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You hear me speaking Spanish and then you notice my light skin. I search your face for the characteristic half-second of calculation. You try to figure me out. Maybe it goes like this: “She has got dark hair, but she is pretty pale. She does not speak English with a Latin accent, but she does not speak Spanish with an American accent either. Carlina Green…” You wonder what ethnicity box I check. We are human, we want to categorize and label.
I jokingly inform you that I am “Latinga.” This is a blend word I created, combining Latina and gringa (white girl.) My ancestry says I’m a total European mutt: 12 percent this and that. But even though Latin America is not part of my heritage, it’s part of my identity.
For two summers straight, my family traveled to Tecate, Mexico and helped build houses for families there. Whether I was translating at the worksite, ordering a cake from “Abarrotes La Fe,” 5-year-old Rosa Maria’s imaginary store, or getting to know local mothers, it was amazing to overcome the language barrier and connect across cultures. I was hooked. After our first trip, I started working at an Italian restaurant in Chicago where the cooks were Mexican and the owner was Dutch. What started as a comical situation turned out to be a growth experience. I did not mind making minimum wage because I enjoyed communicating with my co-workers in Spanish. In my Jujitsu class, the higher-level belts taught the beginners techniques and I did so in Spanish with a recent immigrant. These exchanges motivated me all the more.
Today, I am continuing to work towards linguistic fluency and to learn everything I can about Latin American culture. Every day I read articles from La Nación, an argentine paper. I’m crawling through Spanish-language novels set in South America and written by immigrants. I will be studying abroad there this coming semester, to become fully immersed in the language and culture. I am ready to take myself out of the comfort zone of my daily routine and American lifestyle, instead experiencing firsthand Argentinian education, gender roles, religious ideas, and pace of life. Although overcoming the language barrier can be difficult, I know that communicating across cultures will be incredibly rewarding as I open my mind to new perspectives and become a global citizen.
For now, I make progress at home. I’m nearing fluency; I can say what I want and understand what is being said to me. I’ve even dreamed in Spanish a few times times, but there’s still a lot to learn. Currently, I’m in the middle of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Cien Sonetos de Amor by Pablo Neruda. When I am with the ESL elementary-schoolers I tutor, we speak steady Spanglish. When I am with exchange student and immigrant friends, we converse in both of our native languages. I hear a story of crossing the border from Honduras to Mexico and one about an armed robbery in Venezuela. Every interaction is an intercambio, an exchange. Once we move past preconceptions, we learn a lot from each other. Our different languages and backgrounds unify rather than separate us.
In the future, I want to foster communication between people of different backgrounds. Taking the time to learn someone else’s tongue, ask about heritage, or listen to that individual’s stories says “I care about you.” This can counteract the marginalization often experienced by immigrants and foreigners. It opens minds, providing an understanding that can prevent conflict. It helps develop a deep relationship by extending beyond the everyday, surface conversations. Eventually, I want to open an intercultural center that arranges interpersonal language exchanges to foster dialogue between people of different ethnic groups, links organizations from around the globe to create international corporate partnerships, and hosts cultural events (like music performances, ethnic food dinners, and art exhibits) to raise public awareness. In politics, we will advocate for immigrants by promoting legislation and provide them with more resources for court cases. I am excited to watch as the magic of intercambio changes others’ lives, just as it’s changed my own.
When I’m leaving: February 17th
When I’m returning: July 14th
Where I’m Living: San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina
With Whom I’m Staying: Mr. Franco Navarro, Mrs. Maria Figueroa, Oscar (18), Marilina (16), Tiziano (9)
Financial Support: I was selected by AFS as one of three students to receive funding (about 1/4 the cost of my program and tuition) to represent the U.S. to a Latin American country through their Vaya a América Latina Scholarship program. If you’re interested in supporting me financially, don’t hesitate to contact me. Otherwise, I would greatly appreciate your prayers.
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.Waiting impatiently for February 17th.