The hidden world

Mexico stone cactuses
By Jessica Lavash
Aug. 28, 2014

Jose’s love for the national park is apparent in his movements, his voice and, if you listen closely, his words.

As I admire Jose’s appreciation for the park, I read something else in his eyes. Suddenly the tone in his voice becomes clear. While walking the proposed route for the new trail, I think I detect a hint of upset. There must be something going on.

I begin to dig into a hidden world.

Interpreting another culture is like looking through a camera lens: While you see something real in the frame, the lens makes it impossible to see the whole picture.

“Direct” is a dirty word in Mexico; therefore many levels of subtext are added to what you say or do. A simple confirmation takes five minutes of talking, explaining, consoling, re-confirming and asserting confianza (trust).

Coming from a more direct culture, it’s tempting to say “tell me what you mean!” Or, to use a funny Mexican phrase: ¡Ponte trucha! Become like a trout! Meaning a trout can go anywhere it wants in a river.

When meeting Jose, I introduced myself in the most Mexican way possible by explaining my background and using the formal usted rather than tu until I was given permission otherwise.

I also explained what it means to work with a foreigner. Sometimes I may say or do things that seem odd or rude, but these are cultural misunderstandings, and that I am always open to hear about any concerns he has about something I said or did.

He responded that he understood. Of course he won’t make assumptions. And please, use tu with him. We have total confianza.

Confianza is something you earn and must re-affirm over and over. It’s fragile. My relationships with my colleagues need to be maintained by respecting them, caring about their opinions and showing that we are on the same team. I don’t take confianza for granted.

Trust seems so simple, right? Well it is not.

Cross-cultural communication requires patience, understanding and compassion. It doesn’t work without effort and love.

I gently invite Jose to share any doubts that he might have. I start the conversation with: “Con toda confianza …” or “With total trust and confidence …” After months of working on the project, he finally confesses his concerns.

The first is one is a common refrain in Mexico.

Most who work in the environmental field in Mexico believe the majority of people lack knowledge of proper environmental ethics. If access is opened, everyone will have big parties and leave trash behind, or will graffiti cacti and rocks. Therefore, people shouldn’t have access to nature. Nature should be hidden; this is the only way to protect it.

The second reason is heartbreaking.

He feels powerless. The park’s director has already approved the project, and the grant money is in the bank. And money for the park is not easy to come by: Five employees haven’t been paid at least once during the past year. We’d better use this money while we have it.

I listen to him. Maybe I projected my cultural ideals and his concerns are completely justified. After all, he knows Mexico a lot better than I do!

In my experience, people won’t protect nature unless they love it. And people won’t love nature unless they experience it first-hand. So when I saw how special this park is, I wanted to share it.

It’s one of the few places in Mexico where you can get lost in a world of fog and trees. The world of exhaust fumes and banda music fade away and are replaced with waterfall burbles and clean air. This is exactly what Mexico needs if they want to protect their incredible biodiversity and natural landscapes. People need to experience the forest if they’re going to protect it.

How do you generate this love of nature if you keep people isolated from it?

How do you protect nature while sharing it? My solution is this: consider my co-worker’s concerns seriously, consult others and reach a compromise that fits the park, my co-workers and Mexico. Without consensus, sustainability is impossible.

And we’ll find consensus by communicating across cultural divides con toda confianza y amor.

Jessica Lavash