Website displays UNT students' work of capturing stories from ordinary Mexico

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 16:51

DENTON (UNT), Texas — During the second week of his study abroad trip to Mexico, University of North Texas journalism student Jason Yang left the Tenancingo campus of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico and traveled the short distance to the town of Malinalco. Yang and two other students had been assigned to tell the story of an interesting citizen.

After asking around at taco stands and other public places, Yang found a woodcrafter who had practiced his hobby for 23 years, and was teaching it to teens. Yang and the other students spent nine days talking to and observing the man to tell his story for the Heart of Mexico Literary and Visual Storytelling Project. His finished story, and projects of nine other UNT students, are online at

Offered this past summer by UNT’s Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, the study abroad trip’s goal was to take students out of familiar environments and provide them with the same challenges they could someday face as foreign correspondents or freelance writers or photojournalists, said Thorne Anderson, assistant professor of photojournalism and the trip’s director.

“If you’re in another country, the editor at the desk in New York City or another U.S. office won’t know what stories to tell. You must come up with the ideas on your own,” said Anderson, who has worked internationally as a freelance photojournalist for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and other publications, and covered military conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

After a week of class at the UAEM Tenancingo campus, the students traveled in groups of three or four to find citizens to profile. Anderson said he wanted the students to “become a lot more confident of their abilities to travel to unusual places and gain intimate access to stories that teach us about the human condition.”

“I also wanted the students to understand how connected the U.S. is to Mexico, and overcome some of the stereotypes. Mexico is interesting because it’s both familiar and foreign to many people,” he said.

Yang, who is earning a master’s degree in journalism and plans to become a travel writer, said the students “saw the ordinary Mexico.”

“When you think about Mexico, you may think about the headlines, and all of the violence that happens with the drug cartels,” he said. “But the people we met were very friendly and opened their arms to us. Our stories are a way to give a voice to the voiceless.”

Sharie Vance, a master’s student in UNT’s documentary film production program, found a woman in Malinalco who rescues the town’s stray dogs, feeds them and provides them with medical attention and directs a free spay-neuter campaign. Vance spent six days filming her story.

“I didn’t think I was capable of producing a mini documentary in just two weeks, including finding the story, getting it shot and getting it edited. It was a big confidence booster for me,” she said.

Vance said going to another country and not knowing its language, staying in a hostel instead of a hotel, and negotiating prices in a market, opened her mind.

“Sometimes you should step outside your comfort zone and immerse yourself in a culture that you know nothing about,” she said.

Master’s student Samantha Guzman, a photographer, found the caretaker of a large statue of Jesus that sits on a mountain overlooking Tenancingo. The man lives with his wife and extended family in a small shack that is adjacent to the statue, and receives about $120 in U.S. dollars each month for his work.

“He started selling tourists bottles of water at the statue, and has been living there for five years, since his house burned,” said Guzman, who spent almost three weeks observing, photographing and talking to him. “He’s a hidden gem. He can see the whole city from where he lives, but no one sees him.”

Guzman said the Literary and Visual Storytelling Seminar “changed my life.”

“I learned that I have the skills to be a working photojournalist, but the trip also put life in a different perspective. I feel in love with the fact that the caretaker of the statue and his family had such a positive outlook on life despite having so little.”

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