Unexpected Conversations

Traveling in a beat-up taxi from Cancun to Puerto Morelos, I found myself in a conversation I never expected: discussing climate change in Spanish with an evangelical Christian.

The air conditioning in the taxi was bravely, but ineffectively, trying to combat the scorching temperature and swampy humidity outside. At home, hot, tired, and introverted, I would have used the universal sign for “leave me alone” and put in my earbuds.

For some reason, however, I’m different in Spanish. I don’t know if it’s the novelty of being able to form thoughts in another language, or perhaps my background as a teacher has convinced me it’s necessary to practice. It’s also possible that I’m less inhibited in another language. No matter what the reason, I struck up a conversation.

Learning to Love Mexico

I trace my love for our neighbor to the south to growing up in Petaluma, California, and attending school with many kids from migrant farmworker families. While of course I didn’t have a full understanding about all the difficulties that come along with being an undocumented immigrant, I certainly saw the effects of income disparity. I was angry at sharing a room with my sister, but some of my classmates shared a bedroom with their entire family.

I began to learn Spanish when I was eight years old. It was slow going, with library books and mostly subpar teachers, many of whom were not fluent, but I kept at it. In Mexico this summer, at the age of 43, I finally found the joy that comes with clear communication in another country, in another language. I no longer had to pause and wait for my brain to catch up or settle for a phrase that meant almost what I wanted to say.

Angry Tourists

As the under-air conditioned car sped along, Edgardo, the evangelical taxi driver, began our conversation by talking about the sargassum seaweed that has been flourishing in the Caribbean, marring the tropical blue waters, creating a lingering stench, and angering tourists. I asked if it was affecting the tourist industry. “Si” he answered, and then explained further. “The tourists are very angry and they’re blaming us,” he said in Spanish, and I understood.

The taxista began telling me that everyone he knew in the hospitality industry, which is almost every Mexican in the region, had dealt with upset tourists yelling about the sargassum. I commiserated because I’d also witnessed some of those tourists behaving badly. I pointed out that the workers certainly weren’t responsible for this problem! Why direct your disappointment ire at them?

Edgardo went on to explain that the ugly, fetid seaweed was caused by many things, including deforestation, pollution, and climate change. Ironically, much of the problem comes from us:fertilizer runoff in the United States, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. He went on to say that he was an evangelical Christian and, because of that, he’s most concerned about climate change. This confused me — as an American, I’m used to evangelical Christians being climate-change deniers. He patiently explained that hisChristian faith reinforces a responsibility to take care of the Earth.

I was exposed to this alternate view of evangelical Christians only because I was finally able to converse with Spanish-speaking Mexicans in a meaningful way. In my experience over the years, I have found that Mexican people are extremely gracious with foreigners trying to communicate in Spanish, no matter how rusty their Spanish; however, I felt a different level of trust from people I was talking to. The language bridge helped them speak to me more openly, a significant difference from past visits, in which I spoke English or broken Spanish.

Along with sargassum and complaints about boorish tourists, many Mexicans — once they figured out that I could talk to them — asked why Americans had such mistaken ideas about their southern neighbors. The current occupant of the White House was often referenced, sometimes with a great deal of hurt. More than one person asked, “Why aren’t we welcome when we deal with American tourists every day of the year?” Many asked me where the stereotype of the lazy Mexican came from, reminding me how hard Mexicans work. I didn’t have an answer.

Beachside Conversation

My favorite breakfast spot overlooked the beach, where the tang of decaying seaweed mixed with the salt air and the welcome odor of chilaquiles verdes. The lack of tourists willing to look at the sargassum provided some down time for a young server who struck up a conversation with me. He asked where I was from, and when I told him I was from the San Francisco area, his face lit up. La puenta famosa! he cried, adding that he’s always wanted to see the famous Golden Gate Bridge.

Mauricio was a young adult with braces and an eager, friendly expression. He’s dreamed of traveling, but that it’s both hard for Mexican citizens to get a visa for the United States, and daunting to save money on a server’s salary. That didn’t stop his aspirations, though. He asked me about what kind of weather he could expect and where he should visit, once he has saved up the money.

As I watched Mauricio’s face light up when he thought of visiting San Francisco — a goal that may always be financially out of his reach — I felt sad. Not for the young man before me, who was getting joy from dreaming. I felt sad for those who aren’t able, or even willing, to communicate with those different than themselves. Mauricio, Edgardo, and the many others I met in Mexico gave me hope that this doesn’t have to be the case; that we’re all part of a larger family.

Americans often have a certain disdain for our next-door neighbors, and we like to treat them like they are a world away. If more Americans were able to talk to Mexicans, and to accept their wisdom and what they might bring to the table, we could complete change the relationships between our countries. What if we embraced Mexico rather than holding them at arms’ length?

Bronwyn is the author of Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. She can be found on her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.