Hands-on semester abroad in Italy solidifies academic path for ASU nutrition major

May 4, 2017

Maggie Matzinger, a College of Health Solutions nutrition major at Arizona State University, has just completed her semester in Perugia, Italy where she participated in the Food and Sustainability Studies Program (FSSP) offered by the Umbra Institute, an American study abroad program, in partnership with the ASU Study Abroad Office.

“Looking at this semester as a whole, every workshop and every field trip really showed us the Italian identity and let me experience the Mediterranean diet,” said Matzinger, who has learned to approach food and its nutritional value from new perspectives. student holding truffle in Italy Maggie Matzinger learned the cultural significance of truffles, and how to hunt them in the rolling hills of Umbria. Download Full Image

Matzinger shared that she now views the Mediterranean diet as more of an American construct and that she learned a lot about developing a healthy lifestyle and sustainable living habits through the FSSP and its various accompanying workshops. A key characteristic of the FSSP is that all courses include a series of co- and extra-curricular activities as a supplement to the topics discussed in class. To develop a deep understanding of various food production and sustainability practices, Matzinger spent her semester cooking an antique Roman recipe in Florence; exploring an ancient pharmacy to learn about the medicinal characteristics of food; touring multiple, family-run, organic wineries and cheese producers; working in a synergistic garden; and visiting local farmers’ markets.

When describing her experiences, Matzinger placed high value on her work with a local synergistic orto, or garden that uses plants that naturally protect and nourish each other, which was part of her course in sustainability and food production in Italy.

“We went to the garden every three weeks and learned about permaculture and how plants work together to boost their eco-system,” she explained. She then went on to describe how straw was used in the garden to naturally reduce the proliferation of weeds, and how onions and garlic, when planted near the other plants, served as a natural pesticide.

When Matzinger was not on cultural excursions or engaging in other out-of-class activities, she was enjoying the engaging discussions that frequently filled the classroom.

“I learned so much from what people of different backgrounds shared,” Matzinger said. “Hearing everyone’s opinion makes you really think about and evaluate different aspects of things on a deeper level.”

She emphasized that such conversation was encouraged by her professors, “They really cared about how we were learning and if we were absorbing everything.” She noted that her class consisted of individuals from different schools and disciplines, which fostered enjoyable and complex discussions about topics such as health, food, and sustainability — often involving diet, genetically modified organisms, and DOP products.

Matzinger concluded that her study abroad experience in Perugia taught her a lot about her own lifestyle and consumption habits, while evolving her views of food and nutrition. She now feels that the importance of studying abroad is to both to get to know oneself on a deeper level, and to learn to ask complex questions that provide renewed confidence in one’s field of study.

The Food and Sustainability Studies Program is an interdisciplinary curricular concentration at the Umbra Institute, an American study abroad program located in the central Italian city of Perugia. Often called a “big university town in a small Italian city,” Perugia is the ideal setting to study abroad in Italy, with fine arts, business, and liberal arts courses.

This program is one of more than 250 options in more than 65 different countries offered through the Study Abroad Office at Arizona State University. Students can study abroad for as short as a week and as long as a year to earn ASU credit fulfilling major, minor, elective or general education requirements. Financial aid and scholarships apply for semester programs. For more information about study abroad program offerings, visit the Study Abroad Office website.

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5 things to know about Cinco de Mayo

ASU experts: Cinco de Mayo has been commercialized, and many don't recognize it.
May 4, 2017

ASU experts in Mexican-American history discuss the holiday's origins and evolution

So you think Cinco de Mayo is a made-up holiday contrived to sell stereotypically Mexican bar food and alcohol to gringos? Turns out, you’re mostly right, according Arizona State University Professor Alexander Aviña.

Aviña, who teaches history in the university’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, says the holiday started to grow beyond the Mexican-American community in the Southwest in the late 1980s when Latino-focused advertisers saw an opportunity.

“Business people saw that the Mexican-American community in the US was gaining in consumption power, and the thing is once you do that you open it up for everybody and it becomes totally commercialized,” Aviña said. 

To learn more about this holiday that has changed drastically in the last 30 years, ASU Now spoke with a pair of experts on Mexican-American history. Aviña, who teaches Mexican history, and Professor Monica De La Torre, who teaches media in the School of Transborder Studies, helped provide this list of things to know about Cinco de Mayo:

1. It’s not Mexican Independence Day.

Old Cinco de Mayo poster

Mexican Independence Day is in September and celebrates the nation's liberation from Spain in 1810.

Cinco de Mayo recalls a skirmish more than 50 years later, the Battle of Puebla, when Mexico was fighting against a French invasion. A ragtag group of Mexican workers and farmers joined up with an outmatched army unit to take down one of the strongest military powers of the day — at least in one battle.

A French expeditionary force, Aviña said, was “defeated by a combination of underfunded, undertrained professional army and a bunch of irregular guerilla fighters who were peasants — and dressed like peasants — and had an assortment of bad, bad weaponry,” including machetes and slingshots. 

The invaders, meanwhile, would have had muskets and cannons, and “they totally underestimated the tactical awareness of (Mexico’s Gen. Ignacio) Zaragoza and the fighting spirit of these Mexican fighters.   

 2. The Battle of Puebla was just the start.


"The Execution of Emperor Maximilian" oil painting by Édouard Manet. Courtesy of the Yorck Project

That victory was the only success against the French, who proceeded to overtake Mexico and rule from 1862 to 1867, by installing the only European royal “crazy enough,” Aviña said, to take the job: Emperor Maximilian I.

As the U.S. Civil War was winding down, the U.S. government was able to turn its attention to the French and wanted them out of North America. Also, France’s standing in Europe was being jeopardized by a unifying Germany.

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to withdraw troops from Mexico. Maximilian, an Austrian loyal to France, however, chose to stay.

Maximilian “arrives in Mexico, he rules for a couple of years, he alienates everybody because he’s too liberal for the conservatives, and the Mexican liberals are in no way going to accept an emperor installed by a foreign force,” Aviña said.

Maximilian was executed in 1867, and the only traces remaining of the French occupation were the baguette used in torta sandwiches or the crepes used to prepare crepas de huitlacoche.

3. The battle is commemorated in Texas.

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

A portrait of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Zaragoza was born in modern-day Texas, and his birthplace is commemorated in what today is Goliad State Park, where the U.S. government rebuilt his birth home.

The people of Puebla, Mexico, near Mexico City, the site of the famous battle, established a 10-foot bronze statue of Zaragoza in 1980. 

Zaragoza’s second-in-command during the battle was no other than Profirio Díaz, who helped depose Maximilian and became the ruler of Mexico for the next 35 years.

He was so heavy-handed that he “causes the explosion of the Mexican revolution in 1910,” Aviña said, effectively setting up the government system that exists today.

4. It's been celebrated ever since — but not like this.

As early as 1865, Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S. West show committees being formed to raise funds and awareness against the French occupation. The communities from California to Texas these publications served had become American overnight with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and this was their way of exerting influence on a nation with which they continued to identify.

“Cinco de Mayo during the 1860s as it's celebrated or commemorated in places like California really helped developed what historians refer to as a greater Mexican identity, so a Mexican identity that goes beyond borders,” Aviña said.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Chicano Movement revived the holiday, Aviña said: “It’s part of recuperating parts of a Mexican past that will give some sort of national pride and dignity to people who have been oppressed racially and treated like second-class citizens in the U.S.”

5. It's been increasingly commercialized.

Cinco de Mayo

People gathered downtown recently to listen to Entre Mujeres, a trans-local music composition project between Chicanas/Latinas in the U.S. and Jarochas/Mexican female musicians in Mexico. Entre Mujeres project includesTylana Enomoto of Quetzal, among others. Photo by Tim Trumble/ASU.

As the holiday became commercialized in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mexican-American community largely ceased to identify with it, Aviña said.

Monetizing the one and only Mexican-American holiday means tacos, tequila and mariachi music — which is problematic, De La Torre said.  

She sees the holiday as it’s celebrated today as a missed opportunity to actually connect.

“It’s an unjust stereotype to say that Mexican food is only beer, tequila, tacos and salsa. Instead of only listening to mariachi on Cinco de Mayo, you should listen to other bands. Chicano Batman is a great band; Quetzal is a great band.”

De La Torre suggests that it's OK to celebrate the holiday, but make sure you're learning more about it as you do. 

Aviña, meanwhile, said, “I’m going to probably put posts on Facebook about offensive use of Mexican dress and costume.”