How Travel Connected Me With My Latino Heritage

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This article was originally published in GoAbroad’s Latino travel eBook, Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Latinx Perspectives. Download to read more!

Here’s some background on my latino heritage: I identify as Salvadoran-American, I was born in Los Angeles, California, raised in Durham, North Carolina, and my family is originally from El Salvador. I’m a first generation college student and a first generation U.S. citizen. When I was thinking about college, a gap year was not part of my plan, but in my far and wide search for scholarships I came across the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill. I was open to any opportunity that was funded, and was especially excited about the Fellowship’s service component. I wouldn’t have taken a gap year if it wasn’t for that scholarship, but I am so glad I did.

Hold Up, What’s a Gap Year? 

Cecilia Polanco and her Pupusa truck, serving a line of customers
So Good Pupusas, Cecilia Polanco’s food truck has her serving her Salvadoran heritage up hot and ready to ‘nom!

Many Americans are still getting used to the idea of gap years. In the Latinx community, they remain unheard of and controversial. It was hard to explain to my parents at first what a gap year was. I was still grappling with what it meant, and while I recognized that it was an opportunity with a lot to offer, I wasn’t able to put that into words in English yet, much less in Spanish.

My parents also didn’t go through the public education system in the United States, which means that they didn’t experience first hand what honors and AP classes were, what the process of applying to college and for financial aid was like, so they showed their support by instilling in me the value of education, and keeping me fed, clothed, and housed so I could focus on school. 

Taking a gap year was a huge risk for me, and for my parents as well. I had faith in what this experience could provide for me, and they had faith in my capabilities, which at 18 is a big deal. They trusted my decision to take a gap year was the right one for me, although there were some concerns around why I would work so hard to get to college and then not go. Would I want to continue school once I got back? Would I lose momentum? Would I not be as academically strong? My parents had concerns about their baby girl traveling abroad by herself, but they trusted me and my decision and off I went. 

[4 Template Letters to Convince Your Parents to Let You Travel]

How I Convinced My Latinx Parents

Cecilia Polanco, smiling at the Trevi Fountain, in Rome, Italy
Traveling through Europe on her gap year, Cecilia got in touch with her latina heritage.

There is something I want to make clear about talking to Latinx parents about wanting to take a gap year. Their fears and worries are legitimate, so hear them out even if their first reaction is to say no. Their feelings and reactions are influenced by their own experiences, having migrated or traveled internationally before. Your parents concerns should not be seen as a barrier, especially if it’s because they don’t understand what a gap year is and don’t yet understand the value. They will. And when you choose to take a gap year, it must be for you; your friends and family will get the message later. 

[How to Persuade Your Parents to Let You Travel Abroad]

What a Gap Year Meant for Me

I split my gap year into two semesters: the first I was in Europe, based in Italy with some travel around Europe. I worked on an organic farm in Tuscany, volunteered in soup kitchens, and churches, making the effort to find free volunteer opportunities in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. 

My second semester I wanted a bit more stability, so I signed up to be an au pair in Australia with a military family. An au pair is pretty much a maid and a nanny, and the stability of living in one place allowed me to get a feel for living and volunteering somewhere long term.

I talked to my parents often, to update them on where I was, what I was eating, and what the weather was like. They were fascinated when we Skyped and it was Friday evening for them and already Saturday morning for me. We missed each other so much, and it was hard to video chat sometimes, but from conversations with my parents, talking to them in particular about working on the farm and as a maid/nanny, I realized a few things about myself and my gap year choices. 

What My Gap Year Taught Me

Cecilia Polanco during her gap year, picking olives
“Olive my gap year program!” - Cecilia, probably.

When I thought of service, I didn’t automatically think “developing world,” whereas a lot of people do. I was in developed countries my entire gap year. I realized something about my choice of service; I worked in jobs that were stereotypical of Latinx and immigrants. I worked on a farm picking olives from trees for olive oil, and then I cooked, cleaned, and took care of someone else’s kids and home. Why did I choose to do that? 

Those were the easiest opportunities to come by that were also the cheapest to participate in, but what I recognized about my situation is that I chose to do those jobs, and at any point could choose not to do those jobs, which is a luxury that those who typically work in those jobs don’t have. It was a humbling experience that allowed me to recognize ways in which I was privileged, and I felt that it was an ode to those who have come before me and who work those jobs so that their children don’t have to.

I felt a connection with the generation of workers that paved the way for me and so many of the children of immigrants that pursue a better opportunities than their parents had. 

When you’re abroad, you start to think about yourself and who you are. Not just how you identify, but also who you are in the context of where you are. As I found myself thousands of miles away from my loved ones, in a country foreign to me, where I didn’t speak the language, I couldn’t help but think about my father and my Latino heritage. My father fled civil war in El Salvador at 26. He left his wife, two young daughters, and another on the way. He migrated to the Los Angeles, California and worked tirelessly to live and save money to reunite his family. 

My conditions were very different. I was younger, a woman, and I pursued opportunities in another country as a luxury, and from a place of privilege. However different our experiences where, I thought back to that young man who risked everything for something better, and for a second I could slightly relate. Immigrants are global citizens and borders are arbitrary (but I’ll table that for another time).

My gap year taught me so much about myself; much of which I didn’t realize until time had passed. Since my gap year, the lessons I learned and the experiences I had continue to influence and inform my values and decisions.

[6 Reasons to Take a Gap Year Before College]

Cecilia Polanco and friends holding signs at an immigration reform rally
Cecilia engages with issues that affect the Latinx community.

How my American-ness Tied in

I also learned a lot about being American when I traveled abroad. In the U.S., I was American; I had the birth certificate, grew up there, and spoke the language. But, I was also not American, in the way that American is equivalent to whiteness, both domestically and abroad. 

When I met people abroad (I met a lot of people), the usual “So, where are you from?” would result in “I’m American, from North Carolina.” Sometimes people would say, “North Carolina, that’s near North Dakota, right?” Or they’d say, “Okay, but where are you really from?” Or the ever abhorrent, “What are you?” I didn’t care to defend my American-ness abroad, because whether people believed me or not, I was traveling the world with my navy blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle, and that right was not up for debate. 

Learning How to Tell MY Story

How Traveling Abroad Connected Me With My Latina Heritage

Having to talk about myself and introduce myself over and over again taught me that in order to do so honestly. I had to tell people a story. A story about my parents and their journey from El Salvador to California, and from West coast to East coast – from L.A. to Durham. I realized that the terms “Latina” and “Hispanic” meant different things, and their meaning and my use of those terms either reinforced or resisted stereotypes, misconceptions, and a simplification of how diverse Latinidad is. 

I started saying I was Salvadoran-American, to honor my parents, their sacrifices, and the beauty of our culture, and also to own the rights and privileges I was born with as an American. In my mind, I am the best of both worlds.

I carry with me my ancestors and my parents history, and also an identity that I get to define; I get to decide what being American means for me. 

In a cliche way, my gap year helped me find myself and understand who I am and who I wanted to be, in the context of my place and space in the world. I’m stronger and more confident because of it. My Latinidad, my Salvadoran-ness is my strength, and I’m so thankful that my world was opened so I could realize it. 

Download Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Latinx Perspectives to read this and other tales of Latino travel.

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Topic:  Diversity