An Unexpected Journey to the Past

This summer, Katya Perez, a first-year Environmental Studies major, joined Dr. Farah on a research trip to central Mexico. Katya travelled with Dr. Farah throughout Mexico City and the Basin of Mexico learning about the Prehispanic past of the region. While most of their time was spent in Mexico City, one of Katya’s most significant experiences took place in the small town of Xaltocan in the Estado de Mexico. In Xaltocan, Katya was immersed in the sights and smells of small-town Mexico. Although the purpose of this trip was to learn about the heritage of others, Katya found herself unexpectedly reconnecting with her own past as the trip stirred up long-lost memories of a childhood in Tijuana.


“My most significant takeaway from my study abroad in Mexico City was my recollection of my upbringing in Tijuana, Mexico. For years I have wanted to experience Mexican culture and my ethnicity in greater depth, as my family moved from Tijuana when I was five years old. I have always felt detached from my heritage without any major immersion ever since.

Before my trip to Mexico City, I had mostly forgotten my early childhood in Tijuana. However, when immersed in a Mexican lifestyle once again, particularly in Xaltocan, I began to vividly remember moments of my early upbringing that I had thought lost.


Fellow student, Lilah Mehri, sits on the couch in Xaltocan home with Ximena (3 years) and talks to Dr. Farah with baby Raul (1 year). 

The aromas and context of Xaltocan especially led me to remember my time in Tijuana. The small town visually reminded me of my father’s home in Tijuana, and certain smells whisked me away to moments fifteen years past. When I walked into the small, stuffy convenience store across from the Casa Cultura of Xaltocan, the distinct smell of Mexican snacks and treats immediately brought me back to a similar store close to our old house in Tijuana.

IMG_0923.jpegStudents Katya Perez, Maria Camasmie, and Lilah Mehri, walk back home after a day of interviews in Xaltocan. 

IMG_0930.jpegOne of the most common daily smells in Xaltocan comes from the tortilleria which was just around the corner from the house. 

IMG_0748.jpegKatya and Maria conduct interview in the Casa de Cultura in Xaltocan. 

IMG_0917.jpegThe 17th century church that sits in the central plaza of Xaltocan. 

Later, the sweet aroma of pan dulce reminded me of my father bringing me conchas and other treats every morning. The distinct smell of blue Fabuloso brought me back to my aunt’s kitchen, a memory that particularly affected me because I had forgotten her face until then.

IMG_0822.jpegOne surprising smell that is common in Xaltocan is that of fish. Although Xaltocan is landlocked today, in the past it was an island in Lake Xaltocan. People living in Xaltocan today still cook fish tamales to sell at local markets. 

Overall, my experiences in Mexico City and in Xaltocan led me to remember a special part of my past that I had long forgotten. I feel significantly more connected with my father and my other relatives from Tijuana and San Luis Potosí. My immersion in Mexico City was an amazing experience that helped me identify with my Mexican heritage and learn more about Mexican lifestyle.”

IMG_0929.jpegSome members of our host family in Xaltocan. 

IMG_0926.jpegSome other members of our host family!

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