Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How do you treat others?

I just returned from a visit to Tampico, Mexico, where I taught "Business Communications" with my CMU colleagues, Chris Labash and Andy Wasser. We were the guest, generally speaking, of AiSTAC, the Asociacion de Industriales del Sur de Tamaulipas, A. C. We spoke at a campus of Tech de Monterrey last Friday and Saturday to over 100 business people about how to use better communications to give Mexico a better position in the global economy.

I said we were the guest of AiSTAC, and we were. But, we were also the personal guests of Luis Apperti, a man of great energy, intelligence, and passion. Luis took us everywhere we had to go in his SUV, from the day we arrived to the day we left. He showed us the sites of Tampico, Mexico, good and bad. He treated us like honored VIPs, finding us the best food and the best company. He even took us to meet the mayor of Tampico.

Chris and Andy and I were safe in the good hands of Luis. None of the three of us knew much Spanish. Chris kept mixing his limited French with his limited Spanish while Andy and I communicated with gestures. Thank goodness Luis has a fine command of English (as well as most of the other people we met) or we would have been reduced to grunts.

Luis kept us safe when our car was stopped by the heavily-armed and much suspicious soldiers who gathered at many traffic lights along the major highways. Because Luis is so well known, we were typically passed right through such checkpoints. But, we would have been like Innocents Abroad had we been on our own.

We spent many hours with Luis, enjoying every minute of it. We ate every variety of shrimp, tuna, beef, and all things Mexican (as in HOT). I should say that I ate mostly fish (ah, the sea bass). Luis was such a gracious host that he even collected us at our hotel on Monday, the day of our departure, at SIX IN THE MORNING to drive us to the airport, where he made certain we filled out the right forms and went into the right lines. Then, as we landed in Houston to make our connecting flight to Pittsburgh and turned on our cell phones we had messages from Luis asking if all was going well.

This was the treatment we received from our Mexican friends! And, how do we treat them? Luis told us about a border crossing he had to make into Texas. Because his family came from Italy when he was young, and because he is light-skinned and blue-eyed, he looks more Italian than Mexican (despite the fact that he has lived in Tampico most of his life).

Anyway, about this border crossing, he was singled out and told to go to a less crowded line at the border. In the process he was given a piece of paper with the letters "OTM" written on them in ink by the border guard. When he asked what "OTM" stood for, he was told, "Other Than Mexican." If that were the typical preference shown to "whites", and if the treatment of Mexicans were not too bad, we could, perhaps, overlook that incident. But, alas, it isn't.

Luis also told us a story of having been singled out and prejudiced against, essentially because he had a new car and a look of wealth. He had his car strip searched and was "patted down" by authorities with guns and the ability to tear up his visa, and cause him untold bureaucratic headaches if he wanted to return to the USA (where, incidentally, he has businesses). Luis speaks English very well but didn't tell his guards and he listened to one of them say he was going to "get this fat fuck."

The story had a happy ending, fortunately, but it pained Chris and Andy and me to hear after we had been treated with so much kindness, respect and courtesy, not just by Luis, but by everyone we met in Mexico, everyone. Our experience made us reflect on the few days last year when Luis and several of his colleagues visited us at CMU. We realized that we clearly did not understand hospitality as the Mexican people understand it.

Luis and his Mexican countrymen have taught us that the standard for courtesy, respect and generosity is much higher than we thought it to be. The trip has taught us, once again, that if we want to communicate, we do it not just with language but with our actions. It has taught three of us that we need to be vigilant about the actions of our countrymen, those who are stopping people at our borders and subjecting them to the discourtesies, examples of which Luis shared with us.