NVC Faculty Member Explores African Heritage in Mexico

By NVC English Faculty Melinda Zepeda

To try to sum into words the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar experience that I was selected to participate in this past August 2021 is like trying to shove Cinderella’s stepsister’s foot into Cinderella’s own glass slipper. It just doesn’t work.

The Fulbright Hays Seminar to Mexico that I participated in was titled, “The Third Root: Exploring African Heritage in Mexico”, and to position this topic, the seminar opened in Harlem, New York City, New York, to include lectures by scholars researching to uncover the underground slave railroad believed to have helped runaway slaves travel from the United States South, including our Southwest region, into Mexico. This introduction to the seminar included a visit to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, creating a foundation for the longer, month-long conversation that would be held throughout Mexico City, Mexico, and Mexico’s southern states.

To recount the experience, there was the wonderfully organized and well-scheduled program the Mexican host agency Fulbright COMEXUS expertly organized. The program included over two dozen lectures from expert scholars in the field conducting research about the African presence in Mexico, including historians whose research focused on foodways, colonialism, and musicology. These lectures were delivered throughout universities and cultural sites in Xalapa, Tlacotalpan, Port of Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca. When I was not learning directly from the expert scholars in the field, the Fulbright COMEXUS staff served as tour guides, providing insight into Mexican gastronomy, insight into the historical importance of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) including the 1968 Movimiento Estudiantil, and insight into every aspect of contemporary Mexican culture.

There were the fascinating and necessary visits to some of the most important museums in the world, including a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and the Palacio Nacional, each home to some of the world’s most iconic Mexican art and archeological artifacts. The seminar included site visits to Teotihuacan and Monte Albán to explore the genius architectural and astrological knowledge of these civilizations.

There was also the extraordinary opportunity to learn from other Fulbright Fellows studying alongside me, a group of 15 academicians whose discipline trainings were diverse and included two community college administrators, a children’s author, and multiple faculty whose specializations ranged from colonial Mexican history to Afro-Latino/a literature.

There was the special opportunity to explore past and present Mexican identidad through a melding of learning steeped in history that included cutting-edge gastronomy, art, and music. The tie to African heritage in Mexico was routinely and consistently centered such that it is incredibly evident how important African culture is to largely South and Central America and, more specifically, Mexico.

And now, there is an awesome opportunity for me to share this knowledge with our students to help them—many of whom identify as Mexican American—understand the depth and richness of their Mexican culture even as they help me understand my own Mexican American culture. The Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar expects its Fellows to implement lessons reflecting their seminar learning experiences, and thus far, the first learning module I will implement into the composition courses I teach focuses on foodway connections between the culinary traditions of Africa, Mexico, and the United States South, inevitably connecting to our students’ own cultural foodways and food traditions. This, in turn, centers our students’ own lived experiences in a humanizing, transformative pedagogical approach to writing.

To express that the Fulbright experience was an opportunity of a lifetime is, quite simply, an understatement. As a writer, it is a great satisfaction to find the specific words that best express my beliefs and feelings. But for me—even after all this that I have detailed—I cannot quite verbalize what it means to know Mexico—a country familiar to me not only because of my own ethnic identity but also because of my numerous cultural traditions tying me to Mexico—the way I have come to know Mexico because of the Fulbright Hays learning experience. The humility and indebtedness I have towards the Fulbright organization for this opportunity runs deep. And the splendor, diversity, and cultural richness of Mexico demands, at the very least, celebration. But, in a truer sense, the richness of Mexico deserves reverence.

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