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UGA crosses border to learn Mexican culture

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

To learn firsthand about Hispanic culture, Kate Whiting traveled to rural Mexico to live with the people there. The experience, she said, made her better able to serve the growing Hispanic population in Georgia.

Whiting is a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent in Peach County. She joined 16 other UGA Extension agents and specialists for a two-week study trip to Veracruz, Mexico in May. The group included agents from Bartow, Clarke, Clayton, DeKalb, Elbert, Houston, Liberty, Laurens, McDuffie, Peach, Pierce and Thomas counties and UGA faculty from Athens, Ga., and Statesboro, Ga.

“The opportunity to interact with families and see them in their day-to-day lives helped me understand the cultural aspects of their lives and some ways we are different,” Whiting said. “(The trip) gave me a better overall understanding of the culture and having this knowledge will make it easier to communicate with my Hispanic population.”

Georgia’s population is an estimated 7 percent Hispanic, but it can be two or three times larger than that in some counties.

The cross-cultural studies program gives UGA Extension workers new skills to serve this growing segment of Georgia’s population, said Jorge Atiles, associate dean for outreach and extension of the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“The state demographics demand that they (extension agents) need some cross-cultural training,” he said. “Whatever their area of expertise, sooner or later they will work with Latin Americans.”

Living with host families, the group immersed themselves in Mexican culture, taking language classes, visiting local schools, social service centers, farms and rural outreach centers connected with the Universidad Veracruzana.

“They are exposed to the culture beginning with breakfast in the morning. They are immersed in the family. They learn what life is really like in a Mexican home,” said Glenn Ames, director of UGA international public service and outreach.

“Their hospitality and attention to leisure time really impressed me,” said Edda Cotto-Rivera, a UGA Extension radon and diabetes educator in Dekalb County. “They take time to be with their family, walk their kids to school and have family meals.”

Cotto-Rivera noted the differences in Mexican meals. This information, she said, will help her plan and deliver effective nutrition programs in Dekalb.

“Their nutrition is different,” said Cotto-Rivera, who grew up in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish. “The spices they use, even when they eat their meals is different.”

Mexican family members come home for lunch for a three- to four-hour siesta before returning to work. In the U.S., Mexican families may not be able to do this.

“They may not have that family meal at lunch anymore, and they lose that family connection,” Cotto-Rivera said. “It is hard for them to make that transition. When we teach programs, I can stress that they used to have that time together and that it is something of value they need to go back to.”

The group visited Palmas de Abajo, a community where 25 percent of the residents have immigrated to the U.S., mainly to Georgia.

“More than 100 people were waiting to meet us, they came to listen and talk to us,” she said. “Some of them had family members living here in Georgia and they were able to connect to us. To talk to them at that level, to share that connection, it meant a lot.”

A similar group visited Honduras last year. One will go to Guatemala next year. The program is partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

(April Sorrows is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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