‘Image vs. Reality: Getting to Know the People of Mexico’

By Pam Besel

Danielle Distelhorst ’11. Photo by Pam Besel.

Danielle Distelhorst ’11 knew since the age of 10, what she wanted to with her life.

“I’ve always wanted to work in an embassy, perhaps in Western Africa or Latin America,” says the International Studies and Latin American Studies double major from Marion, Ohio. Distelhorst’s academic minors in Spanish and French, combined with her world travel thus far and love of adventure, offer the right ingredients for a career which calls for cultural understanding, diplomacy, and—a desire to better connect the United States with other world countries. Distelhorst’s most recent travel and learning experience, this one with 10 other OWU students and their economics professor, Bob Gitter, featured a trip during spring break, to Concepción Cuautla and San Antonio Juarez. There, they learned about the Mexican culture and more prominently, about migration experiences of the Mexican people.

“I’ve done mission work in Guatemala, but this was my first academically-oriented trip,” says Distelhorst, who, along with classmate Emily Hastings ’10, stayed in Concepción with a host family, including their host parents, five children, and grandfather, whose community job, as it turns out, was to awaken the town with a horn, mariachi music, and news of the day.

“Our host dad took three days off of his work at a nearby marble and onyx factory to show us around and escort us to Concepción’s elementary and secondary schools,” says Distelhorst. Partnering with Ellen Platt ’12 and with special assistance from Hastings, Distelhorst utilized her earlier experience involving a presentation she prepared about the educational system in Latin America—while accompanying OWU Professor Jeremy Baskes to a professional conference—to plan out their required class project to be presented at Ohio Wesleyan as a culmination to “The Mexican Migration Experience,” one of several intriguing Sagan Fellows courses scheduled during the past year.

“We originally planned to visit only the primary school children and ask them to draw pictures of whatever they wanted [to draw],” says Distelhorst. Their art varied in imagery, as might be expected from young children. As the older students at the three secondary schools were added into the mix, the pictures became more complex, often depicting social issues, immigration-related challenges, and a variety of stereotypes about the United States (wealth, abundance of resources, both natural and monetary, and tall buildings). In all, more than 250 drawings were collected from the students.

A sample of the artwork created by Concepción students. Photo by Pam Besel.

“The older students already had formed their own ideas about what they liked and didn’t like about the United States,” says Distelhorst. Whether through television broadcasts or family conversations, people form opinions and stereotypes.

“If these students knew someone who had migrated to the U.S. and returned to Mexico having had a terrible experience, they were influenced by those stories,” she explains. “Understanding other cultures is important to working toward peaceful relationships [with other countries]. Countries can thrive socially, economically, and politically when they aren’t so concerned about war and fear.”

Reflecting on her experiences in Mexico, Distelhorst points to a culmination of several revelations.

“What is a learning experience? As we discussed in Professor Gitter’s class, it could be found by observing someone plowing a field or enjoying the beautiful plants and scenery of Mexico,” she says. “Or perhaps it is the experience of living with a host family and rising in the morning to eat freshly-baked tortillas with the family.” For Distelhorst, it was the combination of living and learning “on location” in Mexico for nine days, with her prior classroom studies that really made the difference and will have staying power as she prepares for future embassy work.

“In my view, a good embassy should focus on diplomacy and building trust and goodwill with the people of a country—and solid connections to the United States,” she says. “I look forward to that work and to being an insider who can talk directly with people and help to bring about needed change and trust.”