16 Jan The Unfortunate Consequences of Connotation

Mexico gets a bad rep. Flick through some episodes of prime-time dramas set in the southwest and you’ll inevitably find at least one story arc involving a cartel of some sort. Violence, drug trade, human trafficking, immigration, and other sobering topics crop up as major themes, often exploited for viewership rather than addressed with nuance and genuine concern. While these associations stem from legitimate problems being faced by Mexico and the United States, it seems opportunistic to spotlight them as plot vehicles. And worse, these fictional[1] portrayals inevitably alter the connotations of ‘Mexico,’ percolating through pop culture into our collective conscious, where we inevitably draw from these associations.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Mexico over the holiday break, specifically in the Yucatan, the safest state in Mexico (sheltered, I know, but caution never hurts). When the opportunity was discussed with my family, it met resistance. Of course I take their counsel seriously, though when some of the more humorous dissenters mentioned expecting a finger in the post, I couldn’t help but question their logic. It implied a generalization about an entire country[2], a pretty broad stroke. This belief wasn’t relegated to just family; friends and acquaintances relayed the same idea: danger. Their arguments did little to sway my decision. Honestly, they may have strengthened my resolve.

Flying internationally on my own for the first time, coupled with the standard fear of the unknown and a heavily fortified language barrier[3], had me uneasy upon arrival, but my nerves quickly subsided as I grabbed a drink and waited for my friend to meet me with the rental car (again, sheltered, but also convenient). Within a few hours, I was sitting at a wooden picnic table eating corn tortillas and beans while a large group of the citizens of Chelem (pop. 5,200) gathered in the town square to support an initiative aimed at supplying the elderly of the town with more food and clothing. I sat in silence, oblivious to the social discourse, but overwhelmed by the implications I drew from the event.

Over the course of the week, I was thrust into situations that made me uncomfortable; it’s unnerving being aware that you look confused during 90% of a given conversation.

No comprende.


However, I managed to piece my way through: transferring tiny bits of information felt triumphant when they finally broke through the barriers. I was greeted with a wave and smile in each store I entered, each market I walked through, even while casually walking. I got hugs from strangers I’d met minutes before, even a round of drinks. Yes, I was often uncomfortable, but never endangered.

When discussing the trip upon return, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my first night in Mexico. It’s easy to be dismissive, to fixate upon the worst, taking connotation as definitive: that I would encounter a culture gripped by rampant violence, that the US is unequivocally safer, and the not-so-subtle idea that our culture is inherently better. But watching hundreds of people congregate in Chelem’s center to support their fellow citizens illuminated the irony of our cultural misconceptions. Rather than danger, I found community, a sense of civic responsibility, and genuine concern for one another; facets our own culture could most certainly stand to strengthen.

Michael Radke

Admissions Coordinator


[1] Then again, some may be “based on a true story.”

[2] Using an analogy based on this logic and comparative geographic sizes, the culture of the US stretching from Washington down through the Plains States into Texas and Arkansas must be entirely uniform as well. See http://mapfrappe.com/?show=8177 for an overlaid geographic comparison.

[3] I studied Latin in high school and college. Think of all the real-world applications!



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