During my semester abroad in India, I have learned about how incredibly diverse the country is. India is the seventh largest country in the world by area and second largest by population. It boasts 22 major languages and is separated into five physiographic regions with everything from deserts to mountains. While it is an extremely diverse country in many ways, there is one thing India does not have a large amount of: Black Latinas.
I am a second generation American with dark skin, big black curly hair, and a Southwestern accent, who speaks primarily in Spanglish, with Black, Mexican, and indigenous roots. And while my racial and ethnic identity has always been questioned and even “put to the test” by people who could not accept the validity of my biracial identity, I have never put much thought into how much of my identity was scrutinized by others. Soy yo, I’m me, and that is how I’ve lived my life.
In my experience in India, I have found absolutely no Latinx presence beyond the Mexican Fries at McDonald’s. There is a large population of exchange students from all over Africa, primarily Nigeria, at Manipal University. I was often mistaken for one of them. It was from a Nigerian exchange student that I learned about the anti-blackness that is present in India. There have been a series of attacks on African students throughout India that led this particular student to warn me about traveling without another American or Indian person. Violence toward people of color, particularly Black people, is a narrative I, and many people of color are extremely familiar with. While the stories of Trayvon Martin and Melissa Ventura have come to light, thousands of people of color still experience violence and are forced to be silent. Their narratives become warnings to their children and families that are passed from generation to generation, much like those of the African students here in India.
And while I acknowledge the privilege of being an American citizen, as a Black Latina, undoubtably I was still somehow less privileged than my White and Asian counterparts studying abroad.
As a person of color, this constant state of vigilance and caution is a normalized state of being. While I could share stories of being told to “go back to where you came from” by random people whenever I speak a different language in public and the same awkward interactions with law enforcement as the students who warned me to be cautious, I still felt extremely lonely in the experiences I was having. In my everyday life, there was no one I could speak in Spanish to or anyone who I could share how uncomfortable I felt under the scrutinizing gaze of practically everyone I walked pass. And while I acknowledge the privilege of being an American citizen, as a Black Latina, undoubtably I was still somehow less privileged than my White and Asian counterparts studying abroad.
Although I have been mistaken for being Indian while having my hair tied up, my hair is probably my biggest giveaway. Once while wearing my hair down, I watched a rickshaw driver almost crash into a tree as he stared at me. In public, people touch my hair without permission and ask me what I had done to my hair to make it “go wild.” I have always had an interesting relationship with my curls. With straightening products and the concept of “good hair” being common practice under Western beauty standards, I was used to having people stare and comment in the Untied States, but I began to feel extremely uncomfortable whenever I did wear my hair down because of all the attention it drew to me in India.
While my white counterparts are often asked to have their pictures taken or to be a part of group photos, I am always the subject of stolen photos only revealed when someone forgets to turn off their flash. As I entered local supermarkets, workers were quick to offer me skin-whitening face washes and creams. It was small things like these that made me realize how radical my very existence was in the space I inhabited.
While at times I felt extremely lonely with no one to talk to about everything from microaggressions to the whispers of “kaalee” (“black” in Hindi) as people gestured towards me in the elevator, I have also felt the need to reflect on my own identity.
Rather than let the awkward comments and stares get to me, I used every interaction as a chance to be able to talk about my culture and identity with others.
Studying abroad is a chance to attain a greater perspective on many things, and for me, it allowed me to learn more about myself! Rather than let the awkward comments and stares get to me, I used every interaction as a chance to be able to talk about my culture and identity with others. This allowed me to learn more about Indian culture as well as make some friends. It has also given me the opportunity to get more comfortable with having conversations about how important identity is. Getting to talk to people from very different cultures than my own has allowed me to learn about how much class plays into Indian society and the many factors that it influences throughout different ethnic groups in the country.
Most importantly, studying abroad has given me the chance to truly reflect on my own identity and how influential society has been in shaping it. While having a community of people who share portions of my racial and ethnic identity at home who helped me shape my identity and continue to support me was instrumental in my decision to make the plunge and study abroad, being completely separated from them has allowed me to view my identity in a new way. I have a greater appreciation for who I am and where I come from as well as a better understanding of how identity is presented and formed in cultures outside of my own! My experiences in India have given me a whole different outlook on who I am that I could not have gotten anywhere else, and for that I am grateful.
Guadalupe Mabry is a Public Health and Biology student at American University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Global and Public Health program in Manipal, India in fall 2018. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.