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Guanajuato, Mexico: Simon Itle, Food Science

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Posted: November 12, 2014

Studying abroad has opened doors to the endless opportunities available worldwide along with the immense challenges facing individuals and entire communities.
Standing at the reconstructed ruins of a pre-colonial building on top of a ridge overlooking the Bajio

Standing at the reconstructed ruins of a pre-colonial building on top of a ridge overlooking the Bajio

My journey to Guanajuato began late last year with the application to receive a passport.  Ever since December, I have been both excited and nervous for what I was going to encounter over spring break in mid-March.  The group of participating Altoona students, including myself, flew out of Pittsburgh early Thursday, March 6th destined for Houston and then on to Leon/Guanajuato. 

The first day was spent getting accustomed to the area and culture.  From the very beginning, I realized that the people of Mexico are not very punctual, allowing for whatever may come their way to happen disregarding the present time.  For example, we had to wait for the transportation to arrive at the airport upon our arrival, which was a common occurrence across the entirety of the trip.

The second day, Friday, March 7th was accompanied with visiting the University of Guanajuato and Guanajuato Prepa, the high school administered by the university.  We finished the day by having the special privilege of being able to attend the State Legislature of Guanajuato.  The Migrant Family Issues and Agricultural Committees discussed several issues and answered students’ questions.  Through the session, I learned that Mexican migrants are essential to the agriculture industry in the United States and even more specifically the Pennsylvania agriculture sector.

The third day, Saturday, March 8th was spent submerged in the rich culture of Mexico.  We visited the Alhondiga Independence Museum, a Mexican rodeo, and the Mummy Museum.  The day was filled with vast amounts of knowledge, including learning about Miguel Hidalgo, who is the “Father of Mexican Independence”, comparable to the United States’ George Washington.  The rodeo was similar to a U.S. rodeo, but had some clear differences in regards to the competition specifics.  I have seen from the rodeo that people may be from completely different countries and cultures, but we all enjoy similar kinds of things. 

The fourth day, Sunday, March 9th was another day spent learning and becoming divulged in the culture of the area.  We visited the Santa Rose Majolica Factory,  the Miguel Hidalgo church and museum, and the San Ramon silver mine,  The day was again full of interesting knowledge that included learning about the sole colonial founding of Mexico by the Spaniards.  The Spaniards colonized Mexico to achieve two goals: to spread Catholicism and to acquire wealth through silver mining.  The entire culture was developed and still exists to a degree by Spain’s exasperations in the area. 

The fifth day, Monday, March 10th was spent learning about the endemic plants of the region (agave, mesquite, and cacti) as well as visiting Langebio, the center for researching biodiversity.  The major point I learned from the day is that agave really is a miraculous plant, being able to grow and prosper in the dry climate.  Despite its appearance, the agave has many uses such as; tequila manufacturing and biofuels.  The biofuels was remarkable because of the 12 to 1 ratio of positive energy output, which should be investigated for use in the United States’ dry climate instead of the negative energy output of corn to make ethanol.

The sixth day, Tuesday, March 11th was spent touring and learning about the process of tequila production at two separate companies.  The production of tequila was extremely appealing to me in regards to the inputs and outputs of various materials to be used for different purposes.  For example, the leftover waste liquid is treated and used to irrigate the agave plants, whereas the fibrous solid waste is used to feed livestock. 

The seventh day, Wednesday, March 12th included learning about the biggest challenge facing the region, which is the availability of water for people and agricultural uses.  We also visited the Life Sciences department of the University of Guanajuato to learn about bio-digesters and other environmental sciences.  The day was finished by visiting a strawberry growing operation that employed the use of high tunnels, which decreases the amount of irrigation needed while increasing production yields.  The biggest teaching point of the day was the dire situation of the limited availability of water.  The State of Guanajuato is a huge agricultural area depending on water to irrigate the vast amounts of vegetables and fruits that Americans enjoy year-round coming from this region.

The eighth day, Thursday, March 13th was by far the highlight of the trip from my perspective.  The day included in depth tours of vegetable processing at Green Giant, and milk processing at Cuadritos.  Finishing the day, we ate a delicious meal at the ranch of a gracious Arturo Nieto, who is a farmer that talked about the food safety principles of conventional crop production and organic crop production.  The main highlight of such a stimulating day, and the entire trip, was the Green Giant tour.  The amount of food safety precautions was enormous, due to the international shipment of the frozen vegetable products to the U.S.  Each food processing plant, in the U.S. and through experiencing it first hand in Mexico as well, follows HACCP.  Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is an international food safety preventative method used to ensure a safe quality product.

Simon 2The ninth day, Friday, March 14th was the last day for being submersed in the Mexican culture.  We spent the morning listening to a lecture on migrant issues and the rural Mexican population.  Instead of only listening to a lecture, we were able to go into a rural village and speak to an actual migrant worker, who had been to the U.S. multiple times.  The trip concluded with student group presentations, which were made up of a combination of Penn State and University of Guanajuato students.  As farewells to our newly made friends were beginning, the group enjoyed a student cultural activity.  The day again stressed the importance of migrant workers for the agricultural sector. 

The tenth day, Saturday, March 15th was spent traveling back to my beloved home in rural Pennsylvania with a greater appreciation for the things we take for granted, such as the safe supply of water that we endlessly enjoy.

During my experience, I did not realize how many skills I had gained.  It was only after I returned home for a few days that I was able to comprehend what I had gained.  The biggest skill I experienced was communication skills, which is essential to get anything done in today’s increasingly more competitive world.  Communicating at times was difficult due to the language barrier, but I found different ways to accomplish my goal.  For example, hand motions and signals along with slower pronunciations tremendously helped convey the message.  Another important skill I learned was investigative techniques, which I used to look at the vulnerabilities and assurances of the food system in Mexico.  With these critiques, I have also learned that problems are actually a lot harder to solve than only making a long list.