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Perspective: Rethinking the global citizen

June 15, 2009

Perspective: Rethinking the global citizen

The field of Subaltern Studies came into existence to address a perceived problem with the way that existing scholarly paradigms in anthropology, Latin American studies, and many other fields, had understood the “objects” of study: people in cultures other than those of the scholar. Subaltern Studies sought to engage the subaltern as an ally and participant in the academic process. The communities being studied in this way, at least partly, have a voice in describing themselves, rather than always being described as the Others by the dominant culture. Subaltern Studies has sometimes been misused by scholars, who have used it to give blanket explanations of power relations within a given society, rather than doing the careful work of examining the complexity of these relations in detail. However, it nevertheless proved useful to me and to my students when, as part of the 2008 PLU Fall Gateway Program in Oaxaca, we partnered with an organization called Witness for Peace to examine the effects of recent trade policies on communities of indigenous people in rural areas of Mexico.

Witness for Peace argues that, while free trade may have benefited consumers in industrialized countries, it has also decimated many rural communities of Mexico.

Our group visited two communities in Southern Mexico: the region of the Mixteca in Oaxaca and the community of Tzajalchen in Chiapas. What we witnessed in these communities were indigenous groups who have not only been marginalized from the world economic order, but from the political and cultural structures of the nation they reside within.

Two things became clear for our group through our interaction with the people who live in these communities. First, the sense of discomfort we felt when entering these communities, because we belonged to a world economic order that, for the inhabitants of these communities, is always beyond reach.

Second, we couldn’t help but notice a basic imbalance in our relation to the people we encountered there. While we could enter their communities freely, be generously housed and fed, they could not so easily do the same. They do not travel to “visit” us, but to survive. The stories they told of crossing the border, and their experiences in the United States were, in contrast to ours in their community, filled with hardship, discrimination and fear.

Naturally enough, we wanted to help and yet the hard lesson we had to learn is that we could not – at least in any direct way. For we could not change the dynamics of global trade which have caused a kind of forced migration of men from these communities. Nor could we take any action against the violence that these communities have suffered at the hands of Mexican national traditions and political structures.

Instead, the most productive role we could play was to bear witness to the stories we heard. That is, our responsibility lay in the United States, not in Mexico. For the problems besetting these people, our understanding and respect was more important than clothes, shoes or money. It is perhaps an understandable reflex that, when we in industrialized nations picture the “global citizen,” we imagine Americans or Europeans abroad, building water pumps, or donating money for schools in Afghanistan. While this kind of work can indeed be important, our experience in rural Mexico brought home the importance of moving past this reflexive understanding of global citizenship to one that emphasizes, above all, listening and dialogue.

Carmiña Palerm

Carmiña Palerm’s is an assistant professor of Spanish at PLU.


Pacific Lutheran University encourages its students to become global citizens, priding itself on offering a global education with programs on all seven continents. In its most honorable presentation, this international perspective inspires students to think beyond themselves as Americans, to look at how the American way of life impacts other cultures and countries. In its most respectable form, it promotes a “World of Understanding” that students can use to learn about cultures and cultural diversity in the United States and abroad, develop intercultural skills and become involved citizens, both locally and globally.

However, during my semester in Oaxaca and as part of my Kelmer Roe Fellowship research project on emigration, I found myself wondering who was included in the definition of global citizen and how the migrants impacted by globalization defined themselves.
I discovered the term “global citizen” didn’t translate into a definition the Mixteca people could understand. The Mixteca region has the highest migration rate in Oaxaca. Some villages have as much as a 50 percent decrease in their population due to migration. Frente Indigena Organización Binacional (FIOB), is an organization that is part of the Mixteca community both in Oaxaca and in California, where the large Mixteca population has created their own transnational community which they call Oaxacalifornia.

This to me clearly signified a conception of global citizenship. However, as pointed out by Centolia Maldonado Vasquez, regional director of FIOB in Juxtlahuaca, “global citizen” is an academic term that has no meaning to her daily life. Neither did the term “transnational” have meaning. “We are a bi-national organization,” she told me. “This is because our people are here or in the United States. Although I am in solidarity with people from Central America, bi-national represents our true reality, our daily struggle.”

I was amazed by the clarity and simplicity of the statement. Terms mean something. The term “global citizen” carries within it an altruistic ideal that is based on a unity of human equality and posits peace, justice and sustainability for the entire planet. However, it is also a vague term that cannot be defined by the best way to achieve this. It is also subjective and potentially exclusive of more pinpointed activism like that of the Mixteca.
Receiving a global education is undoubtedly important. Hearing directly the stories of people’s lives and struggles is different than reading it in a book. However, multiple realities worldwide may not lead to one answer on how to achieve global justice and sustainability. It may even result in perspectives that are in opposition to one another. The importance of conscientious action abroad cannot be underestimated; neither can one neglect the home component. In this way we inspire an effective and comprehensive impact both locally and globally.

– Jackal Tanelorn

Jackal Tanelorn ’09 graduated from PLU in May with a major in Spanish and minors in Norwegian and religion. He was one of Carmiña Palerm’s students in the Oaxaca gateway program.