After studying abroad in Mérida, Mexico during her sophomore year at Ohio University, Alicia Buckenmeyer knew she wanted to return.
She headed south after her 2009 graduation.
Mérida is located on the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula about four hours from Cancún. Located in an area where the Mayan civilization flourished, the city’s customs are a mixture of Mexican and Mayan ways.
Alan Sosa, her best friend from the study abroad program, met her at the airport. Buckenmeyer said he provided a lot of support to her during her time in Mexico and incorporated her into his family’s life.
With her house as a starting point, she walked to language and bilingual schools to apply for jobs.
The first day, she was invited to job train at a language school three blocks away.
She started teaching her own classes two weeks later.
Because she taught in an English-only school, her classes changed every month instead of every year. This gave her many chances to meet new people. She worked with students of all ages, from age seven to adults. Each age group provided different challenges and dynamics.
Buckenmeyer was surprised by how much she enjoyed teaching English. It was fascinating to see her students’ progress and rewarding to see her former students graduate from the program.
One of the most valuable parts of her experience was learning from her students about their country, culture, and language. She will never forget when her students sang her the Mexican national anthem in class or taught her Mayan words like “pek,” which means dog.
She also learned about the culture as the school organized activities for holidays. Classes competed in a Carnaval dancing competition and shared food for Hanal Pixan, a Mayan holiday similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Life in Mexico
As an escape from the cold Ohio winters, Buckenmeyer thought she’d enjoy the hot weather in Mérida.
However, year-round temperatures in the upper 80s and 90s with high humidity were uncomfortable, especially in her long uniform pants. Now she appreciates the changing seasons, she said.
Living in a Spanish-speaking country was difficult at first, but she learned new vocabulary and slang quickly and was able to do activities like getting her work visa and paying her monthly taxes easily. The rate of her improvement was exciting, she said.
She always felt safe living in the city. While the northern part of Mexico is known for drug violence, Mérida is more tranquil.
In Mérida, there are more similarities between the U.S. and Mexico than one might think, Buckenmeyer said. For example, restaurants like Burger King and Starbucks are popular there, too.
But while “American” food was available, one of her favorite parts of Mexico was trying traditional Yucatecan food, which is different than food from other parts of Mexico.
Her favorite dish was the polcán, a sandwich of thin fried dough with meat, beans, red beets, lettuce, and onion topped with a salsa of habanero peppers, if desired.
Buckenmeyer spent a lot of time at Hogares Juveniles, a boys shelter where Sosa’s mother is the director.
Since Buckenmeyer didn’t have family in Mexico, the boys adopted her into theirs. She and Sosa ate with the boys every day and tagged along on outings to the beach or the movie theater on the weekends.
When Buckenmeyer left Mexico, the boys wrote her goodbye letters and drew pictures.
Saying goodbye to them was the most difficult part about leaving, she said.
After returning to the U.S. in July, Buckenmeyer is happy to be with her family again.
However, she says her Mexico experience changed her.
“My world’s bigger now,” she said. “I can visit many more countries and have more job opportunities because I speak Spanish and English.
“The world’s opened up to me more.”–Alicia Buckenmeyer