1. A different definition of “religious”

In the United States, I thought my family was religious because they dragged us to Mass on Sundays, “blessed” us over our heads before we went on a long journey, and made us carry a Virgen de Guadalupe in our suitcases whenever we traveled. But compared to people in Latin America, my family’s religious rituals were mild to say the least. In Latin America, church and Mass went on all day, every day of the week. Cities stopped for parades and holidays honoring Catholic saints. And the señal de la cruz was given even when you were just going to the corner store. After seeing how intensely devout Latin Americans are, my family’s adherence to a few minor rituals paled in comparison.

2. An acceptance for absolutely cute or absolutely offensive nicknames

Reina,” “Princesa,” “Bonita,” “Gordita,” “Flaquita,” “Morenita” — anything “-ita.” While traveling in South America, not a day went by without someone — taxi driver, store vendor, hostel owner — referring to me a by a nickname they chose themselves. Translated into English, they’re either absolutely cute or absolutely offensive, but hearing locals repeat them regardless — shamelessly and with seemingly good intentions — made me realize that the ones my family had labeled me for years (“Pansoncita,” “Naris de Gata”) all came from a genuine place of affection.

3. The diversity of food/cuisine in South America

Growing up in Florida, I was accustom to restaurants falsely lumping all “Latin American food” together, or inaccurately assuming that “Latin American food” was the same as Mexican and Caribbean staples like beans, rice, or steak. My time traveling and eating across South America proved there’s far more on the table than the United States assumed.

In Argentina, the menu was often pasta and mate tea. In Ecuador, people raved of “cuy” (roasted guinea pig). In Peru, it was ceviche, palta rellena, and dishes made with the 3,000 different kinds of potatoes growing in the country. Even across one country, the food changed significantly from one area to the next. In Ecuador’s coast, I saw encebollado on almost every menu, while just a few hours away in the mountains restaurants bragged about their hornado. Sampling all these unique dishes opened my eyes to how unfairly limited our perception of “Latin American food” is in the States, and how many delicious culinary experiences we were missing out on.

4. A new perspective on race

In the United States, I always considered myself Hispanic or Latino, and never self-identified as white. But my time in Latin America showed me that race in Latin America was far more complicated than the “black,” “white,” and “latino” categories. Subgroups like “mulatto,” “mestizo,” and “indígena” complicate race conversations in Latin America, and people seem most concerned with distinguishing themselves from them: Argentinians emphasize their Italian or German backgrounds. My fair-skinned family members — comparing themselves to the indigenous, mestizo, and black populations in their countries — also identified with their European backgrounds. At the same time, the way people identified race and ethnicity — using terms like “chinito” for any Asian person, or “negrito” for anyone with darker skin — didn’t necessarily seem to express the same negative overtones or intentions that these terms carry in the States. All of these unique issues show that race relations in Latin America come with entirely new dimensions and struggles to consider when rethinking how we personally want to identify, in the States and abroad.

5. A new understanding of US international policy

Throughout my 18 years of US public education, I seldom learned about how US and Latin American history intertwined: our involvement with Pinochet in Chile, our interventions in Bolivia, etc. Listening to these stories while traveling drove me to finally brush up on Latin American history and fully grasp just how many times the United States has influenced the people, politics, and livelihood of people across the continent. After learning about our country’s past impact, we can better understand why so many locals still resent the US’s international policies and feel skeptical of our ability to help positively in the future.

6. A renewed appreciation for feminist opportunities in the United States

Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Almost every country in Latin America only allows abortion in instances of rape or threat to life. At a far less extreme level, in Latin America, it was still common to hear women surprised that I was 25, single, and traveling without a man. They were equally surprised to learn that I had previously worked in a city far away from family, lived in an apartment on my own, and had no intention of marrying anytime soon.

As a single woman in the United States, I often take for granted these options and opportunities. Though the United States is far from perfect in creating equal opportunities for all women (we rank 20 in the world in global gender gaps according to the World Economic Forum) — time spent in Latin America makes any woman realize how much more freedom we enjoy here in the US.

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