Mexico is only four hours away by car from the place where I grew up in Arizona, but because of how little Americans appreciate and understand our southern neighbor, it may well be on the other side of the world. I think that was one of the main reasons why I decided to do a semester as an exchange student in Mexico City.
I was captivated by this geographical enigma: I was fascinated by the fact that a country could be so close and, at the same time, so far away. However, very few Americans are interested in this enigma. In the 2015-2016 school year, only 5,178 American students decided to study in Mexico. Although this represents an increase of 10% compared to the previous year, according to figures from the Institute of International Education, it does not compare with the over 39,000 students who do the same in the UK, or the almost 30,000 who choose Spain.
Among the most popular destinations for student exchange, our southern neighbor is in the twelfth place. Mexico is closer and more convenient as a study destination than most European countries and it has a great academic, cultural, and touristic life. Then, why so few Americans decide to study there?
One of the main reasons could be that many Americans have misconceptions about the reality of Mexico. When people found out I was going to Mexico, many teachers, friends, and relatives were worried. "Aren't you worried about violence?" they asked me, echoing the only idea the US media seems to repeat about Mexico: that it is the country of drugs, cartels, and chaos.
I ignored the comments and prepared to study Communication, International Law, and International Relations at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City campus. To be honest, I was not worried so much about what Americans thought of Mexico, but rather I was worried about what some Mexicans aware of the news might think about the current situation in my country and, consequently, me. After all, we elected Donald Trump as president, someone not shy about expressing his controversial opinions about Mexico and Mexican people.
In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that 65% of Mexicans had a negative view of the United States, compared with only 29% in 2015. While these numbers are alarming, my experience was quite different . As soon as I arrived in Mexico, taxi drivers, teachers, and friends helped me calm down, and my concerns seemed silly then. "Don't worry," they told me. "We know what it feels like to have a president and a government that does not represent your ideals." I was very happy to realize that people took the time to get to know me as a person, instead of just judging me by my flag and thinking that, on the other side of the border, we are all the same.
At the same time, we Americans now have a more positive opinion of Mexico than a few years ago, despite what some politicians think. Since 2009, the image of Mexico in the United States has been constantly improving: according to Pew, in 2017, 66% of Americans had a positive idea of Mexico.
There is no doubt that I am part of that percentage of Americans, although I'm not so sure what exactly made me fall in love with Mexico. Maybe it was the sweet tamales; the radio station - which passes "only romantic music" - that was always heard in the house where I stayed; the laughter of my Mexican friends before my failed attempts to dance salsa; the patience of my teachers when I had to do presentations in class and my Spanish was not so good; or my walks through Chapultepec Park. Maybe it was to see how the whole country united under the slogan "Fuerza México" after the earthquake of September 19, which damaged the campus where I did my exchange. Or maybe it was when, after the earthquake, I joined a brigade to carry supplies to Morelos and conducted rescue work in collapsed homes, listening to mariachis stroll the streets singing "Cielito Lindo." Most probably, it was a mix of all those experiences.
Nearly two weeks after the earthquake, I woke up to the news of another kind of tragedy: a man with a rifle killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more at a music festival in Las Vegas, at a distance of just four hours from my house in Phoenix. My classmates were horrified at the possibility that something like this would happen, that so many innocent people were shot dead at a concert, at the movies, or at school.
At first, this reaction surprised me, because, like other Americans, I had always considered Mexico to be a much more violent place than the United States. However, for my Mexican classmates, the idea of living with the uncertainty produced by gun violence that exists in the United States was unimaginable, and I had never even considered the idea that, despite how much we like to preach that our country is a safe place, in fact, we are not safe either at school, the movies, the store, or even at church.
In the six months that I spent in Mexico, I had many conversations of this kind. Along with my new friends, we decided to address the difficult questions: the repercussions of the earthquake; the shooting of Las Vegas; the #MeToo movement in the United States; the election of Trump and what the elections were in Mexico; the tense relationship between the United States and North Korea; NAFTA; the fate of the DACA program.
These conversations were full of nuances and emotions, and always took place in a framework of respect. Together, we addressed what seemed to be an abyss of misunderstanding among us; together, we began to build a bridge to cross that abyss. In hindsight, studying in Mexico was the best decision I have made in my life and it changed me completely. I hope that many more American students will make that same decision.
Mia Armstrong is studying Journalism and International Relations at Arizona State University.
Cover picture by Karin Schönenberger at Pasión por CDMX
Head over these links to read more about Mexico and its diversity