Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wake up call... Mexican style

Hey all... I haven't blogged in a really long time.  But today I had to write a discussion post for my Global Branding Master's class about culture shock.  And because of the context, it seems like a relevant blog post, so here we go...

My most influential experience with culture shock was not recent, but it still sticks out in my mind as if it happened yesterday. I was 17 years old and I went with my youth group on a mission trip to Mexico. We were stationed out of a base camp in Cuernavaca, Mexico, just outside of Mexicali (which is south of the Mexico/California border, inland from Tijuana) and were supporting congregations in the small villages of Colosio and Aldama. As a high school Junior, I was in my third year of Spanish, so although we had a couple of translators with us, in addition to my role as music director for the mission I was charged with helping with communication with the locals. Our goal for the trip was not to convert anyone to a different religion. We were charged with assisting existing congregations by rebuilding churches and providing programs for young women and children.

Ironically, I feel the need to add a disclaimer in at this point. Today, I do not consider myself religious. I am spiritual, but do not subscribe to a specific faith. Some of my conversion toward my current perspective is directly related to what I saw and experienced during this trip, but that is a tangent for another day. On to the point...

I come from an upper-middle class family from the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest. My parents are college educated and have always both been gainfully employed. They still live in the same house they purchased when I was 6. I have one younger sister, with whom I have always been close, a tight extended family and a close-knit group of friends. My education has always been important to me – there was never a moment where I considered not going to college. We went to church while I was growing up but it was never a big part of my life until I decided I wanted it to be as a teenager, which is how I ended up in Mexico on a mission as a high schooler.

While on our mission, we were in some of the poorest parts of Mexico, so it was entirely shocking to learn about the lives of the young people there. But the most surprising part about it was how content they were with a lifestyle that, to me, was completely inadequate.

Enter Marie de Jesus Martinez and Irene Gonzales Morales. Marie was 21 years old and the mother of 7-month-old Teresa, 2-year-old Richard and 3-year-old Karen. Irene was 19 and had a 6-month-old named Yoslin and a 2-year-old boy, whose name I sadly cannot remember now. These two young women showed up our second day in the village and stood at the back of the group while their kids played soccer and jump rope with us, and learned about Play-Doh for the first time. By day three, they were ready to engage. As the lone female Spanish speaker (which is honestly a stretch, but I was pleased that my US high school education allowed me to communicate as well as it did), I was charged with engaging these women.

Marie de Jesus Martinez & Teresa and Irene Gonzales Morales & Yoslin

Me with little Yoslin

We spent hours and hours talking. But not about what you might think girls ages 17, 19 and 21 would chat about… We talked about their lives, and the more they talked the more I wanted to understand. Most of the village of Colosio was without power or running water. Yet, these women and their children appeared every day smelling like sunshine dressed in sparkling clean clothes, and always with supremely delicious snacks to share with the “Gringos." I learned that they rarely went to school as kids and teens – only when there were no chores around the house or siblings to take care of. And what shocked me most was that they didn’t care. They were more concerned with their family and community than about their own education or lifestyle.

At the tender age of 17 (which, if you'll recall, I was at the time), childhood friends Marie and Irene were already married and pregnant with their first children. As a 17-year-old American with MTV, a job as a Library Page, my own car, a Discman and college on the horizon, on behalf of these women I was appalled at the sexism and classism that was hindering their futures. But they weren’t. They were divinely happy with their lives, and to be sharing them with each other. These women had zero desire to ever go to college or have jobs of any kind outside their village. And beyond that, they didn’t care that they had no running water or electricity. They were absolutely content with their lives exactly as they were.

According to Hofstede’s six dimensions, there are several that factor into my culture shock experience, but I will focus on two. The first, and likely dominant dimension, is Individualism. Of all the dimensions, Individualism has the highest disparity between the U.S. and Mexico, with the countries sitting at 91 and 30 respectively (Hofstede, n.d., Matrix of dimension scores). Low numbers on the Individualism spectrum indicate that the culture values community over the individual, which clearly Mexican culture does. As a Collectivist culture, each person is expected to contribute to the success of the group, rather than focusing on individual success (Hofstede, n.d., Dimensions of national cultures). American culture, on the other hand, could hardly be more Individualistic – the focus is entirely on individual success. Success of the group is a bi-product of personal gain. When evaluating my experience with Marie and Irene, it is clear that there was a significant disconnect between us as far as Individualism was concerned.

Power Distance was another dimension that clearly impacted my culture shock. Mexico’s Power Distance ranking is 81, while the U.S. sits at 40 (Hofstede, n.d., Matrix of dimension scores). Obviously, much of Mexico has electricity and running water. And yet the people I encountered on our mission who didn’t have those amenities seemed OK with it. Such beliefs, as well as the high Power Distance number of 81, suggest that the inequality that exists between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is not only tolerated by the "have-nots," but is accepted (Hofstede, n.d., Dimensions of national cultures). Marie and Irene never once, in all of our conversations, hinted at any resentment toward those who had electricity or running water, or who held higher prestige and power. Nor did they even acknowledge any kind of a class differential – even when I directly asked them about it (which I now realize may not have been appropriate).

I have often wondered about Marie and Irene, and little Teresa, Yoslin, Richard, Karen and what’s-his-name. They would now be 37, 35, 16, 16, 18, 20 and 18, respectively. I wonder if the kids are in the same space now that their moms were 15 years ago, nearly at their age. I wonder if Marie and Irene are in the same space. I would love to see what they’ve all been up to, but odds are… none of them are on Facebook.


Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Dimensions of national cultures. Retrieved from

Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Matrix of dimension scores. Retrieved from