Navigating Race, Gender, Class, and Nationality in Buenos Aires
Intersectionality and Study Abroad
During my time abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I became very aware of the importance of the intersectionalities of our identities. My identity as a black woman and an American from a low-income neighborhood really made my experience much different from my white and asian counterparts. My family’s socioeconomic status and unexpected financial burdens limited my resources while abroad and made me feel like an outcast with many of the other students who seemed to not have a budget at all. Furthermore, my inability to blend in helped me recognize the fact that my blackness will always be an aspect of my identity that I cannot hide.
It was interesting to see how our identities manifest themselves differently depending on the history, culture, and the makeup of the country that we are visiting. My experience in Argentina was a very complex one. My blackness made me a visible foreigner, but my nationality afforded me with certain privileges that I do not have when I am in the U.S. Locals and people I encountered from other countries made their assumptions about me and always carried a sense of curiosity about my identity in Argentina.
While my experience was very complicated and at times uncomfortable, I would not trade it and I would recommend studying abroad 100%. This article does not fully entail my entire experience, but aims to shine light on how my identity affected my time abroad.
Being Black in Argentina
Let’s start with the most obvious: I’m black. Originally, when planning to go abroad, I was excited about being able to be in a different environment from my college. I was ready to meet new people, experience new things, and not have to worry about anyone knowing me. I assumed I would be able to blend in. Boy, was I wrong. No matter where I went, someone always stopped to asked me where was I was from, assumed I was Brazilian, African, Dominican, Haitian, etc. (basically anything but American) and spoke to me in other languages. I always awkwardly spoke in Spanish and said I didn’t understand whatever language they were speaking. People approached me to ask to touch my hair. I felt like a doll on display, always met with curious eyes and waiting to be touched at any moment.
As mentioned above, I was assumed to be every other nationality except for being American. A funny example to look back on was when I went to the U.S. Embassy and I stood in the American citizen’s line to apply for an emergency passport and once I was at the front of the line, the worker told me I was in the wrong line and pointed to the line for non-American citizens. I remember being annoyed and confused at the moment, but I politely told the worker that I was American and their face was very shocked and a bit embarrassed. This moment and many other moments made me realize that most people picture Americans to be white and affluent, which was why my existence filled their brains with many questions.
Being a Black American in Argentina
One thing that surprised me was my experience with other black people I met in Argentina. They too questioned my reasoning for being in Argentina and my ethnic background. I remember being extremely frustrated that I lost my shampoo and had to buy one to replace it while abroad. I searched in multiple stores and could not find shampoos that seemed to be targeted for black people’s natural hair.
One day, I came across this beauty supply store and saw a black woman who worked there. I immediately got so excited to see someone who looked like me, as well as someone who could tell me what hair products they use. Well, the worker did not meet me with this same excitement. Instead, she could not understand why I came to Argentina to study Spanish when I could just study in the U.S.
Her responses made me realize that in the U.S. we value certain experiences, such as study abroad, and it is a privilege to be able to study abroad. I also realized in that moment that my immediate sense of comfort from seeing someone who looked like me is a result of my experiences in the U.S. and the blatant race issues that we have. I realized that these issues manifest themselves differently in other countries and are not as widely discussed as race issues within the states.
Another experience that I had with a black waiter at a restaurant in downtown Buenos Aires also left me speechless. Being the friendly and charismatic person I am, I found myself having a conversation with this waiter. Due to the lack of black people in downtown Buenos Aires, he also seemed curious about who I was and where I was from. One of the first questions that he asked me was where was I from. I responded with I’m from the U.S. He appeared both intrigued and confused by this.
He proceeded to then ask me where my parents were from. I repeated that they’re from the states as well, Memphis, Tennessee to be exact. He goes on to ask me where are my parents really from. I was stunned by this question and in this moment I was thinking, why do you continue asking the same questions? I just told you where we’re from. After going home and thinking about what the conversation meant, I realized that he was confused on how I was black with no known roots in Africa or the Caribbean. Though I’m obviously of African descent, I couldn’t tell him where my family originated from because we also don’t know. Our only known home has been in Tennessee. It was evident that my identity as an African-American baffled him.
Being a Black American Woman in Argentina
My identity as a black woman also was key to my experience while in Argentina. It’s a well-known fact that women’s experiences studying abroad are very different from the experiences of men, due to the harassment that they are more prone to encounter anywhere in the world.
In Buenos Aires, there is a lack of black women. Because of this, my identity as a black woman made others oversexualize and fetishize me. Men viewed me as exotic and a new experience that they were hoping to try. I remember being catcalled and specifically being referred to by words that refer to my blackness in Spanish. Through conversations with locals, as well as with experts in the immigration field in Argentina, I also learned that black women immigrants are often forced into prostitution because they are unable to find jobs. Hearing this saddened me and also gave me an understanding of why some men approached me the way that they did and why they felt comfortable saying certain things to me.
An example of this is a conversation that I had with an older man that was selling items on the street in a cart. I was just leaving Western Union and I was heading to the bus stop, when a man stopped and asked me where was I from. I told him that I was from the states and was participating in an exchange program. He began to talk to me about where he was from in Buenos Aires and how he knows some students who participated in a similar program in Europe.
I was really enjoying the conversation until he randomly asked me if I had friends with benefits. I was confused and disgusted by his audacity. At the beginning of our conversation, he had told me that he thought I was an immigrant because of the lack of black women in Buenos Aires and I assume that because of this, he felt more comfortable asking me personal details.
Looking Back on My Experiences
Though I had many uncomfortable encounters while studying in Argentina, IFSA’s Buenos Aires staff kept me grounded at all times and offered me support whenever I needed it. I was also lucky to have an open-minded host mom and local Argentine friends who gave me insight into their culture and who I simultaneously taught what to do and what not to do when meeting someone who is different from you.
My study abroad experience really taught me the value of immersing one’s self in another culture and both educating and learning through dialogue with other communities. Though I wasn’t able to debunk all stereotypes about black women in Argentina, I was able to learn more about myself and to become more confident in my identity, develop great friendships with locals (with whom I still keep in touch with), and enact change on a microcosmic level. I’m grateful that I chose to study abroad in Buenos Aires. The city that never sleeps will always have a special place in my heart and if an opportunity arose to visit again, I would not hesitate to return!
Jyra Jones is an American Studies and Spanish Major at Franklin & Marshall College. She studied abroad on IFSA’s AUP Human Rights: Diversity, Minority, and Gender Studies Program in Argentina in Fall 2018.