Media stereotypes of violent nations should not cloud perceptions of those countries

By MARIAJOSE RODRIGUEZ-PLIEGO ’16

Assistant Opinions Editor

Last week, Mexico made the front page of newspapers around the world, once again capturing the spotlight thanks to its notorious drug war. When I saw the picture of El Chapo Guzmán on the front page of the New York Times, I became frustrated. This was yet another incident that I knew was going to severely perpetuate negative stereotypes about Mexico. The picture confirmed all of the assumptions that people make about Mexico: the green-clad soldiers with guns strapped to their waists and the legendary drug lord, complete with a mustache and handcuffs. The photographs of El Chapo capture the most unfortunate facts about Mexico and circle the media, confirming the stereotypes about Mexico as a violent, conflict-ridden place.

Throughout my first two years living in the United States, I have struggled to combat stereotypes about Mexico. Part of my frustration comes from the fact that I constantly find myself escaping these stereotypes. People never think that I am from Mexico. Every time that a stranger hears me talking in Spanish, I get the exact same question: “Are you from Spain?” During first-year orientation at Wellesley I met a student who was extremely surprised to learn that I was from Mexico. She asked, “But are your parents from Spain? No? Are your grandparents from Spain?” I had to assure her more than once that every single relative and ancestor I have is Mexican, whatever that might mean. The color of my skin spares me more racism than I will ever know, at least up until the point when I emphatically tell people that I am Mexican.

Growing up, I read headlines and watched newscasts about conflicts in other countries and constructed pictures in my head that I automatically associated with those countries, countries that were only abstract, far away and violent places to me as a child. One morning I opened a newspaper and learned that my city, Monterrey, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, alongside places that I had formed stereotypes about in my head. My life had changed gradually as a result of the ongoing drug conflict that arose from President Calderon’s declaration of war on drug traffickers. I began to get home earlier on weekend nights, avoid certain areas of the city and make sure that my parents always knew where I was. But mostly I went on with my daily routine, and so did everyone else around me.

Living in a place that the rest of the world labeled as extremely violent made me rethink and deconstruct all of the stereotypes I had created about dangerous places. I hear about conflicts in this or that country and resist the urge to let the notion of violence cloud my perception of these countries, because I know from personal experience that there is much more to a country and to a culture beyond the conflicts that it is facing.

As Wellesley students, we cannot simply fulfill our multicultural requirement and learn about foreign countries through textbooks while simultaneously making the mistake of stereotyping foreign cultures. Despite being in an intellectual environment and having access to high-quality education, students often perpetuate stereotypes about foreign countries. I can easily dismiss many exaggerations about Mexico that I hear from students: we do not ride donkeys in sombreros, Cinco de Mayo is not our most important celebration and our food does not involve sour cream or cheddar cheese. These misconceptions enormously oversimplify a culture but are easy to deny because they are very far from the truth.

My frustration starts to grow when I run across stereotypes that I can’t entirely deny: Mexico is being ransacked by drug-related violence, more than half the country lives under the poverty line, machismo is rampant and corruption is deeply entrenched in our institutions. Facing the stereotypes that oversimplify a country down to a handful of unfavorable facts is only slightly less frustrating than knowing that there are hard-truth facts to back up these stereotypes. All of the violence exists, and is part of Mexico’s history and the challenges we face, but it is merely a fragment of who we are. Mexico, and every other country that people dismiss by unconsciously accepting dogmatic ideas, have a tremendous breadth and depth of complexity.

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