Being Latina on study abroad
I think that traveling as a Latina from the United States brings up certain questions of identity for me. In most countries I’ve visited, the people that I have met have not readily accepted that I was American upon first meeting me, and the look of surprise of expression of confusion as to why I don’t have blue eyes or blonde hair was something that I’ve come to expect with being abroad. However in Cuba my visibility and invisibility as non-Cuban and further more as an American are intertwined with my own feelings of Americanness or lack thereof. Physically I have been told by countless Cubans that I could pass for Cuban, which makes perfect sense given the similar colonial histories of Puerto Rico and the United States, but I am rarely mistaken for a Cuban person. More than any other place I have been the people I have encountered who have asked about my nationality have completely accepted that I am American and don’t look different from how an American “should” look. However people do often follow with the question “pero tienes descendencia latina?” (Do you have Latino ancestry?) to which I reply of course and explain that I am Puerto Rican but raised in the United States. Most people are pleasantly excited and quote the poet Teresa de Tio to me and if they don’t I jump in with the line about Puerto Rico and Cuba being two wings of the same bird and overall it’s often pleasant. Other exchange students have asked me if i ever get mistaken for Cuban and I don’t know truly what people think of me when I walk down the street or in passing but every now and then a Cuban person will ask me a question about something in Havana and then in my reply will realize that I’m merely a tourist. What has been even more surprising than being readily accepted as American is that people will outright ask me if I’m Puerto Rican. I’m always astounded and excited and perhaps its always a lucky guess for the other person but it’s certainly not what j expected nor an experience I’ve had anywhere else while traveling.In regards to my self conceptualizer ion while here- Being on “study abroad” in Cuba is deeply personal for me in that it feels important to me to be in the land so much like that of my ancestors that has fought and survived imperialism tirelessly and astoundingly successfully. When I walk around here and see billboards proclaiming the now idioms of Jose Martí I feel an ache for what could have been, of Puerto Rico, of the United States and Mexico and the countless lands colonized and ravaged by Spain and the United States. And I feel very private and distant from the other American students I encounter here when it comes to those feelings. Sometimes it’s like being this open wound hopelessly misplaced and unbandaged, I don’t feel Cuban, I feel hopelessly American here in a way that terrifies me, this isn’t a semester of beach and sun and a lowered drinking age for me, or of travel to a forbidden historical gem. It’s a lot of fear and disappointment and soul searching, being an American Latina in Latina America can be lonely, and more so in the structured role of an American university’s study abroad program. What does it mean when the heart cannot be decolonized?