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From Tex-Mex Gringa to Fully Latina: My Summer Abroad in Argentina

              I grew up thinking I was a little Latina. I knew elementary Spanish, and I believed that salsa (the spicier the better) was way cooler than sliced bread. I tried to put cilantro on everything, even when wildly inappropriate, and my skin would tan darkly under the Texas sun. When I grew old enough I realized that I was in fact, very typically Caucasian, and my Spanish accent would have me pegged for a gringa before I could complete the word “Hola.” I was disappointed, but recognized then, how influential my surroundings had been in shaping my world view.
                Growing up in Texas, the Latino influence is strong. It’s difficult to drive down the street without finding a Mexican, or at the very least, a Tex-Mex restaurant. In many stores there are signs in both English and Spanish, and just about every agency seeking employees prefers those who are bilingual. I grew up accepting and taking these circumstances for granted without realizing that in other parts of the US, you can drive across the entire state without finding a quality burrito.
                Upon entering college, I decided to take my fascination with Latin America (and my irrational desire to be Latina) and turn them into a degree. Three years later I have almost completed this degree in “Latin American Studies,” as well as the Spanish and Portuguese languages. What once seemed to me like a generically Tex-Mex world was rapidly upended. In my head float twenty different countries and the knowledge of their governments, languages, traditions, foods, architecture, history, genetic makeup, religion, etc. etc. My Spanish, at times, is known to fade into Portuguese as I attempt to juggle the astounding diversity that makes up Latin America.
                Growing up in Texas, my knowledge of the Latino culture stemmed primarily from Mexico, as did the majority of stereotypes I was exposed to. Just how ignorant the American public is (and I once was) in regards to Latin America is both laughable and unfortunate to me now. As it turns out, not all Latinos are Mexican, nor do Mexicans always fit the criterion in which they are stereotyped. To best illustrate my point, I will provide details from my summer abroad in Argentina.

 

  1. Food: Some Like It Hot, Some Do Not
    In Texas, a typical Mexican restaurant will often test your ability to stomach spicy foods. However, not all Latin Americans like their food spicy. In fact, in Argentina, the population is incredibly averse to spicy foods. The closest I came to a spicy dish was deep in the heart of Chinatown. Most typically, the foods in Argentina resemble Italian cuisine. Pizzas, spaghetti, and raviolis were popular along with hearty plates of grilled meats and empanadas. There were no salsa, no tacos, and no burritos to be found, much to the chagrin of my colleagues.

Smoked Steak

Image Courtesy of: Ashley Steel

Traditional Pizza

Image Courtesy of: Ashley Steel

 

 

 

2. Religion: Catholicism Shares the Stage

It is grossly inaccurate to assume that all Latinos are Catholic.  Though much of Latin America has a history of colonization by the Catholic Imperial Power, Spain, there exists much religious diversity within Latin America today. Buenos Aires, for example has a huge Jewish population. My apartment was home to many such Jews. I could hear their prayers through the walls on Shabat, and I would often see them leave the building in their Yamakas. Buenos Aires is also home to one of the largest Latin American Muslim populations. There are several mosques in the city including the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center, the largest mosque in all of South America. While Catholicism remains the predominant religion, different denominations of Christianity also exist, including unexpected denominations like Russian Orthodox Christianity.

 

King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center

 

Image Courtesy of:
Polley , Dan. King Fahd Islamic & Cultural Centre. 2011. n.p. Web. 1 Feb 2013. a href="http://www.pbase.com/image/136991533%3E">http://www.pbase.com/image/136991533>;.

Sinagoga de la Congregación Israelita Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Image Courtesy Of:
Steinberg, Janet. 2011. The American IsraeliteWeb. 1 Feb 2013. a href="http://americanisraelite.com/archives/12470%3E">http://americanisraelite.com/archives/12470>;.

3. Genetic Make-up: The Latina Look

The media tends to portray Latina women in the same way. Such a woman will have dark brown hair, brown eyes, and tanned skin with large breasts and hips. If she doesn’t meet these qualifications, she will not be publicly perceived as Latina. This is incredibly misleading however, as the genetic makeup of Latin America varies greatly from country to country. Argentina, for example, has a history of mass Italian immigration. Thus, the population of Argentina doesn’t look much like the typical Latina portrayed on soap operas. Instead it looks like a watered down Mediterranean population. Though I am a Caucasian with dirty blonde hair and green eyes, I was often mistaken for a local Argentine, showing just how far the boundaries of the Latina appearance can be stretched.

 

Colombian Actress Sofia Vergara, who famously dies her hair brown to look more stereotypically Latina.

Image Courtesy of:
Marsland, Mark. 2013. New York Daily News, New
           York. Web. 1 Feb 2013.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author, Ashley Steel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Architecture: Simple Stucco or European Intricacy?

People often characterize Latin America as a developing, and even third-world region. As such, assumptions about the architecture are often over simplified. It’s easy to imagine a basic adobe or stucco house seen replicated in the American southwest. While this is a true architectural picture of some places in Latin America, such a sweeping generalization completely overlooks the fact that in other places like Buenos Aires, the intricacies of architecture often exceed that of the US. Argentine architecture was influenced greatly by the Europeans, specifically the Italians, French, and German. Buildings are tall, ornate, and breathtaking on the inside and out. Few buildings save basic supermarkets and apartment complexes are built upon the premise of efficiency and functionality. Beauty and timelessness are valued. Walking through the streets of Argentina is a bit like looking through a picture book of Europe, it’s fantastical and unforgettable.

The Water Palace and the Museo del Patrimonio

Image Courtesy of: Ashley Steel

Interior of “El Ateneo” Bookstore

Image Courtesy of: Ashley Steel

 

 

           These are but a small sample of ways in which my tiny Tex-Mex world view failed me. While not an invalid representation of the Latino culture, my childhood experiences only stand for an imperceptible fraction of the entire Latino consciousness. In my trip to Argentina alone, I debunked almost all of the stereotypes I had grown up believing. I became acutely aware of the incongruous nature of Latin America, and recognized how impossible and silly it had been to try and fit Latinos into the same box.

                My job now becomes the continued expansion of my Latin American knowledge. Knowing this, I still put cilantro on everything, and I still think that salsa (the spicier the better) beats sliced bread. My ability to tan darkly under the Texas sun hasn’t diminished, but my Spanish accent has improved greatly, and my world view has expanded as far south as Argentina. I remain purely Caucasian, but I will always be irrationally Latina.      

 

 

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Tags: Argentina, Gringa, Latina, Summer

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