This article was originally published in Meaningful Travel Tips & Tales: LatinX Perspectives. Download the full ebook here for more tips, personal stories, and insights.
My first time away from home on my own was when I spent a semester abroad in London. I had always loved the idea of London: a very British city, but cosmopolitan enough to host people from all around the world. I had heard that other Mexican travelers faced some prejudices while traveling abroad, but I thought London was diverse enough to protect me from stereotypes. I was mistaken.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved my stay in London, and so far it has been one of the best experiences of my life. However, my time there also meant that I had to deal with the constant misconceptions that other people had of Mexico.
I learned a lot—about the world, about myself, and about what it means to be Mexican traveler in a foreign country. I answered a LOT of silly study abroad questions regarding my culture, however, I couldn’t miss the chance to share some of the most ridiculous ones:
Ridiculous study abroad questions about traveling as a Latina
1. “Why isn’t your name Maria?”
Of course I had to start with this one. My ears couldn’t believe what I just heard. Granted, María is still a common name in Mexico, but since when does that mean that every woman in the country has to be named after the Virgin Mary? There were two other Daniela’s in my high school and that was confusing enough already.
When this person asked me the question, I answered with a “Why isn’t your name Hans?” and I received the stink-eye in response, but not even then had he realised the absurdity (or cultural insensitivity) of his inquiry. A girl can only try.
2. “How can you speak English so well?”
This is one of the questions that bothers me the most. I am not saying that I don’t like it when someone praises my English, that is a lovely compliment and I am always very grateful to receive it. What annoys me is when someone questions the reason behind it—especially because it’s almost always followed by something condescending like “I thought Mexicans weren’t good at English” or “your parents must be native speakers.” Like I couldn’t have learned the language by my own merit??
Like most skills, learning a new language requires lots of practice and effort. A nationality doesn’t necessarily determine your language abilities, so don’t seemed that surprised next time someone turns out to be bilingual.
3. “How can you speak Spanish so well?”
Oh, you know, if you had practiced it since you were born, you would be good at it too.
If there is something worse than asking why someone is proficient at speaking a foreign language is asking why someone is proficient at speaking their native language.
I find it amusing that a lot of people think that we Mexicans speak… Well, Mexican? Whatever that means. No one has the obligation to know the native language of every country, of course, but I thought that the case of Latin America was pretty straightforward: most of the region speaks Spanish. There are some exceptions (Brazil, for example, and several islands in the Caribbean), but 60% of the countries stick to the Hispanic language. So, even if you are not sure, it is always better to ask which is the native tongue of someone rather than assume it.
4. “If you are a Mexican, why are you white?”
OK, my old roommate might have not phrased it exactly like that, but you should never pass up a “Mean Girls” reference. Truth be told, she was a bit more delicate and hesitantly asked: “Aren’t Mexicans suppose to be, you know… tan?”
I guess that thanks to media representation most people tend to believe that everybody in Mexico look the same. But again, just like with names, we Mexicans come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Keep in mind that we are a mixed race, meaning that we have European and indigenous blood, so the possibilities are endless! If you ever bump into another pale-looking LatinX, remember that you can’t just ask people why are they white.
5. “Why are you so tall?”
Assuming how someone is supposed to look like based on his or her nationality is a no-no tinged with racism. Of course there are certain cultural and genetic traits that dominate the appearance of a country’s citizens. But c’mon! At this point in history we all have a pretty mixed heritage.
Yeah, I might be taller than the average Mexican woman, but how would I know why? I drank too much milk when I was a child? I have a genetic mutation? My parents adopted me from a foreign country and have kept it a secret for the past 25 years? Physical appearance is something very personal so it should be approached carefully.
6. “Have you ever used a microwave before?”
How on earth would I heat my popcorn before binge-watching Netflix otherwise? (Yeah, believe it or not, we do have Netflix in Mexico, too.
Seriously, access to technology is a sign of economic power and development; so, by assuming that a person is not able to acquire certain technology, you are denigrating them. I get it, we are a developing country and, sadly, many people in Mexico don’t have access to basic services. But, that doesn’t mean that you can generalise the way of life for 130 million people.
Why it’s important that Latina’s keep traveling
These questions bring to light why it’s so important for Latinxs to keep traveling. Not only for our own personal growth and development, but to shed a lot more light on the misconceptions and stereotypes that are so commonplace around the world—especially in the media. It’s not really about creating “awareness,” because obviously we exist, but it is about fostering better understanding on a personal level. It’s important to serve as strong representations of our individual cultures and countries. Hopefully the more we travel, the less we get these same ridiculous questions over and over.
STOP. ASKING. SILLY. QUESTIONS.
Don’t get me wrong, I love getting to know more about other countries and I think asking a local is the best way to learn, but when it comes to cultural identity, you have to be very careful with how you phrase your questions. I took most of these with a good degree of humor, since I knew most of the people who asked meant well, but it is always better to approach to a new culture with a stereotype-free mentality. That way you can learn a lot and not offend anyone in the process. That’s what makes travel meaningful.