Study abroad program helps shape students' Mexican identities

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Photo Credit: Ashley Nava | Daily Texan Staff

Growing up in Houston, history junior Diana Landa heard her parents talk about life in Mexico, but couldn’t relate to them.

This summer, Landa visited Mexico and met her extended relatives for the first time through UT’s Transnational Latinx Studies program in Mexico City.

“Before, I would think of Mexico, but didn’t feel like I had people there for me,” Landa said. “When I think of Mexico now, I have faces to think of.”

The 3-year-old study abroad program is open to students of any major and background but has become an avenue for students of Mexican descent to connect with the country and explore their identity.

During the six-week summer program, students learn about Mexican and Mexican American history through a cultural studies course, independent research and go on excursions to museums and archaeological sites. Landa said these excursions helped her understand her parents. 

“I would kind of picture my mom and dad on these trips and would be like, ‘Oh, this is how they grew up and that’s why they are the way they are.’” Landa said. “I really liked getting to kind of step in their shoes and see how they grew up as kids.”

Laura Gutierrez, associate professor and interim department chair of Mexican American and Latino Studies, developed the program curriculum. She said a lot of the students who enroll in the program have connections to Mexico like Landa, but don’t always have a broader understanding of their heritage.

“There’s a lot of homegrown knowledge with students that grew up culturally as Mexican (in the U.S.),” Gutierrez said. “But (the department) felt we needed to activate that knowledge and have them make bigger connections to Mexican history, Mexican culture, Mexican society and how that’s connected to the U.S.”

Luis Garza, a linguistics and anthropology junior from Brownsville, also knew about Mexican culture from his parents and living near the border, but said the program made him think more about what it means to be Mexican.

“It was a big part of our class discussions and it’s a discussion I’ve had before in the U.S., but being in Mexico I felt validated.” Garza said. “I now feel a little more secure saying I’m Mexican-American and know more about Mexico and its contemporary struggles.”

Guadalupe Reyna, an anthropology and government senior, enrolled in the program last summer to look at Mexico from an academic lens. Unlike her peers, she had already been to Mexico City, but said the experience still helped her reassert her Mexican identity.

“For me it was not so much of reconnecting with my culture, but more of reclaiming a place as my home,” Reyna said. “I was born in Austin, but it doesn’t feel like my home. In Mexico City, I didn’t feel like I was fighting for my identity.”

As policy and rhetoric concerning immigrants in the U.S. continue changing, Gutierrez said making the program accessible to all students, regardless of legal status, is a growing concern.

“It does feel particularly harsh to be Mexican in the U.S. right now,” Gutierrez said. “I think this program grapples with this and it’s why we have concerns about the program not being open to everyone.”

Editor’s note: The Daily Texan’s Helen M. Powell scholarship gives one current or ex-staff member the opportunity to travel and report outside of Austin. This year’s recipient, Maria Mendez, studied abroad in Mexico City and wrote about her peers’ experiences.