Gringo Afroamericano: Reflecting on Race and Study Abroad
Hey, reader! Did you miss me? (¿Me extrañaste?) I just got back from a weekend trip in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. It was my last chance to relax before I would have to begin attending orientations for the possible universities in which I could study. In Valparaíso, I visited the port, major monuments, and enjoyed some seafood. I also made sure to fit in a trip to Viña del Mar to spend some time on the beach.
During my time in Valparaíso this past weekend, I stayed at a hostel with some of the guys from my study abroad program. It was a well-deserved break from the international orientation activities. The beautiful thing about hostels is that they can offer guests a chance to get to know each other: backpackers and other travelers often share rooms with people they didn’t book their stay with, cook in the same kitchen, share a communal breakfast provided by the hostel staff, etc. In a hotel, on the other hand, a premium is placed on privacy and relaxation rather than engagement with others. I highly recommend that any college students traveling during their time abroad consider staying in a hostel. Hostels are not only affordable places to stay, but they also give you the opportunity to meet other travelers and hear their stories, and become a little more informed about different cultures and countries with every conversation. (Just make sure you do your research about the location in which you are staying, keep an eye on your personal belongings, and use a good traveler’s common sense!)
Staying in a hostel in Valparaíso, I had the opportunity to chat and mingle with several other travelers. Since I got up way before my friends last Saturday morning, I prepared some buttered bread and tea for myself in the hostel kitchen and engaged in a conversation with a fellow traveling American, Brittany, who had been staying in the hostel for a while. It’s hard not to strike up a conversation during the communal breakfast hours! We were both Americans of African decent originally from the DC/Baltimore area. Having lived in Latin America for several months, Britannie gave me some advice on how to deal with issues of identity abroad. She inspired me to be proud of my background but not take issues of identity so seriously that they get in the way of fully enjoying traveling and living abroad. It doesn’t help to always focus on the ways in which you might be discriminated or marginalized because of your identity. We should strive to think about how our identities can educate others during our time abroad. In doing so, we focus on our own potential to experience cross-cultural growth (and help others do the same) rather than just the potential feelings of cultural displacement.
I’m so thankful that I had that eye-opening conversation with Brittany in the hostel. However, despite the excitement and adventure of personal growth abroad, I have to admit that I had been somewhat preoccupied by the potential reception of my appearance before arriving in Chile. I had this assumption that I would be treated like an oddity. Although some Chileans phenotypically have brown skin like my own, I knew my hair texture would set me apart from the majority of the native Chilean population.
Yet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of stares I’ve gotten in Santiago as a person of African descent. In my first blog post, I wrote about some of the assumptions and ignorance other Americans had of Chile, about how many did not know about the relative safety and economic development of the country. However, I honestly think I also went into this study abroad experience with some misconceptions of my own. My host parents here in Santiago and I have talked about their experiences hosting American students of diverse cultural backgrounds. Despite what traditional images of Americans may dominate the global mind, Chileans know that we “gringos” come in a variety of ethnicities and skin tones.
Like all of my overseas experiences thus far, I know that studying abroad in Chile will continue to challenge me to come to terms with my identity as an African-American in the context of a globalizing world. If anything, studying abroad has made me more cognizant of the significance of nationality as a social identity. What makes me stand out in Chile is not only my race, but the intersection of my race and my nationality. I’m realizing more and more how my American identity distinguishes me from the Afro-descendant people who have immigrated to Chile.
This excerpt from the 2013 post from the blog, From Philly to Chile (titled “Blacks in Americas”) connects with my own culture shock in Chile:
“I do not share a language with the Black Haitians who speak French/Creole or the Black Colombians and Peruvians who speak Spanish (or the Black Brazilians and their Portuguese). We may share a history of racial oppression, but being from Tanzania my ancestors didn’t go through the Atlantic Slave Trade, and theirs did not go through German and British colonialism. I do not share blood with indigenous Americans or Europeans, while many of them do and it makes for very noticeable differences in physical appearance and history. I have no idea what it’s like to live in Peru or Colombia or Haiti. I have no clue what it means to flee a country because of political instability, or economic hardship, or a natural disaster. And in terms of culture…I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence on the East Coast of the United States, listening to Notorious B.I.G, Mariah Carey and N’Sync; watching Salute Your Shorts, Saved by the Bell and All That; going to malls and driving down I-95.
Despite or maybe BECAUSE OF our differences, I find myself wanting to connect with other Black immigrants here.”
Unlike the blogger of From Philly to Chile, I can claim a connection with Latin American blacks in the sense that my African ancestors in the U.S. also arrived as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, having grown up in the United States like the blogger above, I’ve passed by other black people in Chile and been surprised by not receiving a “nod” back, a commonplace, cultural acknowledgement for many blacks in the United States. Unlike African-Americans, I sense that blacks in Latin America are more connected by nationality and culture rather than a shared skin tone.
My identity as African-American is invisible and complex for many Chileans not due to marginalization, but simple numerical rarity. If they choose to travel to Latin America for long periods of time, I suspect that few African-Americans travel to Chile, perhaps preferring countries with recognizable black populations among countless other reasons (I can’t forget to mention that traveling is a privilege that many minorities in the United States simply cannot afford).
Already, I’ve been mistaken for Brazilian or Dominican multiple times during my time in Chile so far. But the reality is that my culture is far from that of Haitian, Dominican, Chilean, Brazilian, Colombian, etc. I’m distinctly American: from my struggle to roll my r’s in Spanish to my eternal longing for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Being in Chile has given me a chance to appreciate how American I truly am. I am undeniably a resident of “Gringolandía,” as my host mom would say.
As much as minorities in the United States can feel marginalized at times in our home country, if we begin to think more globally, we can appreciate how our acquired culture and accents mark us as distinctly American to the world beyond the borders of the United States. We can become more comfortable with our American identity by appreciating our role in our country’s history and culture (the ways we have helped our country grow and develop as well as the ways it has influenced us).
In my final article for AC Voice as a staff writer last spring, Blood of the Slave, Blood of the Master, I reflected on the challenge of reconciling African slave ancestry and American nationality. America is indeed a nation of immigrants, but it is also one with a history of slavery and an indigenous presence predating the arrival of European immigrants. As a descendant of African slaves in America, I can’t link my family tree with the story of immigration to America and I don’t know precisely from which countries my African ancestors originated. However, I do know that my roots are in America and this has been one of the greatest lessons of traveling: helping us to appreciate who we are and where we come from. Ironically, you sometimes have to travel to faraway places and leave everything behind to better appreciate your own place of origin.
Knowing that race and ethnicity operate differently in Latin America, I’m quite curious about what blackness and racism mean in Chile. What critical connections, if any, are there between black experiences in the United States and Latin America? How has race and ethnicity been historically constructed differently in Latin American nations compared to the United States? How might this affect modern life?
My classes will be starting next week and I plan to enroll in a class at the Universidad Diego Portales titled “Problemas sobre Raza y Etnicidad en América Latina” (Problems of Race and Ethnicity in Latin America). My hope is that the course can equip me with the tools and historical knowledge to further analyze issues of race and ethnicity in a Latin American context. Additionally, students in my exchange program have the opportunity to do an investigative research project as a course while abroad. Right now, I’m planning to pursue an investigative research project on the economic, social, and political condition of Haitian immigrants in Chile. I love my topic but it’ll have to be 40 pages…and in Spanish!
Here’s an excerpt from the rough draft of my research proposal with an English translation:
” ¿Cómo se ha acostumbrado la gente haitiana a la vida chilena? ¿Cuáles desafíos económicos, sociales, y políticos existen para ella y como potencialmente podrían superarlos? Esas son algunas de las cuestiones a las que me gustaría responder. Es claro que la historia de los inmigrantes haitianos en Chile tiene muchas dimensiones económicas, sociales, y políticas, pero sobre todo también hay una cuestión filosófica detrás de todo. ¿Por qué una gente que ya ha experimentado tal devastación, la de un terremoto grave, decidió buscar trabajo en un país lejano, con su propia historia de terremotos destructivos?”
(How have Haitian people accustomed themselves to life in Chile? What economic, social, and political challenges exist for them and how could they potentially overcome them? These are some of the questions I would like to respond to. It is clear that the history of Haitian immigrants in Chile has many economic, social, and political dimensions, but above all there is also a philosophical question behind it all. Why have a people that have already experienced such devastation from a great earthquake, decide to search for work in a faraway country with its own history of destructive earthquakes?)
I’ll be submitting my proposal soon and if I choose to follow through with the investigation, I’ll definitely make sure to blog about my experience and share my findings with you!
Hasta la próxima vez! (Until next time!)
I know this blog post was full of heavy reflections, so here are some photos of churros from Valparaíso to lighten the mood a bit! (“churros rellenos con manjar” – this basically means these churros are stuffed with a really tasty caramel-like filling! Super cheap- only 500 Chileans pesos! That’s less than one U.S. dollar a piece! I couldn’t resist buying a second one!)