Photo: Vlad Teodor/Shutterstock

7 Things Only Latino Travelers Understand

by Amanda Machado Nov 1, 2014
1. You struggle to explain “backpacking” to your family.

Two months into my trip backpacking through South America, I decided to stop in Quito, Ecuador to visit my extended family. When I arrived wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt with mud stains under the sleeve, my hair matted and unwashed, my backpack’s torn straps hanging down my shoulders, my family looked aghast. For Latinos, traveling means luxury and comfort, not adventure and visiting places “on a shoestring.” With such a strict emphasis on personal appearance and looking “bien arreglada,” the idea of spending a year “roughing it” on purpose makes little sense.

2. You feel tremendous guilt for sacrificing family time to travel.

I could feel my parents’ disappointment when I told them I would not be home for Christmas. And during the hostel Christmas party that year, when all the backpackers started celebrating with drinks in the backyard patio, I was the lone traveler skyping my family in the common room. Coming from Latino families like mine, who spend every holiday together and accept no excuses for not visiting, choosing to abandon family time for a trip abroad, becomes a difficult, guilt-ridden choice.

3. Sometimes, you blend in as a local.

Though my dark brown skin can make me stand out in the States, while traveling, it sometimes allows me to easily blend in. In Thailand, locals thought surely I was half-Thai. In India, surely I was half-Indian. In South Africa, I was “coloured.” While more fair-skinned travelers can often get harassed by vendors and tour guides, and struggle to interact with locals genuinely, Latinos can appreciate that locals do not always immediately target us as tourists, or instantly view us with a sense of “otherness.” Often told I looked “ethnically ambiguous,” I had the advantage of not always seeming entirely “foreign.” That alone seemed to make me more approachable, and easier to get invited for tea or dinner, even though I was staying at the same Lonely Planet-recommended hostel as everybody else.

4. Traveling Latin America is like rediscovering home.

After so many moments in the States feeling like your Latino upbringing was abnormal, it feels utterly refreshing to travel through a continent with a culture and lifestyle that finally mirrors your own. In her essay “Traveling While Black,” black writer Farai Chideya described her visits back to Africa as “the most healing of all. You go there and get part of your soul back.” For the Latino traveler, exploring Latin America can feel the same. Traveling through Latin America validated the beliefs I was raised on that had never quite fit within the American way of life: a sense of obligation toward family, devotion to spirituality and religion, an emphasis on community, and an overall slower pace of life. Experiencing this culture firsthand, from its source, affirmed a part of me that the United States never quite could.

5. You’re constantly explaining to locals that you really are “American.”

And with this deep connection to Latin America, it’s hard to articulate how much you are nonetheless still, American. Travelers with American passports, but complex cultural and racial heritage negate the typical images people often receive about what “American” looks like and means. During my travels, people assumed that “American” simply meant “white.” The term “Latino” confused them, and the fact that I could speak Spanish without an accent, have parents from Latin America, and yet still identify in so many ways with the States, seemed impossible.

Latino identity does not exist anywhere in the world except for in the United States. Traveling then forced me to try to explain what this identity — already so loosely defined in the States and practically invisible abroad — meant to me. And by answering questions about race, family, culture, and Latino experiences in America, Latinos expose others to how multi-dimensional “American” identity can be.

6. You wonder how traveling fits into the American Dream.

Coming from a family who spent their lives working and sacrificing for the hope of conventional American success, the idea of blowing all my savings not for a mortgage or a car, but for “taking time off to travel” was hard to justify. When I finally had the stability my family worked hard for me to one day enjoy, it seemed almost disrespectful to throw it all away for a year living out of a backpack. With this anxiety in the back of our minds, we have to figure out how traveling fits into our family’s notion of “making it” in the States.

7. …But you know, deep down, that the opportunity to travel is what the American Dream is all about.

Paradoxically, it is often because of our family’s experiences that Latinos are so driven to travel in the first place. Over time, I realized that the “opportunities” my family worked hard for were not confined to only education, job security, and a 401k. It could also mean seeing the world and pursuing interests I never could otherwise. Through that perspective, traveling seemed to truly encapsulate what the American Dream should mean.

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