SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Daniel Forbes

A Question of Class

    The following essay analyzes an incident from my own past experience through which I learned about “difference.”  This particular incident is presented from more than one point of view.  The first point of view is through my own eyes, I describe the incident itself, how it affected me, and why it still remains emotionally important to me.  The second point of view is that of the Other.  The narrative describes how the Other person may have perceived this same incident.    

    A few years ago my family and I went on an out-of-country vacation to Acapulco, Mexico.  This would be the first time in ten years that I had left the United States.  I knew that I would be experiencing cultural differences during my stay in Mexico but did not know how and in what way it might affect my personal feelings and/or opinions.  In a way, I was expecting Mexico’s way of life and social structure to be similar to ours.  

    When we first arrived at the hotel in Acapulco, we were surrounded by luxury.  The whole atmosphere conveyed a sense of high-class culture.  I imagined that whoever lived there would have to be pretty well off financially.  Although it was an American-owned hotel, the majority of its employees were Mexican.  This led me to believe that job opportunities in that part of the country were fairly easy to come by.  I guess that everyday life in an American culture had blocked my view of what was going on in other parts of the world. 
    The first time I noticed a cultural difference was when we went down to the beach.  As soon as I walked onto the sand, three Mexican women walked up and asked me to buy some clothes they were carrying.  I was surprised because I had never experienced this before.  These people were “beach vendors.”  The vendors would walk up and down the beach and offer their products to American tourists like me.  They also had shops made out of sheet metal and tree brush.  As we drove around different parts of the city, I was shocked to see how a lot of the community had to live.  There were shantytowns built of aluminum and other waste materials.  Some of the structures were totally exposed to the elements.  I finally realized that this was how a lot of people had to survive.  This realization brought to me both feelings of anger and privilege.  

    Before my trip to Mexico, I had not really thought about how my own view of different levels of social class may differ from the views of people from another country and culture.  This experience was an eye-opener for me in many ways.  It made me realize that even in an environment of such luxury, there are still people struggling to survive the hardships of life.  In our society, some people look at rich and poor in a whole different level.  A poor person may be someone who can’t afford to live in his/her own house or make payments on a second vehicle.  They are stuck with a one-bedroom apartment and a Ford Escort.  In another society, a poor person has to live in an aluminum shack and spends the day searching through garbage cans for food and other perishable items that may be worth some money on the street.  

    Thinking back upon my trip to Acapulco, I realize that at the time I was not aware of the “borderland” that I had encountered which is most closely related to social class and complicated by national differences as well.  My feelings of confusion and surprise were lead on by my misunderstanding and unawareness of certain cultural politics of difference.  Now that I have learned more about cultural differences, I am able to look back at this incident from multiple perspectives.  I can now analyze the ways it affected me, the others involved, and our societies as a whole.     
So why does this particular incident come into mind when I think back of a time when I learned about “difference?”  Most importantly, this incident stands out from any other because it took place in another country.  Before this incident, I had never been exposed to this impoverished way of life in my society.  I had never thought about how my own view of different levels of social class may differ from the views of people from another country and culture. 

    I see my family as part of the upper-middle class.  I wouldn’t say that we are rich, but we are definitely well off.  People from Mexico might see my family’s social standing in a different way.  For example, the beach vendors probably thought of me as a rich white kid.  In their views, my family would be extremely well off.  The problem is that we sometimes don’t realize how privileged we really are.  It is unfortunate how so many people could be “blinded” from this reality of how different and unequal two adjacent societies can be. 

    I am a Mexican national.  I live in Acapulco, Mexico.  As far as I know, every generation of my family has lived in this country.  I’ve been walking up and down these beaches for the past ten years of my life.  I’ve seen and come in contact with thousands of tourists from all different races, genders, classes, and nationalities.  Whenever I walked up to someone and offer my products to them, the experience is never the same.  I notice that their reactions to me vary in many ways.  Some express feelings of pity and sorrow.  Some get angry and annoyed.  Others look at me as if I am an outcast in a society they don’t even belong to.  There are many times when people offer me less money than what I originally ask for.  It seems like they believe my products are not worth their money so they try to work the price down as low as possible.  Often they are successful and end up getting what they want for practically nothing.  

    The experiences I mentioned often stir up a number of questions in my head.  Do these tourists realize that this is a way of life for thousands of people in my society?  Do they look down upon me for what I do?  How is their way of life so much different from mine?  A few years ago while I was working on the beach in front of one of Acapulco’s most widely known resorts, I came in contact with an American teenage boy.  When I offered to sell a few of my products to him, he looked confused and did not know what to say.  I guess he had never been exposed to an impoverished way of life in his own society.  I then realized how my own view of different levels of social class may differ from the views of people from another country and culture.  

    In the end, we can see how the borderlands of class and ethnicity shape the gaze of the two different parties in the story.  Both perspectives presented a borderland situation that helps for understanding cultural politics of difference. 

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