Choldenstock
When I’m asked about my experience in Argentina, I often don’t know what to say. Condensing a four-month long international experience into a few sentences is enough of a challenge, let alone the difficulty of trying to candidly and honestly articulate your time abroad. Usually, I respond: “Fantastic!” or “Great!” opting to choose broad terms that paradoxically express everything and nothing at the same time. But, if I were to cease my self-imposed censorship, I would access my inner loquacious intellectual and explain how much my identity as a Black American woman completely colored and tainted my time in Argentina.
My study abroad experience in Argentina was a test of tolerance and measure of understanding. Having researched race in Argentina extensively prior to departure, I expected to be the object of long stares. I knew that I was entering into a primarily homogenous society with a very small population of blacks. I was aware of the different history of race and racialization, consistent with the Latin American ideologies of mestizaje and blanqueamiento, which engendered distinctive articulations of prejudice and ignorance that operate under the disguise of racial harmony. In other words, the racial prejudice was to be benign, not malicious. The prejudice was almost curiosity, just because of the absence of black and browner people. I was prepared for the “hola, morocha” prefacing the numerous catcalls I received. But, it was still difficult to expect to be a spectacle.
Taking all of this into consideration, it was hard to be “upset” every time someone touched my hair and asked about my tresses. It was a constant internal struggle. On one hand, it would not be okay for some stranger in the US to come up and ask me about my hair and proceed to touch it without permission. In Argentina, it was acceptable to do this because it wasn’t seen as racist or ignorant; just plain old curiosity mixed with ignorance. In response, I had to educate with compassion. I always answered their questions respectfully, proud to teach others about my curly, kinky hair.
I became duly aware of how much hair is a racial signifier, and, above all, a marker of difference. Once, I was standing in line at a pharmacy when a child could not stop staring at me. He began to approach me, slowly lifting his hand to touch my hair. He was dangerously close to touching my hair, my eyes widening with cluelessness and my feet rendered immoveable by shock, until his mother reprimanded him. Another time, I had a 15 minute conversation with one of my host mother’s friends about the intricacies of my braids and the interwoven nature of my natural hair and the extensions. I grew so accustomed to answering questions about my hair that I practically used a scripted response. It seemed as if my hair was a separate being, attracting its own set of followers.
My “African” origins also intrigued many. I identify as a Black American—I don’t know from which country in Africa my ancestors were taken; hence, I can only claim my United States roots. However, my skin color speaks race and not ethnic identity. Black skin connoted African heritage. One older Argentinean woman was insistent that I was not from the States. I had to be directly from Africa. I felt that it was often inconceivable for Argentineans to grasp that I could be both Black and from the United States. Based on my experience, United States citizenship directly correlates with white racial identity in the Argentinian imagination.
Despite the apparent fixedness of black heritage in Argentina, my skin color and hair allowed for a fluidity of identity. One man assumed I was Colombian; while others thought I was Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Brazilian. My browner skin tone afforded me an opportunity that my race would never give me in the States: passing. I could pass for another nationality because of my race. In this sense, I felt that it was almost a privilege to be darker skinned, a concept so foreign to me. The transcendence of nationality over race was an unexpected advantage.
At the same time, once Argentineans moved on beyond my braided hair and brown hued skin, my United States nationality become more important. It was if my race was just accepted, not contested. It was just seen as cool that I was from the United States and chose to study abroad, as that is practically unheard of in the family-based, traditional, Argentinean culture.
As the songstress India.Arie sings, “I am not my hair, I am not this skin; I am not your expectation…I am the soul that lives within”. These lyrics ring true of my experience in Argentina. I learned that although my hair and my skin tone may be markers of difference, they do not define who I am. The saying goes that when you travel, you find yourself. I undoubtedly, through navigating being a minority in another American society, was able to realize the importance of self-identity.

Constance Holden is a student at Amherst College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler in Mendoza, Argentina, in 2014.