So of course being the way I am (obsessive about knowing things?), I have to set this right. We'll start with Mexico, as a majority of the students I encounter are of Mexican heritage. I want to begin with learning the language. I purchased and started working with Fluenz software which I highly recommend; it is not fluff, there is some serious workouts in this learning program. But of course that wasn't enough. Now we have to tackle the history and culture. My first go-to is the local library. I've got a list, but I'll share the first book with you here: "A Brief History of Mexico" by Lynn V. Foster.
Now, I knew that Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but what the heck was a French army doing in Mexico? And who was this Maximilian guy? I knew about Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico. But what was the course of events in Mexico that brought that about? How about a little background on the Bracero program, and immigration to the United States? Wouldn't you like to know how NAFTA has affected Mexico? (Hint: it hurt their working class too.) This book will answer these questions and give you the bottom line in a very readable style. It's not a page turner, but it's not a dry textbook either.
Foster provides what I found to be an amazing statistic. That in 2002, one in every three adult Mexicans has been in the United States and twenty-one million people in the U.S. have family in Mexico and only half of those have been in the U.S. for over five years (p. 251). Another interesting tidbit, those with ties to Mexico are sending a lot of money home, in excess of $13 billion in 2002. This "Remittance" is the third largest source of foreign income after manufactured goods and oil exports (p. 259). Does it sound like we should be more familiar with Mexican history, politics, and current events? I certainly think so.
Can working with language programs and reading books cure a lack of cultural competency? Not completely, of course. We need to travel. We need to meet people and talk. But in lieu of that, head to your local library and invest in a few hours of personal/professional development. It is just amazing what you can learn.