By Zac Johnson, ’22

From October 28th to November 9th DukeImmerse Rights and Identities in the Americas cohort travelled to Mexico to work and conduct research with organizations related to immigration and recently returned Americans. We spent the first six nights in Mexico City, the following five in Puebla, and the final night back again in Mexico City. Our partner students at Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) met us on the second day at a museum dedicated to the men and women subjected to forced disappearances by the Mexican government since the 1960s. From this point on, we spent our time in Mexico City with the UDLAP students visiting museums, venturing out to restaurants at night, and working with Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA), our primary connection to the returnee organizing community.

Halfway through the week, we began our official research, consisting of fluid conversations with Voceros of the returnee community about topics assigned to us by ODA and our research topics of choice. My first conversation related to cultural and language adaptation upon “returning” to Mexico (some of them cannot even recall their time in Mexico prior to migrating to the U.S.). After talking with our Vocera about her experiences transitioning back to Mexico, we were tasked with creating an infographic explaining the complications of returning to Mexico for ODA to publicize around the Southern United States. Our conversation covered the individualistic nature of the U.S., the changes in educational resources and systems, and linguicism directed towards people who speak varying types of Spanish. 

My second conversation related to transnational or translocal families and the driving factors behind becoming so. I was curious as to what caused migration, particularly to the US. What narratives existed about the U.S. that made it seem so desirable? Was it even seen as desirable or was it seen as necessary for survival? Were these narratives shaped by factors in Mexico, controlled by the U.S., or both? Who really benefits from migration to the U.S. and why? Obviously, these are questions that are hard to answer in just a one hour-long conversation, but I was interested to hear about the experiences of our vocera and how that combined with the popular discourse around immigration. These conversations served to shift the narrative about immigration away from the perceived value created by economic participation and social contribution, and toward a more humanitarian understanding. As we return to the U.S., our goal is to transcribe this conversation, perform a sociolinguistic linguistic analysis on our language, and use a few chunks of the conversation to inform our research paper due at the end of the semester.

One sunny morning we visited the home of a group of Otomi people living in Mexico City. The Otomi are a group of indigenous people with a relatively high connection to Durham. After the earthquake in ‘85, they had fought hard for the right to occupy land in the city. They eventually purchased and renovated a crumbling site and made it a hub for the Otomi people in the neighborhood of Roma. Their compound is full of murals, music, and religious symbols (as shown to the right). They even constructed and maintain a sauna (the yellow and red dome) on-site to use when community members are sick or in need of a good cleanse. Our visit helped us understand how indigenous groups interact with and survive the neoliberal, capitalistic world of Mexico City. 

The following day we visited Teotihuacan, a little over an hour drive outside of the city. The high altitude combined with direct sunlight made the heat almost suffocating, but a cloudy afternoon set in shortly to relieve us. With a tour guide, we explored the various pyramids, connected by the Avenue of the Dead. The city was once a prominent Precolumbian city, that at its zenith was the largest in Mesoamerica and one of the largest in the world. Two main pyramids drew most of the attention from those visiting the site: the moon pyramid and the sun pyramid. These pyramids reflect the shape and spiritual significance of nearby mountains, with massive, steep stairs leading to the top. While most of the site has been reconstructed, the pyramids and residential buildings demonstrate again the complexity and vast understanding of the world that Precolumbian societies held, despite European and imperialistic narratives that inform us otherwise. 

On November second, we prepared for Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos and NOT Dia de LOS Muertos by the way) with ODA. We helped set up an altar, decorate it with flowers, pictures of loved ones, and skulls, and color in skull drawings to hang around the room. Once the set up was complete, we would share poems we wrote about death, our loved ones, or celebrating life. The celebration took place at ODA’s home, Poch@ House, with us, the UDLAP students, the voceros, and an organization dedicated to connecting at risk youth from the Bay Area in California to their Mexican roots. Some poems were lighthearted, but others talked about sexuality, loss, and insecurity. Some talked about losing loved ones, while others talked about looking forward. Overall, the room was heavy with emotional thought. In the end, one of our professors, Liliana Paredes, asked us all to dance with her around the altar. She wanted to end the day with a celebration of the lives of those who we had lost. On the way home, we stopped to watch the parades make their way through the center of the city. Giant skeletons hugged the crowds, circles of dancers twirled through the streets, and vibrant spirit animals bounced from side to side greeting all the viewers. Each night we held reflections to discuss our days and decompress emotional topics. This particular reflection was heavy, but our group came out closer and stronger than we were before. These continued almost nightly throughout the entire two weeks.

We then travelled to Puebla, a three-hour drive out the city and across a mountain range. On the first night, we visited The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, a 16th-century Mexican Catholic parish church built atop the Tlachihualtepetl pyramid. This was the first of many visits to colonial churches throughout the area. While the churches were stunning and fabulously designed, we were accompanied by historian and friend, Jonathan, who contextualized the nature of these churches in Mexico’s history of religious imperialism. The church looked out over Cholula, a smaller town within the state of Puebla. The sunset behind the mountains as we observed the city lights come to life. 

The following day we drove an hour closer to the base of the volcano that overlooks Cholula to visit local communities with strong ties to Philadelphia. We witnessed the process of making pulque from the maguey plant, which is pretty unique to this area. After tasting the pulque (before it had fully fermented), we drove an hour back into town to try their restaurant, Milli. The food was delicious, affordable, made from organic and traditional ingredients, and all-around impressive. We spent a lot of our remaining time in Cholula exploring restaurants, hearing talks, and working with the UDLAP students on our infographics. On Thursday night we said goodbye to the UDLAP students over pizza and wine and shared a thank you gift with their organizing professor, Myrna. It was upsetting to say goodbye to students that I had only recently befriended, but I hope to be back soon enough to keep up those relationships.

By Friday we were back in Mexico City. We drove hours back across the mountain range to visit Frida Kahlo’s home, followed by a tour of Leon Tronsky’s. Her home was intricately decorated, beautifully landscaped, and full of stunning artwork. Her husband (at one point ex-husband) Diego Rivera also featured art in many of the rooms throughout the house. After our trip to Frida’s home, we journeyed to a final dinner with the voceros from ODA. Our professors said goodbye to their friends and eventually, we ventured to our hotel near the airport. In the morning we ate breakfast and said goodbye to our friends and guides throughout the trip, Jonathan and Heraldo. They walked us to the airport, hugged us goodbye, and sent us back to the U.S. feeling like two weeks had flown by.