This summer Hannah Murrow (’24) researched education accessibility in rural and urban areas in the state of Querétaro, Mexico. Hannah worked under the guidance of Dr. Lauren Miller, in the Department of Spanish, and through the generosity of the Richter Scholarship Program, part of the URECA Center at Wake Forest. Hannah spoke with Wake Music about her research, including her experience with Wake Choirs on their international tour to Spain and Portugal in Spring 2023.

*interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Wake Music: What drew you to Mexico and to your research there?

Hannah Murrow: Ever since I became interested in learning Spanish, I noticed and learned from my professors that a lot of Spanish [language] education stems from Spain, but parts of Hispanic culture from Latin America are not as focused on, both in education and in general. There’s especially a lack of focus on indigenous populations. I knew that if I wanted to go abroad during school it would be in Latin America. I knew I wanted to focus more on the cultures there.

I went to Costa Rica last summer. When I realized I got the opportunity to do the Richter [Scholarship program] I wanted to go to Mexico to challenge myself. Mexico, especially in the U.S. has a mostly negative connotation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people, “I’m going to Mexico,” or “I’ve been to Mexico,” and they were like, “Oh! You’re going to Mexico by yourself?” They were concerned for my safety. I went to a very safe part of Mexico. I did not feel in danger at all when I was there. I was trying to break my own stereotypes that I might have within myself.

WM: Where in Mexico were you focusing your research?

HM: I stayed in Querétaro, which is the state, and specifically I went to Jalpan de Serra. I was also in the city, Santiago de Querétaro.

WM: How was your experience in Mexico?

HM: One of the things that surprised me was that in the small town everyone knows each other. It’s kind of like a small town in the U.S. but everyone is very generous and kind towards everyone.

The people who may have been homeless, people are very kind and generous to those people, whereas in the U.S. I was always taught [the concept of] “Stranger Danger.” In Mexico it was the complete opposite. I heard one story from someone I met down there where they were on a bus and the bus driver let the homeless person on the bus and asked for money from everyone. The majority of people on the bus would give them money.

I was staying in a house with a family, and this woman comes up to their door and asks, “Would you like some tamales? I’m selling tamales.” She was walking around the neighborhood, knocking on people’s doors and selling food. That’s just not something that’s common here in the U.S.

WM: Were you staying with a host family?

HM: I didn’t officially stay with a family. I did have an apartment in both areas I stayed in, but my current partner, his family is from Mexico. I had a lot of connections when I was there so I was able to meet his family and they would take me out for meals and take me around places, so I knew where to go. And they told me a lot about their culture and their community. I was very lucky to have those connections. I think if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have known where to go, or really anything. They really guided my journey in Mexico.

WM: You mention that you went to Mexico on the Richter Scholarship through the URECA Center.

HM: Yes. My mentor has been Dr. Lauren Miller in the Spanish Department.

WM: What projects were you hoping to implement in Mexico, or to bring back to Wake Forest?

HM: For the Richter [Scholarship] you have to create a project. My project, my theme going to Mexico was education and teaching English in Mexico and comparing the teaching of English in rural areas and urban areas. I was able to interview professors and observe some classes when possible and get a tour of the universities there as well.

It’s kind of like the UNC system here in North Carolina. It’s called UAQ [Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, or AUQ (Autonomous University of Queretaro)]. I went to their campus in a rural area, and I went to their campus in an urban area, and I got to compare those. I also got to teach a little. The teaching was separate from the research, on my own time. I taught some workshops and lessons which was amazing. That’s what I want to do with my life, to bring back to Wake Forest.

I really wanted to go [to Mexico] and go to these classes and interview these professors so I could get a better understanding of teaching English or teaching Spanish. I know I will come across students from many different cultures, including Mexico, and knowing more about their cultures and the accessibility of teaching English in other countries, I just feel that will make me a better teacher in the end.

WM: Are there other countries you’d like to go to, as well? Would you like to go back to Mexico? Or back to Costa Rica?

HM: I really enjoyed Costa Rica and Mexico. I would love to return there. I’ve always wanted to go to Peru! I have a friend who lives there, and I would love to visit them. Colombia, of course! Really, I would love to go to as many countries as possible because if I want to be a teacher of that language having that knowledge of culture is super important.

WM: What were some of the cultural differences you noticed between Costa Rica and Mexico?

HM: The food! I feel like many people link-in Mexican food with all of Latin America. People think it’s all “rice and beans,” and it’s not, it’s very different. In Costa Rica a common dish is carne asada. Black beans, white rice, plantains, usually a grilled meat or fish, a side salad. I ate gallo pinto, mixing the white rice and the black beans. You would eat that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In Mexico, I didn’t eat that much rice. A lot of tacos. It was very common for the family I was with at 9:00 pm to go as a family and get tacos. I would eat tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No regrets at all. They were delicious!

The accents and dialects are also different. I study linguistics so it was very interesting to me, studying the different vocabulary, accents, and pronunciations between Costa Rica and Mexico. Costa Rica and Mexico are somewhat similar. I would say the vocabulary is the biggest difference. That’s the biggest difference I’ve found in every country, the vocabulary. One word can be used as a curse word [in one place], and can be completely innocent [in meaning in another place]. You have to be careful studying between countries and what words you use so you don’t accidentally offend anyone. That didn’t happen to me luckily!

I learned a lot of vocabulary in Mexico, a lot of sayings. Let’s say you don’t hear someone. If I don’t hear someone, I’ve always asked, “Que?” or “What?”.  In Mexico, they respond to “Que?” with “Mane,” which I think translates to “send,” or “send it back to me.” I caught up on a lot of their idioms.

WM: A lot of students travel to Spain, which is a very popular place to study Spanish [language and culture]. Did you go to Spain and Portugal this past spring?

HW: Yes! I went on tour with Chamber Choir!

WM: How was your experience in Spain, and Choir Tour?

HW: Choir Tour was absolutely amazing. It was just absolutely amazing, phenomenal.

Spanish is a popular study at Wake Forest, but there were only about four or five of us in the whole [tour] group that knew Spanish. I used my Spanish a lot in Spain. Which was nice as a warm-up for Mexico! I had all of my friends around me. I had all their support.

I had just taken a dialect class in Spanish at Wake. I knew about the dialect differences and the pronunciation differences between Spain and Mexico. Where we were going in Spain [for Choir Tour] they aspirate their “s,” they don’t really pronounce their “s” in the final part of their syllables.  To be able to learn something in a classroom and then see it in real life, that was the best thing! I was talking with someone, and they said “como estas,” and they didn’t pronounce their final “s” and I thought, “That’s what I learned about in class!”

I would say the socio-economic status of the two countries was a big difference, too. In Spain, there are wealthier populations. When you go to Mexico it was a little bit different. I feel there’s more poverty in Mexico.

WM: The ripples of post-colonial legacies.

HW: Yes. I had a conversation with one of the relatives that I was living with at the time. She said that lighter-skin Mexicans are treated better in Mexico and seen as more beautiful. She said that her children would talk about their skin color at a young age, comparing it to [people who have] lighter skin color.

That was heartbreaking. I had learned about colorism, but seeing it, meeting her child and hearing them want lighter skin was heartbreaking.

WM: That is heartbreaking. You mentioned earlier how there’s less of a focus on education in indigenous communities. Were you able to connect with indigenous schools while you were in Mexico?

HW: I wasn’t able to, no. I believe the indigenous populations are a little bit more isolated.

I went to the museum in Querétaro which talked a lot about their history and colonialism. I tried to expose myself to different histories and communities as much as I could. The people who live in the communities where I was, I told them about it. They had never been to the museum. A lot of them can’t read. They wouldn’t be able to read the signs [the panels in the museum]. They can’t read their own history. There’s a lot to consider with accessibility to knowing their history.

WM: Accessibility through literacy?

HW: Yes.

WM: Are there community education programs that you’d like to work with in Mexico, or community education programs that you discovered while you were there this summer?

HW: I would love to go back to the campus where I was observing and teach. I met someone from the United States. He retired to Mexico, and he teaches an English conversation class at one of the universities. I reached out to him to get an American perspective of Mexico from someone who’s been living there for ten years. He’s teaching a very informal conversation class and he’s learning Spanish at the same time, which I think is wonderful. He taught me a lot about the American perspective of being in Mexico which was really important.

What I observed in the classrooms, and when I talked with professors, I saw with language education there are a lot of similarities with student attitude and perspectives towards learning another language [as in the U.S.]. Which is another part of my research: whether or not negative attitudes were holding students back in a way.

I talked to the Academic Coordinator of the foreign language department at U.A.Q. and she said [students] would much rather learn French, or Italian. I think because they feel like they’re pushed to learn English. Many of the professors said that English in Mexico means more opportunities for students. It’s very much pushed on them from an early age. I wasn’t able to interview any students, but I can assume the students don’t appreciate that. It’s like they’re being, not forced, but very much encouraged to learn English if they want to have a good quality life, to get a good job. In the U.S. you do not need to learn another language to have a good quality life. It’s encouraged, but it’s not the same.

Something I’m definitely going to write about in my report is that in the rural areas they had less resources than in the urban areas, yet there was more interest in learning English because of immigration. Immigration is much more common in rural areas than in urban areas. Most people that live in urban areas stay in Mexico. They don’t immigrate to the U.S., but it’s much more common in rural areas. 

Immigration is an entire culture. They have Day of the Immigrant where they celebrate people who have immigrated to the U.S. and people who have immigrated come down in trucks from the U.S., and they’ll all celebrate being an immigrant. You just don’t learn about this at all.

WM: That’s very true, and very interesting! What are your next steps here at Wake?

HW: I’m working on the [Richter Scholarship] project overall: working through my observation notes, trying to find common themes, writing the paper.

My next steps as regards my profession and my career? I want to do more independent study in the spring. I already volunteer at a bilingual education center. I’m taking a TESOL class this fall, which is essentially a course in how to teach English, continuing to build community connections. I also teach English to a couple in Canada who immigrated from Mexico. I’m continuing to dive into the language and the culture to become a better teacher.

WM: Do you have any resources on Mexico that you would recommend for folks who want to find out more about Mexico, or Costa Rica?

HW: Honestly, I think the best way is talking to someone who’s from there. The big thing is not taking everything that you hear from the news at 100%. Just like us, there’s so much diversity in their cultures.