There’s a word in Mexican Spanish, güera, which is frequently used to address light skinned women like myself. I literally hear it everywhere—at the market, ¿Güera, qué vas a llevar?; at the corner taco stand, ¿Qué más güerita?; when I pay my bills at the convenience store, ¿Güera, todo bien?—all of which more or less translate to “What do you need, white girl?” It isn’t meant to be offensive in anyway, it’s more an observation than anything… as in, I am white, and taking advantage of the services of these merchants, and they want to help me with everything I need. However, it does point out my otherness in this country, in a way that sometimes makes me feel like I don’t necessarily belong in Mexico. But, this is my home and where I choose to be local right now, and generally speaking, being a güera here only means that I am subjected to random lines of questioning all the time (taxi drivers, doctors, etc.: “where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?”), rather than being in a state of constant fear because of the color of my skin. If anything, having the opportunity to be called a güera is another sign of my privilege: the privilege I had to have grown up in the Bay Area, which with it came access to an excellent education and economic mobility; the privilege to be mobile enough to move to another country and to learn what it is like to be kind of different; the privilege to work with themes I value (food security, environmental sustainability), rather than doing a job I have to because I need to pay the bills…
This privilege feels especially relevant right now for so, so many reasons. Most of my interactions with the U.S. at this point come through facebook and the complete archive of This American Life, and so I find it hard to gauge sometimes how people actually feel about the upcoming election, the excessive police violence, the state of the economy and availability of jobs, etc. I especially find it hard to understand whether people find it comical, like “Yes, this weird shit is happening in our country, but luckily we are smart, capable people and we will use our skillset to affect change in whatever way we can.” or, if people are legitimately at the point where this meme (in which I was tagged on facebook today) is something to take seriously:
I moved to Mexico for a number of reasons, tacos being one of them of course, but I often wonder about what it means to be a güera in Mexico, trying to help smallholder farmers. One of my primary motivations for working in developing country agriculture has always been the fact that farmers in the developing world inherently do not have access to the same resources (scientific capacity in particular) that we might in the U.S. I could insert a great deal about international development theory here, and the once prevalent idea that developing country agriculture needed to employ the technological approaches used in the U.S. and elsewhere rather than locally adapted practices. But, at the risk of going on a long tangent, instead I want to emphasize that much work in agricultural development has shifted to a more participatory approach. That is, simply, in order to appropriately address issues related to pest management, fertility, soil conservation, etc. on smallholder farms in whatever country (in developing or developed countries), we as scientists need to work with farmers to insure that whatever practices we are recommending are socially and environmentally relevant to the area, and in large part are selected and adapted from practices already used at some level locally. In other words, we as scientists have just as much to learn from farmers as they theoretically have to learn from us.
Back to the point: as an expat güera in Mexico working in participatory agricultural development, lately, I think my motivations have shifted from me attempting to help smallholder farmers, to me gaining perspective that I can later apply in the U.S. Being different here, having the opportunity to acknowledge my privilege, learning humility, patience, and acceptance… the attributes that I am developing while in Mexico will go a long way to help me affect change in some way in the U.S. later. This is not to say that everyone needs to move abroad to figure out how to be of service in their own communities, the point is that if we want the U.S. to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to live a happy and healthy life, we need to do something. Like, the joke is that all educated people will move abroad if Trump is elected, but if anything, I think it should motivate us to stay home, dig in deeper, and apply whatever skills we have to make our communities better.