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Journey to Latin America Explores the Complexities of Brazil & Mexico

Journey to Latin America is one of the College of International Studies’ signature Journey Programs, in which students earn course credit with OU professors on a short-term trip abroad. While 2018’s program ventured to Peru, this year’s group of students had the opportunity to visit two countries — Brazil and Mexico — each home to an OU International Study Center. “Latin America is a mosaic of such diverse cultures, and although it is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world, we often tend to think of it in very simplistic terms,” explains Neira Kadic, Education Abroad advisor for OU in Puebla, who joined the group for the Mexican leg of the trip. “I think this program — as it was an opportunity to visit and experience two vastly different locations with distinct pre and post-colonial histories — helped restore some of the continent’s complexity in our students’ minds through experiential, hands-on learning.”

Students enrolled in two courses:Intellectuals and Artists in Modern Latin America and Latin America in the Age of the Cuban Revolution, both taught by OU history professor James Cane-Carrasco. The former offered a survey of Latin American cultural production from 1810-present, and students study politics, history, and more through the work of writers and artists like Simón Bolívar, Frida Kahlo and Paulo Freire. The second course focused more specifically on Latin America in the period 1954-1973, leading up to and in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.“Brazil and Mexico are perhaps the most different from each other among the large Latin American countries,” Cane-Carrasco says. This enables students to “see firsthand — if only briefly — the intricacies of the social issues that we examine in class and the degree to which these vary from country to country and region to region.”

The program began on May 14th in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where students visited a coffee farm, saw the statue of Christ the Redeemer, took an Afro-Brazilian walking tour and attended a soccer game at the Maracanã stadium. The group also met with community activists at the Vila Autódromo favela (low-income neighborhood) in Rio, one of the trip’s most eye-opening learning experiences. “This is a community that has faced constant threat of removal by the Brazilian state and private real estate developers, most significantly in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games,” Cane-Carrasco explains. “Not only did the visit allow students to see the social consequences of the particular form of Brazilian economic development, but also the economic and political inequality that is inseparable from that development.”

On May 23rd, the group flew to Mexico City and then traveled to OU’s nearby study center in Puebla. They spent a week discovering Puebla’s mixture of colonial and pre-Hispanic cultures through museum visits and an expedition to the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest archaeological site of a temple in the new world, which dates from the 3rd century BC. Sampling the local cuisine was also a priority, as Puebla is well known as a culinary center famous for its mole poblano dishes.

One highlight of their week in Puebla was the group’s hands-on lesson in talavera pottery, a Mexican and Spanish tradition characterized by its vivid cobalt blue.“Talavera workshop was probably one of our favorite activities in Mexico,” says Kadic. “Students got to learn about the history of Uriarte Talavera — a traditional talavera enterprise existing since 1824 — and they got to make their own artwork.”

The program concluded with a stop at the ancient city of Teotihuacan and a weekend in Mexico City. Overall, exploring these three distinct cities provided a rare opportunity to put complex social issues in context, as well as discover the cultural richness and beauty of Latin America. Cane-Carrasco explains, “Like mega-cities in many other parts of the world, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City have seen rapid population growth, relatively low and irregular public investment in the expansion of basic urban infrastructure to meet that growth, stark and often growing social inequality. They also remain sites of an incredible social and cultural vitality whose influence extends well beyond the borders of Brazil and Mexico.”

As Kadic notes, Journey to Latin America’s unique blend of cultural exploration made the program more challenging, but also more rewarding. “Comparing and contrasting Brazil’s and Mexico’s lifestyles and histories and switching between Portuguese and Spanish was surely a challenge they all took on with so much passion,” she says. “The group grew closer each day. It really was their curiosity and eagerness to learn that made this trip so successful!” Adds Cane-Carrasco, “One of my basic pedagogical aims is much easier to convey in programs like this: having students come away confused, yet comfortable in that confusion. They come to appreciate the complex challenges and uncertainties that people face as they make history.”

For Chloe Mitchum, a junior biology/pre-med major who participated in the program, any challenges were outweighed by the incredible impact of the program as a whole. “Choosing to study abroad was one of the most important decisions I’ve made since coming to the University of Oklahoma,” she says. “I made so many life-long friends, saw unforgettable places and learned more than I thought possible.”

While CIS Journey Programs offer only a taste of a particular place, Cane-Carrasco hopes that the students’ experience will inspire them to make a longer-trip trip abroad in the future, perhaps by spending a semester at OU in Puebla. As Mitchum now knows, even a short trip abroad can inspire a lifetime of travel. “If anyone is even slightly considering study abroad, you should go for it!” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anyone who’s going, or are unsure about the class work; you will fall in love with the experience.”

Visit the CIS website to learn more about OU in Puebla, our summer Journey Programs and other study abroad options! You can find spring semester options and application deadlines on our Education Abroad programs page.

Photos by James Cane-Carrasco.

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