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From Oxnard to Mexico, for the Language and Understanding

Visits embarked upon to learn Spanish yield far more, including insight about culture and politics, a view of issues that confound both sides of a border.

September 03, 2000|JOHN FLYNN | Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn represents District 5, the Oxnard area

During the last four years, I have visited several cities in Mexico. This summer I returned to Guadalajara with the main purpose to continue my study of the Spanish language. My objective is to be fluent in two more years. Actually, I like to travel to Mexico for several reasons, and I will tell you about them.

After all, it is the mother country of many of my friends and constituents. I enjoy the time there and will relate what I learn, where I stay, what I do. Also, I will make some observations.

Studying Spanish in Mexico, to say the least, is fun. I attend the University of Guadalajara's program for foreigners. The school has about 300 students who come mainly from the United States, Japan, Canada, Germany, Australia, France and Korea. The students from Canada are primarily from Quebec, so French is their language. Students converse only in Spanish. At any one time there can be a class with students represented from all these countries. Being the oldest member of the class composed mostly of students 20, 21 and 22 years old, I am a magnet for additional responsibilities, such as taking students to the doctor, helping with homesick issues and so forth.

The school costs about $500 for a five-week course, meeting every week day for four hours. An entrance exam is given to determine to what level you will be assigned. I eventually stayed with a family at $18 per day room and board with a shared bathroom. The family can be your best teacher if you are not sensitive about making mistakes. In almost every family, the comfort level is high and family members will help you learn.

On this trip, I decided to experience some different economic levels: First, I lived for two days in a high-income area, and then in a mid-range hotel. Later I moved to a $8-per-day hotel in downtown Guadalajara and then into a family residence near the school. The downtown area was most fascinating.

At night, thousands of families come out of their homes, and the central section pulsates with music, entertainment in the plazas, eating and games. The people here are not well-off. In the best Spanish that I could muster, I would talk with them about how they live, politics and the recent election, artists and writers, food, religion, taxes, local government, newspapers, radio and television. They were very helpful, especially when I explained why I was there.

The things that I noted were the family togetherness, the interest in children, the respect children show to people of all ages and the manner of speech people use to address each other. The Mexican people have beautiful words of endearment, such as mamita, mija, mijo, and greetings such as "muy buenas noches" with hand shakes and abrazos. There was great respect given toward others. Older people were not fearful of teenagers. More than once, I observed young people giving some coins to an impoverished oldster.

During these excursions, I engaged people in conversation about the recent national, state and local elections. I wanted to know what they thought of Vicente Fox, the president-elect. Most working people remained distrustful of all political parties. Some were pessimistic about change. Although they wanted change and they wanted Fox to succeed, some withheld judgment. The middle class was very supportive of Fox but they also wanted corruption rooted out. I talked with one doctor who expressed grave concern about the deep corruption. He wanted Fox to be successful but expressed reservations. The voter turnout was impressive on election day, July 2. My observation is that Fox is a smart leader and senses the popular support for change. He will bring together consensus and use what Phil Jackson, Laker coach, knows so well, and that is how to build teams. Personally, I like Fox and think that he came along at the right time in Mexican history.


The press is a strong force in Mexico. Two publications that I like are La Jornada and Reforma, published in Mexico City. Editorial writers and journalists are very erudite and craft articles that are impressive. Fox has to measure up to their high standards; every policy announcement is lampooned or praised but always carefully analyzed. A dictionary is a handy tool when reading newspapers in Mexico--for me, anyway.

While there is a growing middle class in Mexico, many people strive every day to eke out the means for survival. They make it, but it's a struggle. I can understand why so many come to this country. The maquiladoras, many U.S.-owned, have attracted people to the frontier. When the jobs are not there, they cross the border. Poverty knows no international boundary lines. One has to live there in Mexico to understand the circumstances. It is the search for this understanding that is also a reason that I travel south of the border.


People here in California are worried about the cultural impact caused by immigration, but I have observed that the economic invasion into Mexico by the United States is pervasive and profound. This can be seen in some upscale malls that mainly attract young people. Is this good or evil? I don't know the answer, but I wonder about how this will impact the beautiful human relationships of the Mexican culture.

By now you can tell that I like Mexico and its people. My experiences tell me that the United States and Mexico need to work in the following areas:

* Find ways to be better neighbors.

* Build respect for each others' institutions.

* Improve some of the elements of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that bother both countries.

* Work to improve job opportunity in Mexico in a less pervasive way.

* Find a more reasonable approach to border issues. What we have now is inhumane and costly.

* Find ways for authorities in both countries to be kinder and gentler.

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