Studying In India as a Black Latina

During my semester abroad in India, I learned how incredibly diverse this country is. India is the world’s seventh largest country by area and the second largest by population. It boasts 22 major languages and five physiographic regions that range from deserts to mountains. While India is diverse in many ways, there are very few Black Latinas here. 

black latina in india

I am a second generation American with dark skin, big, black, curly hair, and a Southwestern accent. I speak primarily Spanglish, with Black, Mexican, and indigenous roots. And while my racial and ethnic identity has always been questioned and even put to the test by people who could not accept the validity of my biracial identity, I have never thought much about how my identity was scrutinized by others.  

In India, I have found no Latinx presence beyond Mexican Fries at McDonald’s. There is a large population of exchange students from Africa, primarily Nigeria, at the university. I was often mistaken for one of them. I learned about anti-blackness in India from a Nigerian exchange student. There had been a series of attacks on African students throughout India that led this student to warn me about traveling without another American or Indian person.  

Violence toward people of color, particularly Black people, is a narrative I am familiar with. While the stories of Trayvon Martin and Melissa Ventura have come to light, thousands of people of color still experience violence and are forced to be silent. Their narratives become warnings to their children and families, passed from generation to generation, much like those of the African students here in India. 

Uncomfortable stares  

As a person of color, a constant state of vigilance and caution is normal. While I could share stories of being told to “go back to where you came from” whenever I spoke a different language in public, and the same awkward interactions with law enforcement as the students who warned me, I still felt extremely lonely. In my everyday life, there was no one I could speak with in Spanish or share how uncomfortable I felt under the scrutinizing gaze of practically everyone I walked past. And while I acknowledge the privilege of being an American citizen, as a Black Latina, I was somehow less privileged than my White and Asian counterparts studying abroad. 

With my hair tied up, I have been mistaken as Indian. Once with my hair down, I watched a rickshaw driver almost crash into a tree as he stared at me. In public, people touch my hair without permission and ask me what I did to make it “go wild.” With straightening products and the concept of good hair common in the West, I was used to stares and comments. But in India, I began to feel extremely uncomfortable whenever I wore my hair down because of all the attention it drew to me. 

While my white counterparts are often asked to have their pictures taken or to be a part of a group photo, I am the subject of stolen photos, revealed only when someone forgets to turn off their flash. In local supermarkets, workers were quick to offer skin-whitening face washes and creams. Small things like these made me realize how radical my very existence was in this space. 

While at times I felt extremely lonely with no one to talk to about microaggressions and whispers of kaalee (“black” in Hindi), I also felt a need to reflect on my own identity.  

An opportunity to explore and share  

Studying abroad is a chance to attain a greater perspective on many things, and it allowed me to learn more about myself. Rather than let awkward comments and stares get to me, I used every interaction as a chance to talk about my culture and identity with others. This allowed me to learn more about Indian culture, as well as make friends. It also gave me the opportunity to get more comfortable talking about the importance of identity. Talking to people from cultures very different from my own allowed me to learn how much class plays into Indian society, and the many ways it influences different ethnic groups here. 

Most importantly, studying abroad allowed me to reflect on my own identity and society’s influence in shaping it. While having a community at home that shares portions of my racial and ethnic identity and supports me was instrumental in my decision to study abroad, being separated from them allowed me to view my identity in a new way. I have a greater appreciation for who I am and where I come from, as well as a better understanding of how identity is presented and formed in other cultures. My experiences in India have given me a completely different outlook that I could not have gotten anywhere else, and for that I am grateful. 

—Guadalupe M. (American University), IFSA Work-to-Study Program international correspondent 

While I acknowledge the privilege of being an American citizen, as a Black Latina, I was somehow less privileged than my white and Asian counterparts.
Rather than let awkward comments and stares get to me, I used every interaction as a chance to talk about my culture and identity with others.