Sunday, October 10, 2010

My Mexico

By Craig Reck,
In Mexico

IIJ Foreign Correspondence Intern
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism

I'd like to introduce my first entry to the IIJ blog. The International Press institute recently named Mexico named the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Ten journalists have been murdered this year alone.

Anyone that checks international headlines once in a while knows that Mexico's drug cartels are the cause of these problems. Northern Mexico is so chaotic that journalists are changing their methods to save their lives. El Diario de Juarez used the editorial section to write an open letter to the cartels, appealing to the true authorities of the area. Jorge Luis Aguirre was the first Mexican journalist to receive asylum in the U.S., and he certainly won't be the last.

But that's not the Mexico I know. I am living in Mérida, Mexico, the biggest city in the Yucatan Peninsula. I chose Mérida because the southern part of the country is practically the Dr. Jekyll to the northern Mr. Hyde. The Yucatan has always had a bit of distance from the rest of the country - a deep ocean to the north and thick forests to the south.

While the north is a media frenzy of drugs and violence, the south is only mentioned when an American is reported missing from a vacation trip in Cancun or Cozumel.

But what about the positives? Last week, I attended two events where the local government provided new ambulances and free medical service to small towns. The week before that, Mérida became the newest partner of UNICEF.

Among so much positivity in such a negatively portrayed country, I realized that smiling is a second language. (Cue original post).

Living in a non-English speaking country can be overwhelming at times. Even with a strong understanding of the native lexicon, I still have moments of miscommunication - mostly caused by colloquialisms and slang. So what is a journalist to do when he's drowning in a sea of phrases that Sol y Viento left out?


I haven't stopped smiling since I stepped off the plane a month ago - and it's not because this place is paradise. I believe that a smile can do more than basic phrases like "Dónde está el baño?" for a person visiting a foreign country. Smiles are universal!

Smiling, in a sense, is one of the most basic forms of acknowledging comprehension. More personal than a nod of the head, smiling shows comfort and acceptance of a situation. Standing around with journalists before a press conference, I smiled at someone's joke about his colleague's big head. Pow! Just like that, I was no longer considered an outsider unable to connect with my Spanish-speaking counterparts. Well, not completely, but my smile was the conversational ice-breaker.

As my comfort increases, so does my speaking. But don't think I've reduced my smiling habits. A significant amount of people speak a little English in Mérida, but the farther you venture from the downtown area of hotels and tourists, the less English is known. And the deeper you travel into the countryside, the more prevalent the Mayan language becomes.

When I'm in a rural area, I make sure to smile at all of the people intently staring at me. I assume that I am one of a few white people they've seen in their entire lives, so a smile always comes first. Soon enough, I open my mouth and gradually turn a few heads. This goofy-looking gringo speaks Spanish!

No matter how versed I might be in a language, I can always rely on my smile. When a language barrier is present, I always aspire to at least make a good first impression - and it doesn't get much better than a smile. =)

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