Leaning In: My First Take on Life in Mendoza
My decision to study abroad in Latin America came from a desire for a challenge, my love for Spanish, and the need for something new. I took an intermediate Spanish class at Amherst my first semester of college, and waited until the spring semester of my sophomore year to continue with the language. Recently, I began to see study abroad as one of my few chances to practice a language extensively in preparation for its use in my professional career. While deciding to enroll in the Mendoza Advanced Universities Program, I was terrified. I feared doing poorly in classes because of my lack of comprehension and that daily conversation in general would go over my head. However, I promised myself that I would work at my Spanish endlessly. The initial anxiety that came and went since my acceptance into the program in April has calmed down immensely in these three weeks here in Mendoza.
Thankfully, I have been welcomed as my host family’s fifth child. As Luis and Betty retrieved me from the Mendoza airport my first Saturday in Argentina, the slower Spanish they used and continue to use has been very comforting. My two host bothers, ages twenty-eight and twenty-three and two host sisters, twenty-two and fifteen, have welcomed me into their family in their own ways. Lucas advised me on the best soccer team to support while here in Argentina: Club Atlético River Plate (CARP). Agustín helped me understand the metric system that I will be using for these next four months and lets me join in as he watches the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Julieta and I have watched movies together and talked for hours about hair, boys, and life in Argentina more broadly. And finally, Candela has helped me become comfortable with our golden retriever, Prócer, or more lovingly, Pichuchim.
The family only gets bigger come Saturdays and Sundays when my host cousins, aunts, and uncles come together for an afternoon snack called mediatarde filled with coffee, tea, and sweet pastries or my absolute favorite—el asado, the Argentinian barbeque. At least once each week, I have passed around cutting boards topped with juicy, slices of beef, baskets of rolls, and saucers filled with mayonnaise. While the food served here might seem heavy, breakfast and dinner are usually light while lunch is usually abundant. Family gatherings have been filled with laughs, stories, and plenty of food. I have been warmly welcomed, and for that, I am grateful.
As I head into the city each day, I am greeted by a view of the mountains because of Mendoza’s location at the base of the Andes. Nearly a desert, my clothes have gained a dusty red tint because of the city’s dryness. On the bus or the micro, I glance at women dressed in platform sneaker heels, platform boots, and even platform tennis shoes. Footwear is likely the quickest way to pick out foreigners along with the long, straight hair trend often featuring blond highlights. Since arriving, I have noticed that Argentina lacks racial diversity. Walking down the street or while riding the micro, I am often met with stares and on random occasions, compliments. I have so wanted to blend in, but my being a black woman with box braids makes it impossible. I walk around the city with a pink summer purse that I used while at home in the United States. It being winter here in Argentina, I feel as if by now everyone recognizes the black girl with the pink purse.
Arriving in Argentina in late July has certainly thrown me off a bit academically. As I shop classes at both the national public university and a private university, I feel a bit nervous as most of my notes must be taken down during lectures without visual presentations. I make sure to sit near the professor so I can write down as much as my vocabulary and listening skills allow. Although I initially could not imagine myself answering a question in class before a room full of Argentinians, my professor in Ideas Políticas y Sociales Americanas called on me as we discussed miscegenation and negritude. My professor asked me whether I preferred being referred to as “negra,” meaning black girl, or an “africana descendiente,” meaning girl of African descent. The orientation IFSA-Butler provided as well as the two weeks prior to classes prepared me for this question as I had a chance to listen and observe the usually harmless way “negro/negra” is used. Something about being in Argentina, where people seem more direct with their feelings and intentions, made saying I preferred the term “africana descendiente” which I may have chosen in the U.S. depending on circumstances made me feel as if I was trying to be politically correct. While I am still ignorant to the history of blacks in Mendoza, talking about race outside of the United States felt easier for some reason. As I continue to blog, I hope to express why as I figure it out myself.
My first few weeks in Mendoza have been frustrating, nerve-wracking, spontaneous, and invaluable. I only await to see what else is in store.