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As excited as I was to travel to Mexico, not speaking Spanish proficiently and not knowing a single person in Aguascalientes, I felt apprehensive and uneasy when I arrived. It was late at night, while a thunderstorm opened the skies and shook the earth. My phone had died and there was no outlet. I paced around the airport for an hour, trying to recall how to ask for a taxi and then to explain my destination. After I mustered enough courage, I stepped to the counter and sputtered a broken request for a taxi. The receptionist responded rapidly, pointing to a sign with prices and destinations. I did not understand a word. I just nodded my head and kept repeating: “Taxi. Zona Centro.” After a few minutes, a taxi arrived at the kiosk and the receptionist pointed to a man who would be my driver and told me to get into his taxi. Except for the sound of rain, we drove in complete silence. There were so many things that I wanted to ask him: What is life like in Aguascalientes? Do you like it here? What are the main attractions in the city?  But, I was mute; it was a suffocating silence. My body tensed, my thoughts kept returning to the Government of Canada Travel Advisory, which advised caution when taking taxis due to an increase in thefts and kidnappings. And then, unexpectedly, as if he could understand my thoughts, he glanced at me, smiled, and turned on the radio. A soft and soothing ballad began emanating from the speakers. I smiled back at him and immediately felt at ease—a feeling that would never leave me during my time in Aguascalientes.

On my first day touring the city, I had another encounter with the ‘other.’ A mixed aroma of fresh tortillas and chillies wafted into the streets from the restaurants and food stands that stretch the entirety of Francisco I. Madero. In the shade of palm trees, the sounds of street musicians and the spectacles of artists animated the locals enjoying the festival at the Plaza de la Patria. At this center of city life, children played with one another around the exedra at which a tall monument crowned by the Republican Eagle watching over the city. Approaching the city center, a hot sun smacked at my back, pushing me forward. My ears were filled with unfamiliar sounds; they were not hostile, but they were certainly foreign. After a few minutes of walking, I began noticing some of the locals checking me out. It was apparent that I was not like them—that I was an outsider. Lost in my self-conscious thoughts, I awkwardly bumped into a woman walking in the opposite direction. Embarrassed by my clumsiness—my cheeks rosier than a sunburn—I mumbled an apology in broken Spanish. She looked up at me with her hazel eyes and studied me for a moment. I fully expected her to tell me to watch myself. She tilted her head as if about to tell me something, but did not. She genuinely smiled with a look that told me that there was no need to worry. In that moment, just as with the taxi driver a few nights earlier, I knew she understood me and that made me immediately at ease. I smiled in return and continued to the city center. If my experience in Mexico has taught me one thing, it is a lesson in empathy and friendship. It has left me with a smile.

If you told me earlier this year that my internship would be in the Mexican city of Aguascalientes, I probably would have given a disapproving look. The only possibilities in mind were the conventional spots—New York City, London, and Geneva. But, as is typical in human life, my plans were rendered useless. After being selected as a candidate for the Open Society Internship for Rights and Governance, I was assigned an internship in a country I had never visited. The only Spanish I could speak was what I could remember from first year university. I was wholly ignorant of the cultural context except for what I knew about popular stereotypes, themes, and images. What shaped my perception of the political situation was that offered by the popular media: Mexico was country engulfed in “War on Drugs” that over the past ten years has resulted in 70,000 dead and over 25,000 disappeared. The Mexican government was routinely condemned for systematically violating individual rights and regularly criticized for being better at corruption than efficiency despite its attempts at neoliberal reforms. While many things—especially concerning the government’s complicity in human rights abuses and its indulgence in corruption—carry some truth, many of my assumptions about Mexico were proven completely wrong. This attitudinal change has mainly due to my newly formed bonds and my experience interning at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE).

For the next two months, I worked with the Drug Policy Program (Programa de Política de Drogas, PPD) at CIDE. CIDE is a public research center and an institution for higher learning recognized for its excellence. With more than forty years of history, it has been one of the most renowned research centers in the social sciences in Mexico “offering rigorous and relevant knowledge, as well as developing a new generation of leaders that are capable of performing in a creative and responsible manner, in an open and competitive world.”

The PPD is a small international team made up of lawyers, economists, and social scientists. As a member of the PPD, I had the privilege of leading and coordinating my own research project on the political psychology of citizens’ support for and opposition to state violence as well as for politicians who seek to expand militarization at the expense of individual rights and liberties. This was my first time both leading a professional research project and working in Mexico. It was challenging, but rewarding in so many regards. In addition to the research, an exciting aspect of my project was collaborating on the design, planning, and development of protocols for the first political psychology laboratory in Mexico.

Many of the professors and researchers at CIDE are esteemed experts in Mexico. Learning from them about Mexican politics and collaborating with them on their research was a privilege. Over the course of my internship, I was invited to work on many different projects other than my own, including studies on the relationship between drug-related violence and mental health, the effects of skin colour on educational attainment, and the causes of migrant dehumanization in Mexico. I also had the privilege of conducting a number of focus groups and in-depth interviews with activists, experts, and ordinary Mexicans. This was something I had little experience doing—especially in a foreign language. Being exposed to wide range of issues and working with researchers, advocates, and ordinary citizens seeking to make a difference showed me new images of Mexico that I did not consider prior to my internship.

While much of work at the beginning was standard research and policy analysis—thankfully these tasks never included being a stereotypical personal assistant—in many ways it was not. I had regular opportunities to work with individuals at all levels of the organization—from students to senior executives—both formally and informally. The latter usually over a couple of beers, some mezcal or a bowl of pozole. Spending time with my colleagues and friends were some of my most cherished moments in Aguascalientes. They taught me survival Spanish and about the history of Mexico; they took me around the city and introduced me to their friends. They embraced me with open arms and showed me a new world. In my moments of uncertainty and timidity, they were there to give me courage and lend me a hand. Without my amigos, I do not think that my time in Mexico would have been as enjoyable or memorable.

The internship was not without some challenges. I remember after finishing my preliminary research, it dawned on me that overseeing my own research project meant another level of initiative—the outcome of the project during my internship would be my own responsibility. But, I faced a problem. Lacking the language skills or local knowledge, how was I supposed to be successful? The next phase of my research required me to organize and conduct many interviews and focus groups with a diverse group of subjects. I have had international research experiences before coming to Mexico, but these circumstances were different. Before, I could either communicate fluently or was familiar enough with subject matter that I could avoid awkward encounters with colleagues by working on other aspects of a project. This time, working independently was not an option and certainly not desirable with this project.

I thought about the taxi driver on my first night in Aguascalientes, the woman on the streets on my first day walking through town, and how my colleagues embraced me openly. In those moments, they did not say anything, they just understood my struggle. They smiled and listened empathetically to my needs. To be successful, I realized, I had to be like them: I needed to listen, observe more and talk less; if I wanted to give my best and enjoy to the fullest, then I needed to accept my limitations, trust in others, and seek friends willing to help. Fortunately, my colleagues—my friends—were there to aid me when it was needed most. From helping me navigate the city and teaching me survival Spanish to facilitating meetings with subjects for my research project and translating interviews, they reminded of some important virtues: friendship and the power of empathy.

Upon reflection, the value of my internship became apparent. I knew it would be rewarding as much as it was challenging. My experience in Mexico—a country that I least expected to be for my internship—unexpectedly turned out to be one the most formative in my life. I am not sure whether I would have come to these same realizations working in New York City, London, or Geneva. Perhaps, I would have learned something else. Having the opportunity, nevertheless, to lead my own professional research project at CIDE this summer has added a great deal of value to my MGA degree. What I did not expect was that it would affirm the value of friendship and the power of empathy—a value that promotes a high-level of commitment and cooperation. My colleagues, friends, and the people I met in Mexico showed me, moreover, another Mexico far removed from the violence that captures the popular imagination. Mexico is called “Land of Hot Sun,” but not only because of its scorching sun: Mexico burns with unyielding warmth and kindness to strangers.

Author Marko Kljajic

Marko Kljajic is currently a MGA Candidate and enrolled in the Collaborative Program in Ethnicity and Pluralism Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Marko hold an Honours B.A. in International Relations and a Minor in Transnational Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction from the University of Western Ontario. He has conducted research in transitional societies on topics related to mass violence, forced displacement, and atrocity crimes, and has experience working for both international and local non-governmental organizations in the field of peace-building. LinkedIn: Marko Kljajic

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