Mexican mentoring Māori and Pacific students: 'It just feels like family'
1 December 2020
Gove Grefnes Diaz arrived at the University of Auckland from Mexico in 2011 an expert in cacti. Now he’s doing a PhD in linguistics and mentoring Māori and Pacific students.
If you meet Gove Grefnes Diaz, it’s unlikely you’ll run out of things to talk about.
He doesn’t like the heat.
He speaks numerous languages.
He’s a great cook.
He’s a tuākana.
He knows a lot about cacti.
Gove (pronounced Govay) did his first degree, a BSc specialising in botanics and environmental sciences, at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. He had started out studying animals but didn’t enjoy the lab work.
“I ended up cleaning up coyote poo for months. I hated it. That’s when I turned to plants.”
While studying, he assisted an environmental educator with her research on endangered cacti in Jalisco, on the western side of Mexico. There are 1,400 species of cacti in the world, 669 of which are in Mexico and 518 are endemic.
“I worked for a year reproducing cacti and it was great. Then there was a massive forest fire just outside the city in the late-2000s. We held workshops to help with reforestation in the area and replanted native cacti. It was a really cool thing to do.”
Then he decided to travel. His love of, and ability in, languages helped with that. He’s fluent in English and Spanish and holds his own in several others.
“I can live in Japan and France without a problem,” he says. “My Japanese and French isn’t perfect, but I can live there and do normal stuff. I couldn’t discuss philosophy though or write an academic paper but for daily life, I can do that.”
Gove is also a great cook – his brother is a chef in Te Anau and his sister is a pastry chef so the culinary gene is strong.
“And I learned Portuguese in a kitchen with Brazilians when I was working as a chef.”
Gove came to New Zealand in 2011 on a working holiday for a year. He loved the place and lived in Te Anau for five years before deciding to answer another of his callings.
“I was working in a butchery and I had been thinking for a while about my love of languages. I thought, well what am I going to do about this?”
After researching where would be good to study, he began doing linguistics at Auckland.
“I started my BA and found out halfway through I could do a postgraduate diploma, because of my science degree. That was such a relief, because it saved me two years. I was studying part-time and working to pay for university.
“Halfway through the BA I realised how much I really loved this. I knew I needed to keep going.”
His grades were so good he earned a University of Auckland Postgraduate Scholarship and a Linguistics Postgraduate Scholarship to do honours in linguistics. Then this year he won a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship to do his PhD from 2020.
“I wouldn’t be able to do the PhD without it, I don’t think. Having this scholarship just means I don’t have to work 40 hours in a cafe in Ponsonby then come to uni. The second weekend after I got the scholarship, I quit my job. It was a Friday night and I went to see a movie and I thought, ‘Oh, this is what like normal people feel like’.”
It just felt like family. I felt like part of the community. I’m not Māori or Pacific, but it doesn’t matter.
When he was asked by a colleague to become a tuākana for Māori and Pacific students doing linguistics, at first he was unsure.
“I mean, I’m Mexican. For a while I felt really awkward … like I was invading someone else’s space. Although once when I was in Samoa I was mistaken for Samoan – I’d say talofa and the next minute people would be speaking full-on Samoan at me. I’m like, nah, I wish, but I’ve only got talofa.”
But he says the experience of being a tuākana has been incredibly rewarding.
“It just felt like family. I felt like part of the community. I’m not Māori or Pacific, but it doesn’t matter.”
He is also a graduate teaching assistant and says the advice he gives to students studying his beloved linguistics is simple.
“I say ‘don’t be afraid of it’. Linguistics can sound daunting at first but try to be consistent and come to class and keep up with the work every week because if you don’t, at the end it looks like this horrible monster.
“If you do it week by week, you see how things fit into each other and there’s no problems at the end. You don’t want to be finding all the pieces for the jigsaw at the last minute.”
Gove says he hasn’t met many Mexicans in New Zealand, but apart from missing his family and Mexican food he’s not too worried about not returning home. Being able to cook means he considers his Mexican offerings better than anything he’s had in restaurants.
He loves the New Zealand way of life and the temperate climate and plans to become a New Zealand citizen soon.
“I’m nearly there. Getting a New Zealand passport will be the best, certainly a bit more useful than a Mexican passport.”
He’s visited plenty of places around the country in the nine years he’s now been here.
“I just have Tauranga and Napier to tick off. I love Fiordland and Otago and I recently went to Northland and was so amazed by it.”
With an innate skill in mentoring and teaching, he may end up in that field. But he has another subject he’d like to explore too.
“Working with endangered languages or helping communities to document their languages is my romantic ideal. I’m looking at languages in the Solomon Islands, because I bumped into a pattern I thought was interesting. So that would be cool.”
From endangered cacti to endangered languages. Not many doctoral students will have taken that path.
– Denise Montgomery