Studying México

Nearly three hundred thousand scholars haveparticipated in the Fulbright program sinceits inception more than sixty years ago. Onlyabout one third of these scholars originatefrom the United States; the rest come from countries allover the world, including Mexico. In fact, the FulbrightProgram, which is run out of the US Department of State,operates in 155 countries, 55 of which are run in partnershipwith host governments.We interviewed five American Fulbright scholars whosefellowships brought them to Mexico. What became clearin our conversations with them was not only the amazingdiversity of academic interest and creativity, but just howimportant the fellows´ interactions with their Mexicancolleagues, friends, and acquaintances were toboth their research and in-country experience.As Senator Fulbright suggested, the experienceis not only academic: reason is often fueledby compassion and vice versa.

Pochos & Cholos: A man-on-the-street approach to attitudes toward assimilation

Adam Lewkowitz
• field of study: sociology
• degree: currently working toward MD
• project: Redefining Americanness: How the binational pocho identity affects Mexican assimilation in the United States
• where: Tijuana, Baja California, at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte,Mexico's premier institute of border studies
• time period: August 2006 to May 2007
• hometown: Phoenix, Arizona
• Spanish: adjusting from Chilean to Mexican Spanish.

* pocho: Term to describe USborn children of Mexican immigrants, but often highly derogatory in the American Southwest, meaning Mexicans who don’t teach their children Spanish or observe Mexican holidays, and who self-identify as American.
* cholo: Term -- often associated with gangs, drugs, and violence--for Mexican American who act in opposition to mainstream American culture. Stereotypically, cholos are identified by their baggy pants, white tank tops, thick silver chains, and tattoos.

How did you choose your topic?

My undergraduate thesis in Sociology examinedhow the pocho* and cholo* identities affectMexican-American assimilation in the UnitedStates. My sample group of thirty participantsstated that they would prefer that their childrengrow up to be neither pochos nor cholos. I wasstunned to discover that if forced to choose, theywould prefer unanimously that their childrengrow up to be gang-banging, tattooed cholosrather than monolingual English-speaking,entirely Americanized pochos. I wondered whythere was such an anti-pocho attitude in theMexican-American community and I wanted todetermine if Mexican immigrants arrived on USsoil with an anti-pocho prejudice or if it evolvedin response to living in a hostile host society. So,my Fulbright project was born.

How does your project fit into the body ofwork on the subject?

Academics have proposed countless explanationsfor the Mexican-American population’sslow rates of assimilation into the Americanmainstream, but there are currently no publishedsociological studies analyzing how sociallyconstructed identities like pochos andcholos affect this assimilation rate.

Describe your research methods.

I conducted interviews with a sample group oftwenty-four people, each lasting between a halfhour and an hour. Then, I typed up the transcripts,analyzed them for similarities and differences,and drew my conclusions. My weeklyroutine was not just research: I volunteered everyMonday at La Casa YMCA de Menores Migrantes,which provides housing for newly repatriatedteenagers, and helped them contact theirfamilies. On Wednesdays, I volunteered at ElHospital Infantil de las Californias, which providescare to the poorest families in northernBaja California. I love volunteering, andI learned so much about teenage migrationand child healthcare. Volunteeringtwice a week also gave me access to communitiesthat would not have been a part of my daily lifeotherwise.

Were there any particular moments that youconsidered to be turning points?

I really struggled to find interview subjects.People were wary. However,in January, after a longday of walking the streets of Tijuanathat yielded not one single subject, I decided totreat myself to street tacos. As I was waiting,the man asked me why I was in Mexico, and asI explained my project he started piping in withhis opinions, and agreed to be interviewed. Thatday, I learned that all I had to do was visit thesmall businesses lining the streets, buy something,and strike up conversations with the employeesto get the interviews. Doing more thanfour interviews at a stretch was horrific for mypoor stomach, but excellent for my research.

Did your hypothesis change during your timein Mexico?

Interestingly, my hypothesis did not change,but the evidenc e that supported it was notwhat I anticipated. I thought that the migratoryhistories of the participants—whether theyhad been born in the border region or southernMexico—would determine their familiarity withand opinions of pochos. But what I found wasthat the migratory history of the participantsproved to have no effect on the awareness of,and strong opinions ab out , pocho and choloidentities. Instead, the primary determinantsproved to be the participants’ wealth, education,and documentation status.

If you were to do it again, what would you dodifferently?

I would dress more professionally. In hindsight,I was a 22-year-old American student traipsinginto one of the most important Mexican institutionson border issues. I didn’t realize how itmust have looked to the famous Mexican academicswho worked there to have an Americanstudent—with unruly hair and wearing flipflops—in their midst. At the time, I was freshout of college and didn’t even think of the imageI was presenting when I rolled out of bed to goto work.What are you working on now?I jus t finished my first year at Mount SinaiSchool of Medicine in New York City. I have discoveredthat I am still able to use my sociologybackground while in medical school. I am doinga research project on the long-term effectivenessof a diabetes outreach program in Nogales, AZ.

Systemic Balance: Transpiration and cloud forest dynamics in Veracruz

Heidi Asbjornsen
• field of study: ecology
• degree: PhD
• project: Studying the Effects of Land Use Change on Water Resources in a Montane Cloud Forest Zone
• where: the highlands of Xalapa, Veracruz.
• university: Associate Professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa
• hometown: Southbury,Connecticut, USA
• Spanish: fluent 

* Transpiration: the passage of water vapor from a living body (as of a plant) through a membrane or pores.

What was your hypothesiswhen you began your research?

My main hypothesis was that cloud forestdeforestation will significantly alter the waterbalance by changing the amount of water lostfrom the ecosystem through plant transpiration*,as well as the amount of fog and cloudwater captured by the forest canopy. I expectedthat these changes would eventually affect theamount and timing of stream-flow at the watershedscale.

How did you choose your topic?

I had already been working on this topic inVeracruz for a couple of years, and decided thatcontinuing my research as a Fulbright Scholarwould be a great opportunity to work moreclosely with my Mexican colleagues. I lived inCoatepec, Veracruz (near Xalapa) and my hostinstitution was the Instituto de Ecología de XalapaAC (INECOL).

How does your project fit into the body ofwork on related subjects?

Most past work on the ecohydrology of montanecloud forests has been conducted in very wetclimatic zones (with rainfall exceeding 4000 mmannually) where there is no marked seasonalityin rainfall. Additionally, very few studies havequantified plant transpiration in cloud forests.Our research is unique in being conducted in arelatively dry and seasonal cloud forest zone,and will provide estimates of how much water isbeing used, both by individual tree species andthe entire ecosystem.

Describe some of the challenges you faceddoing your research.

One of the greatest challenges was weather:heavy rains, lightning storms, and hurricanewinds. Travel conditions—such as a dirt roadthat would get washed out —often made it difficultto get to our field site and carry out research.

What were the biggest surprises you encounteredduring your time in Mexico? How didyou respond to them?

One of my greatest surprises were the findingsof two of my collaborators on the project, Drs.Friso Holwerda and L.A. Sampurno Bruijnzeel,indicating that the amount of additional fogwater captured by the cloud forest canopy inCentral Veracruz—less than 5 percent of annualrainfall—was relatively small comparedto other cloud forests worldwide (between 10-40percent). This led us to consider the possibilitythat in the Veracruz seasonal cloud forests theindirect effects of fog on reducing plant transpirationmay be more important for the ecosystemwater balance than cloud water capture.

What were your “final” findings/conclusionsin relation to your Fulbright grant?

My PhD student working on this project, MartinGomez Cárdenas, found that transpirationrates of young, fast-growing species such aspines (used in reforestation) and alder (whichbecomes established after forest disturbance)are much greater than the transpiration ratesof mature cloud forest species. This suggeststhat conversion of cloud forest to pine reforestationor young regenerating forest may increasetotal water use by the vegetation, at least in theshort-term. However, we are still in the processof quantifying these effects on stream-flow atthe watershed scale.

What was it like for you to be studying Mexicoas a foreigner?

Mexicans with whom I interacted were extremelywelcoming, open, and supportive, and reallywent out of their way to help me feel at home.There is a lot of interest about how forests andreforestations affect water supply and quality,because the Mexican government has severalprograms that pay communities and individuallandowners to conserve forests and reforest degradedlands, with the goal of improving waterresources. Unfortunately, science usually takesmore time than a lot of people realize, so sometimesit was difficult for people to understandthat we still don’t have all the answers.

What are you most proud of from your timein Mexico?

A conference I organized with Mexican colleagueson issues related to water, entitled “Linking Scienceand Policy for Enhancing Water ResourceManagement in Mexico,” was held at UNAMin March. Presenters talked about the social,policy, environmental, and economic aspects ofwater resources in Mexico. Attendees came frommany different universities, government institutions,and NGOs in Mexico, so we had diverseperspectives and interesting discussions. Moreinformation about this conference can be foundon the website We arehoping to organize similar conferences as part ofthe Fulbright program in the future.

Uncoveringthe guerrillas:How rural rebellion interruptedthe telling of Mexico history

Alexander Aviña
• field of study: history
• degree: PhD student
• project: Studying the emergence of guerrilla groups in Mexico during the 1970s
• where: Mexico City/Guerrero
• university: University of Southern California, Los Angeles
• hometown: San Luis Obispo, California
• Spanish: fluent

How did you chooseyour topic?

In my last undergraduate year, Iwrote a research paper on the infamous 1968Tlatelolco student massacre. I learned that inthe aftermath of that movement several armedgroups emerged with th e int ent ion o f overthrowingthe Mexican state. Aware that littleresearch existed on those groups, combined withan interest in Mexican peasant movements (dueto my family’s peasant origins in Michoacán,Mexico), I decided to research two peasant guerrillagroups that existed in Guerrero prior tothe student massacre. They were The NationalCivic Revolutionary Association (ACNR) andParty of the Poor (PDLP).

What is your thesis?

I argue that violent state responses to (peaceful)popular demands for democracy and economic developmentprovoked the emergence of revolutionaryguerrilla movements. The majority of ACNRand PDLP guerrillas began their activism duringthe early 1960s. They sought to democratize statepolitics, reform the PRI, and rid Guerrero of localregionalcacique strongmen that formed a nexus ofpolitical and socio-economic power. But, peacefuldemonstrations were put down with a series ofmassacres. These massacres convinced a numberof peasants, rural laborers, schoolteachers, anduniversity students of the necessity for revolutionarychange on a national scale.

How does your project fit into the workdone on the subject?

In contrast to social science literature that representsthe decades after 1940 as a stable “paxpriísta” with unprecedented economic growth,my project proposes to explore an instance ofrural rebellion that disrupts the traditionalnarration of post-1940 Mexican history. Mywork joins a small but growing scholarship thatseeks to dismantle the myth of pax priísta andrender visible the social movements that set thefoundation for the end of PRI rule in 2000.

Describe your research methods.

To reconstruct the history of the ACNR andthe PDLP, I drew extensively upon recentlydeclassified intelligence and counter-insurgency documents; military records; manifestos,speeches, letters, and communiqués producedby the guerrillas; newspaper articles; testimonialliterature; and oral histories. My methodsincluded interviews with ex-guerrillas and theirrelatives.

Describe some of the challenges you faceddoing your research.

Due to the sensitive nature of the recently declassifieddocuments, certain archivists at theNational Archive restricted my access to somedocuments using dubious, even illegal, argumentsto justify their decision.

What were your conclusions?

I saw the breadth and extreme violence ofmethods used by the Mexican state to wipeout the ACNR and PDLP in 1970s Guerrero.Such violence was not only unconstitutional,it also savaged the social fabric of Guerrero’scommunities—a phenomenon that poignantlylives on in the state. For instance, some 500-1000 guerrerenses “disappeared” at the handsof the Mexican military remain unaccountedfor. People continue to hope for the return ofloved ones.

Were there any particular moments thatyou considered to be turning points foryour research?

During the first week of April 2007, I was invitedby a group of social activists on a weeklongbus tour from Mexico City to Chihuahuathat retraced the histories of various guerrillagroups that emerged during the 1960s and 70s.I was able to converse with ex-guerrillas, andobtain crucial insights into the factors that provokedthe rise of popular insurgent groups.

What was it like for you to be studyingMexico as a foreigner?

As a Mexican-American son of immigrant parents,with experiences in Mexico, I was oftenable to conceal my status as a foreigner. Whileriding in the back of a truck through the mountainsof Chihuahua, a woman who participatedin a 1970s guerrilla group openly disparagedthe “mongrelized culture” of Mexican-Americans.After five or ten minutes she stopped,and I announced, “but I’m Mexican-American!”Laughter erupted and she apologized profusely.I think I was able to change her thinking.

What are you most proud of from yourtime in Mexico?

The amazing, lasting friendships I forged withMexican social activists, former guerrillas, and several fellow Fulbrighters.

Patternsof PreventionStopping the violence in Ciudad Juárez

Carliene S. Quist
• field of study: sociology
• degree: BA
• project: to evaluate the gender violence prevention programs run by the Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis
• where: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua
• university: College of St. Benedict
• hometown: St. Cloud, MN
• Spanish: proficient, conversational

How did you choose your topic?

My Fulbright project flowed out of my undergraduatesenior thesis, which looked at the femicide(high rates of female murders) in CiudadJuárez. I had come across information aboutthe Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis AC, a nonprofitcommunity organization that offers freeprofessional services for the prevention of genderviolence. The Center provides psychologicalhelp, social work, and medical services, as wellas community education programs including lectures,workshops, and children’s puppet theatre,all aimed at preventing violence. I contactedthe internationally-respected director of CasaAmiga, Esther Chavez Cano, to propose a study,both quantitative and qualitative, of the consequencesof prevention programs on the lives ofparticipants.

Why is your project important?

National and especially international mediapicked up on the horrifying reality of femicidein Ciudad Juárez, which was in the midst ofgreat economic, political, and social changes.Academic researchers began to investigate theongoing gender violence in a systematic, scientific,multidisciplinary manner, resulting in aclearer understanding of the characteristics andlocations of such violence.Scarce, however, was information about theprevention of violence, due in large part to thefact that prevention policies and programs lackedthe structure and implementation strategies thatwould permit evaluation of their efficacy.

Were there any particular moments that youconsidered to be turning points in your research?

About a month into the project, a well-respectedexpert on femicide in Ciudad Juárez reviewedmy research proposal. Her insightful questionstill rings in my ears: “And how long areyou planning to work on this project? Twentyyears?” I had grown my project into a lifetime ofresearch about violence prevention that includedNGOs, the government, and social change.She helped me narrow my focus back to the taskat hand: Casa Amiga’s prevention services andtheir impact in the community.

Describe some of the challenges you faceddoing your research.

I faced a number of challenges that resulted insignificant changes to my work. For example,becoming familiar with the types ofprevention programs at Casa Amiga tookmuch longer than I expected.As I worked on developing a methodology,I came across some new obstacles. Theprevention department experienced onehundred percent turnover at the beginningof 2008, and the health of the Executive Directordeclined. These factors resulted in a shiftin priorities at Casa Amiga, and forced them tofocus on stabilizing and strengthening their day-to-day administrative activities.About halfway through my time, I determinedthat pushing through with the research designthat I proposed would be more of a burden thana benefit for Casa Amiga. However, I had skillsthat could help strengthen the organization, andduring the last few months of the Fulbright Iworked to analyze the organizational structuresand processes at Casa Amiga, and proposed strategiesto increase the efficiency of the delivery ofservices.

What were your “final” findings/conclusionsin relation to your Fulbright grant?

Casa Amiga is at a critical juncture. After nineyears of exponential growth, the center needsto expand its funding base. The founder andExecutive Director, who has been the lifebloodof the organization, must foster leadership toensure Casa Amiga’s success into the future.As Casa Amiga expands, both in Ciudad Juárezand as a model for new centers around Mexico,building evaluation tools into the program willbe important to gauge their effectiveness increating a healthier, safer community.

What were the biggest surprises you encounteredduring your time in Mexico? How didyou respond to them?

A big “surprise,” if I can call it that, was feelingat home in a place so plagued by violence, organizedcrime, and a reputation that elicits fear inthe minds of many Mexicans and people aroundthe world. To paraphrase Esther Chavez Cano,by living in Juárez one realizes that violence isnot everywhere, although it is a significant riskto many, and that violence and fear will not preventmany people from contributing positivelyto their community.

What future hopes do you have for CasaAmiga?

Ultimately, I would love for Casa Amiga to enterinto a collaborative relationship with universities,both in Mexico and the United States, as a livinglaboratory for research in violence prevention. 

LanguageMultiplicity:Safeguarding words before they’re lost

Michael Fillerup
• field of study: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)
• project: teacher training and program development.
• where: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores Antropologia Social (CIE SAS), Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
• when: August 2005 to May 2006
• current position: Director of Bilingual Education/ESL
for the Flagstaff Public Schools and part-time professor at Northern Arizona University
• Spanish: At first I understood maybe 60 percent of what was
being said. The elusive 40 percent usually determined whether or not I caught the bus, missed my plane, or bought a pig instead of a tamale. 

What experience did you have with Mexicobefore coming?

In 1978 I finished my masters in Teaching Englishas a Second Language. I had work lined upin Mexico City, but at the last minute the job fellthrough, so I ended up taking a position on theNavajo Reservation. I always wondered aboutthat detour that sent me north instead of southof the border.

What was your Fulbright project?

I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship as alecturer, so the focus of my project was teachertraining and program development.I have three primary areas of expertise inrelated fields: teacher training; program design;and curriculum/materials developmentin bilingual education, indigenous languageeducation, and English as a second language(ESL) programs.Teacher training and program developmentin a culturally diverse state like Oaxaca seemeda natural fit for my skills and interests. Oaxacahas a very large indigenous population (38 percent)and lots of linguistic diversity: sixteen indigenouslanguages and hundreds of dialects.The concentration of indigenous people allowedme to have numerous conversations aboutlanguage and culture. I talked with people fromall walks of life—educators, taxi drivers, thewoman in the bakery, the old man sweepingthe street, the doctor. Wherever I traveled inthe state of Oaxaca, everyone seemed to havean opinion about indigenous languages.I developed a series of seven workshops dealingwith language teaching, language acquisition,program design, and materials development.However, my favorite workshop was onetitled “Language Loss and Revitalization: Lessonsfrom the Navajo, Warnings to Mexico.”

What did you learn about indigenouslanguage preservation in Mexico?

Unlike in the US, indigenous languages in Mexicoare hardly on the ropes. But in spite of the favorablenumbers, Mexico should be on the alert.Here are some facts. Between 1950 and 2000,the percentage of monolingual speakers of indigenouslanguages dropped from 32.5 percentto 16.9 percent. The number of bilingual speakers(Spanish and their indigenous language)increased from 67.5 percent to 83.1 percent. Onthe positive side, this means more people arelearning the national language, which can resultin educational and employment opportunities.The statistics also suggest that indigenous parentsand communities now have a choice: theycan choose to speak the indigenous language,they can choose to speak the national language,or they can choose to speak both. It sounds verysimplistic, but these choices will determine theultimate survival of a language. If the parentsdon’t pass the language down to their children,within a generation it will be endangered; withintwo, it will be defunct. This is the sad lessonwe learned in the US: indigenous language lossoccurs quickly, almost stealthily.

Describe a challenge you faced in your work.

At my workshops hardly anyone spoke English,so I had to deliver my workshops in Spanish. Itwas a steep learning curve but exactly what I’dsigned on for. I still miss that adrenaline rushwhen someone would ask me a question andI had absolutely no idea what they had said,and fifty pairs of eyes would be staring at me,anxiously waiting for my inspired response.Fortunately, my Spanish improved—fast.

What surprised you during your time inMexico?

I have never seen a people who can do so muchwith so little. In the US we have lots of stuff—books, computers, technology. The Mexicanpeople don’t have nearly as much. But they areamazingly resourceful with what they have.Nothing is thrown away; everything is used andre-used and re-re-used.

What advice would you give otherresearchers?

Get an introduction. My first few weeks I wasgoing around like a Fuller Brush man trying topeddle my workshops. I guess word got out thatthis tall gringo was trying to get his foot in thedoor. Maggie Hug of COMEXUS called me fromMexico City and enlightened me: “We appreciateyour initiative, but this is Mexico… you need anintroduction.”

Will you continue to study indigenouslanguages in Mexico?

I will be retiring from the public school systemin a year or two, after which I would like topursue my research interests. I would love toreturn to Mexico and carry out formal researchin the area of indigenous language preservationand be involved in the development of indigenouslanguage preservation and revitalization programs.