Field Trip to Cholula


Another one of the field trips OU’s Faculty in Residence led was to Cholula, a town half an hour from Puebla known for its churches. The story goes that when the conquistadores stood on the biggest hill in Cholula, they could see “a pyramid for every day of the year,” and sought to tear down every “pagan” temple and build a church in its place. As a result, although there certainly aren’t three hundred and sixty-five of them, many churches exist in the municipality of Cholula. We had breakfast at a charming restaurant in the colonial center of town and then went to three of those churches in one day. The first was the Parish of San Pedro de Cholula, sort of the equivalent of a cathedral for a small town. It’s the most important church in Cholula, and it looks the part.

The Parish of San Pedro de Cholula

One cool feature of the parish that you can’t see in this picture is that next to the main church building is a large chapel, the Capilla Real, which has forty-nine small domes, or cupolas, on its roof. The chapel was intended for the local Amerindian population, which was used to worshiping in the open air, and so it used to have open walls. Those have since been closed off to preserve the interior, but the cupolas remain.

The cupolas of the Capilla Real of Cholula


The next church we went to was unique even among the dozens of churches in Puebla and Cholula. Puebla prides itself on its baroque architecture; the center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 2015 the city created the International Museum of the Baroque, which is incredible and well worth a visit. But that’s all Mexican Baroque, created by colonial Spain or by architects seeking to imitate them. This church, the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, is the only example of indigenous or “Indian” Baroque. It was created at the behest of the Spanish, but by local artisans, and contains much Native imagery. For example, the four-petaled flower motif is a reference to the Aztec belief that the world had four corners.

The “Indian Baroque” of Santa Maria Tonantzintla

The church is as visually overwhelming in person as it is in photography; no matter where you look, every bit of space is filled, and there’s always a pair of painted eyes staring at you. (Also, the painted faces become visibly paler and blonder the higher up and “closer to heaven” they are, which is the clearest example of religious colonialism I’ve ever seen.) It’s a fascinating place to go, but I had my fill after a minute or so.

The last church we went to was a real hike, and I mean that literally. When the Spanish tore down every pyramid they saw from that hillside, they had no idea that they were standing on the top of the greatest pyramid of all. The Great Pyramid of Cholula is a series of six structures, one built on top of the other over time, as was local custom. The pyramid was then overgrown by grass, which archaeologists have determined is helping to preserve the building from erosion. For that reason, even though there are several active archaeological sites around and tunnels running through the Great Pyramid, the pyramid itself will never be excavated.

Another reason is the church built on top of the pyramid. La Virgen de los Remedios, or “Our Lady of Remedies,” is so high up that it has a convenience store built next to the chapel, for worshipers to fuel their physical bodies before fueling their immortal souls. There’s no elevator or escalator, as that would damage the pyramid. To get to the church, you have to walk up. While we were there, a couple was taking photos for a wedding. I looked at the bride’s six-inch heels and immaculate dress and could only assume she’d changed after the walk up; I was dying in a t-shirt and sneakers.

La Virgen de los Remedios- yes, that’s really a pyramid under the church

Field Trip to The Centro, and Notes on Cinco de Mayo

My courses with OU’s faculty in residence involved several field trips to locations in the state of Puebla and to the capital. One was to the Museum of the Serdan Brothers and Los Fuertes, or The Forts. Both were the sites of important conflicts during the Mexican Revolution. The Serdan family were revolutionaries who defended their home against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz; their house is preserved today the same way it was the day they died, with bullet holes and shattered mirrors.

La Casa de los hermanos Serdan, bullet holes and all

Los Fuertes is the battleground of the Battle of Puebla, the first great victory the Mexican Army had against invading French forces. Today, the fort the army defended is a museum. The surrounding area contains several more museums along with a cafe, a soccer stadium, and a park with a pond for paddleboats. The anniversary of the battle is celebrated as Cinco de Mayo.

The forts of Los Fuertes
The park of Los Fuertes

Puebla is actually the only state in Mexico that celebrates Cinco de Mayo, and they do it with a long parade. In the city of Puebla, it’s more like Memorial Day than the bacchanalia that the USA has turned it into. Of course, other cities in the state of Puebla have their own celebrations. Some of them involve costumes styled after the china poblana, an enslaved Filipina woman whose elaborate clothing became an emblematic fusion of colonial and local cultures. Other towns fire blanks into the air during their parades, or create carefully-crafted whips that make a great deal of noise when cracked, or dress up as the soldiers who fought off the French. There’s a great deal of diversity in the celebrations, as there is in Mexico as a whole.


My Host University

The university OU is partnered with in Puebla is called UPAEP- la universidad privada autonoma del estado de Puebla, or the autonomous private university of the state of Puebla. It’s officially a Catholic university, but most students are taking pre-professional courses rather than religious studies. Popular tracks for local students are engineering, business, and medicine. One major difference between UPAEP and OU is that medicine in Mexico is a four-year degree and doesn’t require post-grad work. This means that pre-med students from OU can receive clinical experience at UPAEP that wouldn’t be available in the USA until med school.

There are several similar experiences for other lines of study: one math major in my cohort taught mathematics in English to high school students and was reimbursed with food (it’s illegal to receive a salary from a Mexican job if you’re there on a student visa). I taught English to a group of disadvantaged, largely indigenous UPAEP students who were required to study the language to receive their scholarships. I helped them with their homework, designed worksheets and listening activities, and talked them through grammar in both English and Spanish. You aren’t officially required to know Spanish in order to teach English with the UPAEP program, but some students don’t have very much English, so Spanish is a great help in explaining concepts to them.

OU has a study center in Puebla, which makes the life of an OU student in Puebla infinitely easier than one in, say, Santiago, Chile. For example, when you study abroad, your classes at the host university have to be assigned an equivalent course at OU. At many universities, you may be required to save all your course materials and when you get back, those materials might have to be evaluated by the head of your department in order for you to receive credit. At UPAEP, however, many courses are pre-equated, so you don’t have to hoard your Service Learning worksheets.

OU has a designated classroom and a lounge in the main building on campus. (The lounge has a computer and offered free printing during my semester. Try finding that anywhere else at OU!) Every year, OU sends down a professor (in my semester there were two professors, a married couple) to teach courses at UPAEP. These courses count towards your OU GPA, unlike courses taken directly through UPAEP, which is good if you want to improve your grades. The courses also relate to Mexico: in my semester, we took courses on the politics of Mexico and Latin America, and in the spring of 2018 there will be courses on indigenous Mexicans and the environment. There really is something for everyone.





UPAEP Exchange Details and Tips

OU’s exchange with UPAEP is a university exchange, meaning that you pay your normal OU tuition and fees through OU, and they get it to UPAEP for you. Because I’m a National Merit Scholar, my tuition is nothing, so I deliberately sought out university exchange programs. The fee for the program was $1,850 USD when I applied, and that money went to two trips to Mexico City, an excursion to a rural community where we heard the stories of migrant families, a trip to Cholula, a weekend in Cancun, and field trips to museums in Puebla, plus a couple of community dinners. It’s well worth the money you spend, and the study abroad coordinator, Armando, works to stretch every peso.

As far as housing goes, I’m going to plug homestays again. They cost $200 USD less than the apartments did, and you get breakfast and dinner every day included in that cost. My host mother was especially generous and friendly; she would make me lunch on the weekends despite that not being in her contract, she took me to places around Puebla where the other OU students never went, and she and her family had long conversations with me that helped improve my understanding of both the Spanish language and the Mexican culture. For example, “politics” and “politicians” have the same root word in Spanish- las politicas and los politicos. I once said I was taking a class on Mexican politicians instead of Mexican politics, and one person at the table started to tell me about the president’s ties to corruption before my host mom corrected me.

There are a couple of benefits ascribed to the apartments: they’re closer, you have everyone you know living with you, and you’re under less scrutiny than you would be if you were staying with a host family. I won’t deny that the apartments are closer to campus than the homestays, as it’s a fifteen-minute walk to UPAEP from the apartments and a thirty minute combination of bus ride and walk from Las Estrellas Del Sur, where I lived. However, public transportation is extremely cheap. When I was there, the MetroBus service cost seven pesos per ride, and you paid with a metro card. However, if you get tired of being crammed on a bus like sardines in a can, Uber is always available and unbelievably cheap compared to fares in the USA. A fifteen-minute car ride that dropped me off right in front of campus was about $2.50 each day. For comparison, the New York City subway fare is $2.75, and I won’t even start on how much cabs cost there.

The other alleged benefits, that everyone is with you and that you’re not watched as closely, don’t really apply. If you dislike your roommate, there’s nowhere to go, and there’s a pressure to only hang out with the other people in the apartments. By making friends with the other exchange students living near my homestay, I got to go to trips and parties that my cohort in the apartments never heard of. My Spanish definitely improved more compared to theirs, as I had daily exposure to native speakers while they stayed with Anglophones. And actually, there’s more scrutiny on those students who live in the apartments, not less. My host mother gave me a 3 AM curfew and said she didn’t care where I went as long as I got home safe and kept the door open when boys were visiting; the students in the apartments had to be back far earlier and were prohibited from bringing anyone home with them at night. Their door man and my host mother both reported to our study abroad coordinator, but the rules I had to abide by were far less strict.



A Note on LGBT Safety In Puebla

For those LGBT students who want to study at UPAEP, you should be aware that it is indeed a Catholic school. There is a chapel on campus, a small but present contingent of young nuns and priests in training, and a giant mural of a cross. However, this doesn’t mean that the school is unsafe for LGBT students. Puebla is a conservative state, but the city of Puebla itself is more liberal. It’s sort of like Salt Lake City or Oklahoma City in that regard. I only know of two LGBT exchange students who went to UPAEP, myself and a gay man from OU, and both of our experiences were largely positive.

Both of us were out to our cohort from OU, and everyone was fine with it, including both of our professors and one student who was an extremely faithful Catholic. The gay man I knew had been studying at UPAEP since August and had found a local boyfriend. Neither of us experienced any outright homophobia, but then again, neither of us looked like what straight people assume LGBT people look like.

As far as locals go, my Advanced Spanish professor brought up homosexuality during an “if the world were 100 people”-themed lesson, and he and my classmates all treated it as a normal fact of life. That’s not to say that I was entirely open- I never came out to my host mom, although she seemed liberal- but then, I study in Oklahoma and my family lives in Indiana. Neither of those places are the LGBT haven that the United States claims to be, and I don’t let my guard down there either. Nowhere is entirely safe for LGBT people, but the city of Puebla is pretty decent in that regard.


First Impressions- 3/10

I had a tumultuous first few days in Puebla. Everything seemed different and yet oddly familiar. There was a public bus line that took metro cards as fare, similar to a subway line, but there were also six-peso buses that would advertise their routes on the front window. Some of the malls were open-air, with department stores I’d never heard of, and yet they would sell American products like Blizzards in the exact same flavors. Even the convenience stores were a little different: bottled water was only three or four pesos, and they had seemingly impossible-to-pronounce names like “Oxxo.” And yet it’s important to remember that some things that seem odd or novel or uniquely Mexican to me may be more universal than they appear. For example, I had never been to a Wal-Mart before coming to Puebla, and I assumed that the people waiting behind the cashier who put your items into bags were a Mexican phenomenon. Maybe they could afford to do so because of the low minimum wage and less expensive standard of living in Mexico, I theorized. Then I mentioned this topic while on the phone with my mom, and she said US Wal-Marts have them too. I felt like a complete fool, and resolved to remember that some things are universal, Wal-Marts included.

My host mother was incredibly friendly, and some of the international students living in her house took me under their wing for the first few days. There were, admittedly, some cultural disparities: they were native Spanish-speakers, mostly from big cities in Colombia. Latin America is a hugely diverse place, so there were some major differences between where las chicas del esquina (the girls from the corner house, as my host mom called them) came from and Puebla, but they shared a language and had a similar culture. I would compare it to girls from Dublin studying in Manchester: they knew the language perfectly, could relate to the experiences of the locals, and knew more or less how to get around, even if they didn’t know exactly where they were going.

Obviously, none of this was true for me. My housemate Lauren and I went on a couple of trips around Puebla with the girls, and once to a house party, and a similar routine would happen every time. The Colombian girls would lead us on a circuitous route to wherever we were going, necessitating two or three bus rides and at least a fifteen minute walk in between them; the trip would take at least two hours longer than they’d said it would; and all conversation would be in Spanish.

Now, I’m not knocking those trips. We went to some great places: Las Fuertes (the forts where the Battle of Puebla took place, and the park around that museum), the Parian street market at night, the central square of Puebla, and a truly excellent pozole restaurant. It’s just that although I’m an advanced speaker, my Spanish is classroom Spanish. I can write an essay about intersex representation in the film “XXY” without blinking, but casual conversation can stretch me to my limits. Try using your second language to explain the complex rise of nativism in American politics that led to Trump’s election, or say that Carrie Fisher requested that her cremated remains be interred in an oversized model of a Prozac pill. (“Carrie Fisher quisiera que su cuerpo quemado sea puesto en una replica grande de una pastilla de Prozac” was as close as I could get.) This experience has not only helped me improve my Spanish, it’s shown me the vast gulf between what I know and true fluency.


My Host Family- 2/10

My host family is a bit unique in that it’s not a traditional nuclear family. Rather, I live with a divorced mother of two, her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend, and their four dogs. There’s also a girl from Scranton doing a homestay in the same house. I’m the only person from OU who’s living with a host family instead of at the apartments, and I don’t regret that decision. I get two meals a day and my laundry done for me, there’s a bakery five minutes from my house, and I can practice my Spanish every day, plus it’s a few hundred dollars cheaper than living in the apartments.

My host mom is a real character. She owns the house next door and rents it out to around ten students from various Latin American countries, but she says she prefers students on homestay. According to her, it’s less awkward to pay the money through an intermediary, and she considers the students part of her family.

I’ve certainly been treated like a member of the family while I’ve been here. Olivia, my host mother, has taken me on half a dozen trips to the center of Puebla, once while her son was visiting from Tulum. When my mother came to visit me, Olivia showed her around the downtown while I was in class. She’s given me restaurant recommendations, driven me around, and overall been an invaluable resource about Puebla. I highly recommend living with a host family if you get the option.


Mexico Arrival- 1/10

“Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, welcome to the ground.” That’s how the pilot of my plane to Mexico announced our arrival in Puebla, after a rather abrupt drop at the end of a three-hour flight in the smallest jet I’ve ever been on. It was so small that, even though American Airlines normally allows two carry-ons, everyone had to check their second carry-on. If you’re planning on flying into Puebla, make sure your smaller carry-on has all your valuables: if you have to check your laptop, it’ll be returned to you in several pieces.
We met all of our professors, our fellow students, and our student coordinator at the airport. While the last of our cohort made their way through customs, we exchanged the first of our money, and learned a trick for converting pesos to dollars. The exchange rate is currently about 19 or 20 pesos to the dollar, so you take the price in pesos, drop a zero, and divide the result in half.

My first impression of Mexico was of the giant van that took us on the forty-minute drive from the airport, in Huejotzingo, to Puebla proper. (Puebla is both a city and a state, somewhat like New York.) Eight people and all their baggage were crammed together in the van, but it was a good way to start to chat with people.

We finally arrived at the student apartments, where everyone else was living and my host mother waited to pick me up. I’m the only student this semester who’s staying with a host family rather than in the apartments. I decided on a host family because it would be easier to practice my Spanish when Spanish was my only option. Plus, it’s several hundred dollars cheaper than the apartments, and your host family cooks you breakfast and dinner every day of the week. I’m always budget conscious and never have time to cook, so it was a no-brainer for me.

Syrian Christianity Presentation

Last week, I had the privilege to attend a lecture on the past and present state of Christians in Syria and the Levant from an Oxford professor, Dr Zonner. His presentation focused on the way Syrian Christians have oscillated between being seen as outsiders and insiders, and what this historical knowledge means for the present. His thesis was that Syrian Christians’ status as insiders or outsiders is symptomatic of society as a whole. This is reflected in ISIS’s current rule of Islamic law over historically Christian areas of Syria, leading to a mass exodus from the region.

Syria is home to a large Christian minority, which used to be around 5-10 percent of the country and has been there for longer than the country has been majority Muslim. Once the country was under Arab conquest, Christians were controlled with a poll tax and it wasn’t legal to build new churches or display crosses, but they were allowed to practice their religion as “people of the book.” Many of them went into trade with other Christian countries, and as such became wealthier and better educated than the average Muslim even while they had certain restrictions on their religious expression. Dr Zonner noted that although these limitations seem arcane and oppressive today, Syrian Christians in the Middle Ages were treated far better than European Jews were treated by Christians in the same period.

In the 1800s, restrictions on the practice of Christianity ceased, as the Ottoman Empire switched from Islamic to secular law. Courts ruled that Christians and Jews had the same rights as Muslims, and the Empire tried to promote political identity over religious identity. At the same time, Syrian Christians had more contact than ever with Western traders, increasing their wealth and status. However, some Syrian Muslims began to be skeptical of clauses that gave Christians economic power, and perceived them as uppity. Sectarian bloodshed was on the rise.

Arab nationalism became popular after World War One, promoting a shared Arab cultural identity over that of any religion or country. Religious minorities supported it, and several key Arab nationalists were born in or converted to Christianity. However, in Syria, Arab Nationalism went sectarian, with the government’s Bath Party controlled by a small Shi’i sect over a Sunni majority. Christians supported the Bath Party and were seen as complicit in the brutality of the Assad regime. The more they were perceived as complicit with the regime and thus threatened by Muslims, the more Christians doubled down on supporting Assad.

This created a great deal of frustration against Christians and Shi’is in the Sunni Muslim majority. The most successful rebels against the Assad regime promised a return to an Islamic state, with Christians as second-class citizens, and Isis delivered on that promise. Currently, Christians in ISIS territory have few options: convert, pay a poll tax, run, be sold into slavery, or be killed. Christian churches and property are seized and repurposed or destroyed; shrines and ruins are demolished. The Assad regime is largely indifferent to this brutality because it’s happening to minorities in a strategically unimportant part of the country, and because the regime has committed war crimes of its own from which it wants to distract the West.

Dr Zonner was hesitant to describe the future of the Middle East, focusing instead on the present, but he did describe a potential effect of this homogenization of Syria: a greater homogenization of the Middle East, into one people with one religion and one ethnicity.


Fulbright Information Meeting

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend an information meeting on the Fulbright award. It’s an opportunity to spend a year abroad doing research, teaching English, and in some cases learning a critical language. The purpose of the program is cultural exchange, in both directions. If you’re teaching English, as I want to, you aren’t just teaching your students about grammar but about the United States. Meanwhile, you’re integrating yourself into the local community and bringing back a wealth of cultural knowledge when you return to the US. Returning is very important, because the Fulbright is in some ways an investment into American youth. Even though there isn’t a service component, like the Boren award, the people who are benefited by this program are expected to use the talents they gain in the country that gave them such an opportunity.

There are two main types of award, research grants and ETA awards. Research grants are for people who want to conduct any kind of research, from lab interviews to field work, in the country they choose. ETA awards are for people who want to teach English in the country of their choice, and may have an opportunity to audit classes or start a small research project in the time they don’t spend teaching. You can’t apply for both options, nor can you apply to multiple countries; you have to pick one situation and learn as much about it as you can.

However, there are ways to combine elements of research and teaching grants. Not only is it possible to pursue some research while teaching, there’s a special type of award, called the Critical Language Enhancement Award, that allows you to research or teach while receiving funding to learn a crucial language to US national defense. The languages offered are Arabic, Indonesian, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Mandarin, Marathi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Russian. Unlike the Boren Awards, there aren’t options to learn a target language in places where it isn’t the dominant language. If I wanted to study Russian with a Boren award, for example, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go to Russia, and would instead study in a place like Kazakhstan or Estonia; with Fulbright, the only option for learning Russian with CLS is Russia. I could pursue a Fulbright in those countries and still audit courses in Russian, but I wouldn’t receive a special award to do so.

The process of applying for a Fulbright is relatively straightforward. There are three dates to turn in the application, and two of them are specific to OU. There’s the date by which you have to have your application turned in to the OU office, so they can give you an interview and talk about ways to improve your application. That interview is in September and is only half an hour. But there’s also an earlier date to submit the application, late July. In that case, you get an hour-long interview, which goes into far more detail about how to improve your application, and people who use that deadline have a much higher chance of being accepted. I’m not sure how that deadline would work if one was off-campus for the summer; I’ll have to ask at a later date.

Chances for the Fulbright are complicated by the fact that a lot of people who are applying simply aren’t qualified. The national average is something like 16-18 percent, but OU’s average has been around 25% for the last five years. This is probably due to the incredible amount of work the staff does at making sure people are ready to apply, in part by hosting excellent seminars like this one.