it would offer someone who stays for longer. But when I think about how to cram a long trip into one week, I think about designing it to be as well rounded as possible, making sure that the “abroad” part of study abroad is still relevant. After all, that is the way my other study abroad trips functioned: Either our days would be half work & half play, or our week would be half work & half play. And our “playtime,” so to speak, was either a group activity (like a traditional dinner or tour of a culturally significant site) or free reign (where we could do whatever we wanted as long as we communicated). I am grateful for what scheduled “playtime” we had in Mexico City—like attending a lucha libre fight, roaming through Kahlo & Rivera’s studio, rushing through the anthropology museum, and having a last minute shopping trip—I also can’t shake the feeling that it could have been more immersive.
Some large leaves with holes in them. I’m not sure if the holes occur naturally or if bugs got to them. Either way, I feel like this image reflects my state of being in Mexico City. Interpret that as you will.
Why this trip was so hard
I don’t like feeling as though I am badmouthing the trip, the teachers, or my university, but the reality is that the trip was difficult for me in a lot of ways and I’m just being honest about it. In addition to the mentally and physically draining effects the trip had on me, it also forced me to reflect even more on the problematic environments I had come from: The U.S., VCUarts, and the programs I had graduated (Painting & Printmaking and Art History).
Things like racism, class, education, art, and pure selfishness orbited my mind and I couldn’t help but acknowledge the way they intersect and manifest in all of the environments I just listed. I kept thinking of questions like: Why are the mediums taught in Painting and Printmaking so limited? Why aren’t adjuncts paid a living wage? Why are we so reliant on young grad students as instructors? Why are artists of color all smushed into one chapter of art history textbooks? Why are Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo the only Mexican artists we’re taught about? And why are they only discussed for 10 minutes in a whole year’s worth of material? What’s up with my major’s inexcusable lack of communication when it comes to opportunities for student artists, especially international opportunities? And if you do hear about the opportunities, who gets to actually pursue them? Why did they try to fit all of Black art—from Africa and the diaspora—into one 50-minute class led by the only Black grad student? Why were they so adamantly against using trigger warnings before showing art that features sexual assault? How did I not know about a massacre that happened during a protest of the 1968 Olympics, the one we still reference as a symbol of Civil Rights?
Imagine trying to process all these things while in the middle of traveling and being unable to stop processing them because it is the trip itself that reminds you of it all. And imagine being me, a Black, American, female, student artist who already came into the situation mentally, emotionally, and physically worn out. To say I was exhausted would be an understatement, as I’m sure many BIPOC—especially women in the community—can attest to. It’s also frustrating because I know that the environments I come from can be better. I know Painting & Printmaking and art history as a whole can be better. I know VCUarts can be better. And I definitely know that the United States can be better. I want to be able to go somewhere or write something and say with confidence that I am a proud alumnus of PAPR, a proud graduate of VCUarts, and a proud American, but I can’t yet do that and it saddens me.
So, was it worth it?
Near the Plaza de las Tres Culturas
I spent a long time debating whether to go on this trip. I didn’t really have the money for it or emotional capacity, but I did have the time and I felt more practically prepared than I’d ever been when it came to international travel. It was also potentially my last chance to study abroad with a university, travel before beginning to pursue another degree, and the first time I’d be able to visit a country that wasn’t transatlantic. I couldn’t imagine when I’d get the time, interest, or opportunity to see even just a fraction of Mexico, so I decided to just go for it and figure the rest of later. That in itself was a leap of faith because lord knows I don’t pursue anything without a plan (for better and worse), but this trip to Mexico City seemed like a change worth taking.
But, was it worth it?
Reading through this post and others in my collection, you might have gathered that my experience in the country was a little lukewarm. Disappointing. Unfulfilling. Meh. This feeling carried over to writing about the experience too; writing about Mexico was by far the least enjoyable collection I’ve ever put together. And I realized that I had a difficult time enjoying the trip and writing about it because I feel like I barely experienced Mexico City. I know for a fact that if I hadn’t done things on my own or with my housemates after hours, I definitely would not have 70% of the content I wrote about in this collection and likely wouldn’t have made any genuinely good memories on the trip.
With that in mind, my answer is yes, the trip was worth it. I’m glad I went on the trip for two reasons:
1) Every traveler has a BINGO card of good and bad travel experiences we can all relate to. Mexico City allowed me to cross off things like getting sick, getting your stuff stolen, and exploring what it was like traveling solo, even if just to the park or market. My experience in Mexico was a great learning experience.
2) Even though the trip wasn’t built for “having fun,” so to speak, I still managed to do it and I did it with a fabulous group of people. Truly, they were the best part of the trip and my time with them facilitated many of the other good memories I have. The trip was worth it if only to experience what it was like being with a diverse, supportive, adventurous, responsible, fun, and drama-free group of talented and thoughtful artists.
So, even though this particular trip may not have taken full advantage of much of what Mexico City had to offer, it still introduced me to it. Knowing that I just scratched the surface of the city and Mexico overall makes me want to see more of it. The knowledge I now have means that the next time I go I’ll already have had a taste of what’s in store for me. I like to think that my time in Mexico City was like watching a trailer for a movie.
Game night in lucha libre masks