Maria Frias with her home made snowman  piñata. Photo | Bart van Overbeeke

More than Sombreros and Sunshine: A look at TU/e’s Mexican Community

“It’s particularly nice being a Mexican in Holland because it’s exotic for European people. They see us as an interesting people”, explains Sergio Garcia (25), a master’s student in the Mechanical Engineering Department. He continues: “What I like about Dutch people is that they are open-minded. They are interested and want to know from the source what life is like in Mexico. They ask: What is it like to live there? How do you make your life there?” Continuing with our series profiling the university’s various international communities, we’ll try to answer those questions a bit by taking a closer look at the Mexican community, a group of about 50 strong who call TU/e their academic home.


Ruben Guerra (24), hails from Tijuana, a northern Mexican city directly across the border from the American city of San Diego. He’s in his first year of a master’s program in the Computer Science and Engineering Department and says he’s happy to be in Eindhoven. “I really wanted to come to Europe for my master’s. I started looking for universities that had the master’s I wanted and then I met a guy who had come to TU/e and he told me about the university. I thought it was really cool.”

Although a leap over the border to the USA might be an obvious move for many students, more and more Mexicans like Ruben are looking to Europe as their first choice for higher education, particularly for master’s programs. According to Nuffic, a Dutch organization for professionals in international education, a recent study reveals a strong interest among Mexican students in various Dutch master’s programs, but particularly in engineering - a possible boon to technical universities like TU/e that hope to draw foreign students. In addition, the Netherlands makes the option of studying here more attractive by offering Mexican students financial aid in the form of the Orange Tulip Scholarship program. Launched in 2010, the scholarship is now in its 5th cycle and includes 25 participating Dutch institutions, including TU/e.

 An Unknown Land

Unlike countries closer to our borders or more widely covered by the Dutch press (think the USA or China, for example), Mexico is a bit of a mystery for many students on campus - both Dutch and other internationals. However, clichés do exist and some, of course, are based on fact.

“People always ask if Mexico is super dangerous”, says Maria Frias (28), who just obtained her master’s degree from the Biomedical Engineering Department. “I really hate that question. It sucks that they ask me that because it is a reality - the drug cartels and all these things. It’s really affecting people’s perspective of my country. It’s sad that people think that my country is such a dangerous place.”

Unfortunately, Mexico’s brutal drug war has made the country a riskier place to live. According to CNN, 90% of the cocaine that enters the US passes through Mexico and the country is also a major supplier of marijuana and methamphetamines in the United States. Since the demise of the Columbian cartels in the 1990s, Mexico’s drug cartels have filled the void and become much more powerful. The Mexican government has been vigorously fighting drug traffickers since 2006 while the drug cartels themselves fight each other to control territory. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch on February 21, 2013, an estimated 60,000 people were killed in drug-related violence from 2006 to 2012.

Sergio Garcia says that most people do question him about Mexico’s safety. “I tell them that it isn’t as bad as the media shows. For the regular people, we have normal lives. We don’t get in contact with drugs or the mafia. That just happens outside of us.”

While this perception of their country is a frustration for TU/e’s Mexican community, they find that they’re warmly received in Holland. Nuria Barriga (28), is from San Luis Potosi, a city in the middle of Mexico, which is about 6 hours by car from Mexico City. She’s working on her second bachelor’s degree in the Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences Department and says she really enjoys the positive feedback she gets. “Dutch people are really happy about Mexicans. Every time I say I’m from Mexico, they’re surprised. What? Why are you here? Your weather is so nice. There’s an interest to find out more about Mexico. And I have really good experiences with old people. If I’m speaking Spanish in the street, they’ll stop me and ask where I’m from.”

Of course, there’s more to Mexico than sunshine and danger. Here are some tidbits you may not know about the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country. Think of these as conversation starters the next time you encounter a Mexican student:

1) Mexico has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country in the Americas and the sixth most in the world. These include anything from an archeological site for an ancient Mayan city to The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve where millions of the species come each year to spend the winter.

2) Mexico introduced chocolate (hoorah!), corn and chilies to the world.

3) The red poinsettia (which are in Dutch stores now for Christmas) originated in Mexico and is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s.

And let’s talk about tequila - but with a technical-university twist:
4) In 2008, Mexican scientists discovered a method to produce tiny, synthetic diamonds from 80-proof tequila. The diamonds are cheap to produce but far too small to be used for jewelry. The results are hoped to have numerous commercial and industrial applications such as in computer chips or cutting instruments. Gracias, agave plant!

The love goes both ways

So, the Dutch seem to be enamored of Mexican culture and its perceived exoticness. But how do Mexicans feel about living in Eindhoven? It seems that despite the lack of sunshine and good Mexican food, the city and its culture are a good fit for most students.   

“I looked at TU/e and Delft,” says Maria Frias, “but I liked it better here because of the whole program. And I like my lifestyle. It’s really relaxed. Coming from Mexico City, it seemed like it might be boring but now I really like it. I don’t worry about being out at 4am and I’ve made really good friends. I’m happy.”

For many internationals living in the Netherlands, the ‘agenda habit’ - scheduling both personal and professional appointments far in advance - is often perceived as too tightly structured and indicative of a lack of spontaneity. However, Nuria Barringa sees it as a caring gesture. “I like that they find the time for you. In Mexico, we talk a lot and we say ‘Oh yes, yes, we’ll call you.’ But then a lot of times it doesn’t happen.”

“At first, Dutch people seem a little cold but once they’re your friend, they’re really good friends to you”, explains Ruben Guerra of his first months in Eindhoven. “Last summer, I stayed here and I was afraid that I was going to be bored. But I had Dutch friends call me every two or three days and ask if I wanted to have dinner with them and their family. I really like living here.”

Las Posadas

At this time of year, no look at the university’s Mexican community would be complete without talking about Christmas. Spanish colonists brought Catholicism to Mexico in the 1500s and, the religion took root and flourished - today, approximately 80% of the population counts itself as Catholic. For many Mexicans, Christmas is the most important holiday of the year, for both religious and personal reasons.

Las Posadas, which translates to ‘the inns’ is a series of parties commencing on 16 December and ending on Christmas Eve, 24 December, and forms the backbone of the Mexican Christmas tradition. “In the time of Jesus, there were no hotels, only inns”, says Ruben Guerra explaining the custom. “Mary and Joseph went looking for a place to stay so she could give birth to Jesus. Finally, they were allowed into an inn. The parties we have at this time of year are to celebrate the expectation of Jesus being born.”

Many of the Mexican students will soon hold their own posada and in addition to lots of traditional foods, they’ll also enjoy one other key ingredient for a successful pre-Christmas party - a handmade piñata. Maria Frias is currently making it in her spare time but there’s one thing she’s still unsure of: “The tricky part is figuring out where to break it. I don’t think Dutch people will like a bunch screaming Mexicans in the street, trying to break this piñata”.

Tekst | Angela Daley

Photo | Bart van Overbeeke

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