Food, Forests, and Resilience in Oaxaca, Mexico

11 November 2021

A Discussion with Faculty Director Constanza Ocampo-Raeder

Oaxaca Street Image; Food, Forests and Resilience WB22
Constanza Ocampo-Raeder

What inspired you to propose and plan Food, Forests, and Resilience in Oaxaca, Mexico? What did you hope to accomplish?

First and foremost, I am Mexican, so upon coming to Carleton, I wanted to create an opportunity for students to have an embodied experience in Mexico. I am an anthropologist, and I do a lot of work with (and research on) the relationships that people have with food. I believe that food is the most direct and intimate connection that we have with the natural environment. There are few places in the world better to study the cultural impacts of food than Oaxaca, Mexico, and I wanted to give students the chance to learn about these concepts in an experiential setting (walking around, seeing things, and interacting with people). 

What makes this program different from other study abroad programs?

This program is different from other study abroad programs in that it is interdisciplinary; it combines topics from environmental anthropology with concepts in agriculture, ecology, and biology. The first class that students will take for this program compares food systems in Minnesota with food systems in Oaxaca. We will learn about the ecological underpinnings of agriculture and about what occurs at the environmental level in order to produce food both here in the United States and in Mexico. Once in Oaxaca, we will learn more about how food production and food systems are deeply intertwined with a region’s culture and livelihood practices such as ecotourism.  

What does a typical day look like on your program?

Food, Forests, and Resilience is a two-week program. We will spend the full two weeks in the city of Oaxaca, as well as two neighboring communities in the valley. On any given day, we might explore the roots (origin, usage, and production) of common Oaxacan ingredients, as well as engage with members of the Oaxacan community in order to learn more about the food production system. We will seek answers to questions such as “How is this crop grown? What must it undergo (i.e. processing, transportation, distribution, and preparation) before making it to the table of a consumer? What is the cultural significance of this food?” I like to think of this program as being a three-part arc: first, we will learn how food is produced; second, we will experience the food with our senses (sight, smell, touch, and taste); and third, we will strive to understand the cultural importance of food through a series of person-to-person interviews. 

Some of the types of food that we will be engaging with during the program include chocolate (in fact, one of our excursions will be to a farm where chocolate is produced!), cacti, agave, mezcal, prickly pear, corn, bean, squash, and…insects! We will learn a bit about agroforestry, traditional agriculture, intercropping systems, insect-eating traditions, and food gathering practices. 

What does the housing situation look like, and what are the benefits of this living arrangement to students? 

Students will be living in a homestay for part of the Food, Forests, and Resilience program. Through these homestays, they will get a sense of what daily life is like for Oaxacan families. By the end of their homestay, students will likely have been exposed to topics including: “What does a traditional Oaxacan home look like? What do families talk about over dinner? What does it mean to be an Indigenous person in Mexico today? What are the challenges and opportunities of living in modern-day Oaxaca? What role does tradition, culture, and religion play in day-to-day life?” 

Over the course of the program, students will also be housed in cabins and a guesthouse. 

What are you most looking forward to? 

I have been visiting Oaxaca ever since I was a little girl, and every time I go, I consider it a gift. There is always something new and exciting to see, learn, and try. Oaxaca is a spectacular hotspot of biodiversity, cuisine, and history. People, food, and culture come together to create this magical city, and I can’t wait to share these experiences with Carleton students. Oaxaca is a very safe city that combines elements of the “exotic/remote” with elements of modernity and progress. 

What advice would you give to students to encourage them to study abroad during their Carleton career? What benefits do you see to the experience in general?

Studying abroad allows you to experience the world through a different lens. You will build empathy and common understandings with people who are culturally/ethnically different from yourself, and you will learn how to grapple with feelings of uncertainty. Studying abroad is an interesting way to navigate your sense of self and the role that you play in society. I believe that cross-cultural interactions need to be lived, and study abroad is one of the best ways to do so. 

Constanza Ocampo-Raeder is an Associate Professor of Anthropology. She has been teaching at Carleton since 2013.