According to data accumulated during a study by NAFSA, only 7.6% of all latinx matriculated in post-secondary education go on to study abroad. Only 7.6%. When you sit down and think about the amount of minorities who are able to afford college, conjugated with the amount of Instagrams taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower by a study abroad kid on your feed per day, this percentage seems increasingly small. It is hard to believe that I am a part of this 7.6%, considering my family, just like many others, came to this country with nothing.
Here’s the thing no one tells you: studying abroad is extremely difficult. Put that together with being a woman of color in the middle of a country whose language you do not speak and, well, it’s expected to be a bumpy ride. It is a harsh reality when you are stripped of your cultural identity and thrown to the sharks, a reality I will admit I struggled with quite deeply.
Even worse was realizing my depression followed me.
I have dealt my own battles with depression since I was a kid – of this, I need no telling, as you most likely either understand or never will. It has been a long, long journey, and until recently I was not even able to admit to myself the full level of my depression. A part of me, the child who loved fairy tales and macaroons and Madeline, thought that maybe Paris was it – the answer to my inability to get out of bed in the morning, the answer to everything that seemed so, so incredibly wrong in my life. Immediately upon arrival, I began to miss Miami and the cafecito, the palm trees, the ocean, the horrible traffic, the sound of Spanish being yelled back and forth – I knew I would not find these things in France, and studied there despite/because of it, but I was alarmed at how much I had come to define myself through being surrounded by these things. The absolute closest I could come to describing this feeling is not even written by me, but by the musician Rodrigo Amarante: “It was as a foreigner, separated from others and yet still somehow attached to the furniture I had left behind, bits of myself I hung up around me like dead mirrors I could no longer turn my face to, that came to focus the beauty of the empty room ahead, a hint.. When I finally arrived back in Rio no longer a child and with an accent three times tampered I realized that my home town was mine only because I had invented it, its memory a dream of smells and hope that didn’t exist in space, maybe in time. I discovered myself a stranger, what I had been since I first left, what I knew I would forever be. And it was light and warm, I felt free and grateful, strong, and like this I departed again. I ended up finding myself in a type of desert, happy to be alone, overwhelmed with the void, with silence, the place where I wrote these songs from. I believe that everybody can feel foreign in one way or another, in the way that they feel they’re perceived by others, in their bodies, their streets, in their fate perhaps..”
Don’t get me wrong – Paris, to me, is and will forever be a dream. The sun shining in Jardin du Luxembourg, the mansard roofs through the trees, the stillness of the Seine – all reminders that Paris is for those who aren’t afraid to bleed for what they dream. There are also downsides too, like endless pickpocketing, the most expensive restaurants on the planet and the fact that every stop on the 8 perpetually smells like piss (also, can anyone explain to me who the hell designed Châtalet station, and why?) When I think of Paris, I think of the future I will lead for the rest of my life there, as well as all the safe spaces that unexpectedly reminded me just how good life can be.
It still doesn’t mean that being of color in a majority-white country isn’t the hardest thing to endure.
In a memory I think of quite fondly, there was a day where my good friend Julia even went as far as to drag me all around city center for the first Mexican taqueria she could find – it was the only inkling of home she could think to bring me to. Julia and I share our fair bit of differences, but we have a profound understanding of each other like no one else could. Even still, sometimes, I felt a strange sense of isolation from the rest of my classmates, who were all as blithely unaware of their white privilege as can be, and I found comfort in bad habits and destructive vices.
A few days later, one of my favorite artists Devendra Banhart announced an unexpected signing in the city I had, for some reason, found myself in. Long story short, I had a moment to tell him how much his music meant to me and how alone I felt there. He immediately started speaking to me in Spanish and introduced me to some of the other latinx in the room. To clarify, I never once mentioned I felt “alone” in the racial sense – he just knew. He reminded me of everything I had forgotten, and even enlightened me on everything I had yet to realize – he was the first person to care and ask about my art. This meant much more than I could begin to say. I remember waking up the next morning and not feeling so afraid.
Things thereafter got a lot easier. I still struggled some mornings (okay, a lot of mornings), but it was a gradual sense of self I had to come into all my own. I learned that I was not defined by my surroundings, and that even though I will always be from Miami, I could learn to get by outside of it. I learned that whenever it gets really, really isolating, something will come along to remind you why you’re there in the first place. I am grateful that Paris just so happened to be the place where I got to emotionally grow and spread my wings, where I fell in love with one of the best people I’ve ever known, where I got my ass kicked and found the strength to pick myself up again – just like I always will.
The sole purpose of studying abroad is to broaden your perspective by immersing yourself in an entirely new and diverse culture – this I am aware of. The part that nobody talks about is just how difficult it is for people of color to be detached from theirs and thrown into another, not realizing that they are not quite welcome there, that they will always walk down the street with “I’m Not From Here” tattooed on their forehead. The hardships of studying abroad are not just entitled to over-privileged kids who want to amp up their Instagram follower count, binge-drink and try eating escargot – it is a real, sometimes painful experience for POC to face – yet because of this, in the end, it is all the more rewarding.
To my of color brothers and sisters, please remember: this country was built off our backs, despite America never giving credit where credit is due. We belong here, despite anyone trying to tell us we don’t. We have every right to dream, as high as the sky allows, just like we have every right to feel like we have a home. It can be difficult when we feel misplaced, out of our comfort zone, alone – but you’re not, you never will be. I believe in us so deeply as well as our potential to be and see whatever it is we want to see. If you want to study abroad, don’t let anything stop you – there are so many scholarships and programs and funds waiting for you, just like they were for me.
The other day, I decided to forever carry with me a piece of the note Devendra wrote when I met him at the utmost peak of my struggling. “Comparte” means to share – to me, it means to be open and vulnerable in a world that threatens to drown you if you dare to be. It is a constant reminder of my native language, my culture, and my home, from a time where I felt it slipping away from me. It is a constant reminder of where I came from, and although that doesn’t dictate where I am going, it does make up a lot of who I am – LATINA, something I could not be prouder to be. “Comparte” is a homage to all the times I felt hidden inside of my depression as well as all the times I felt like my voice was heard, that I wasn’t alone, that there are pieces of home everywhere I go – all I have to do is look for it.
All text and photos provided by our Miami editor Vanessa.
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