MEN would yell “Puta! cuanto?” or “Whore, how much?” at me in the streets of Buenos Aires. It was 2001, and I thought that I was there to study Peronism. Instead I got a major lesson in “traveling while black and female.”
Though I knew that I wouldn’t see many black people in Argentina — I had read enough about Latin America’s “embranquecimento” whitening campaigns to know that, even though many Latin American countries tried to eliminate their African populations by recruiting European settlers and encouraging intermarriage, Argentina was the only “success story” — nothing that I read in any of my travel guides prepared me for the experience.
No travel guide or history book mentioned that many of Buenos Aires’ few women of African descent had been trafficked from countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Dominican Republic for the purpose of prostitution. Moreover, as a dark-skinned woman with definitive African features and hair texture, I did not necessarily realize that I looked Brazilian, Colombian, and Dominican, and that by virtue of my skin tone and gender, many Argentines would assume that I too was prostitute from one of those countries, and there was nothing that I could do to stop that perception.
My large book bag did not challenge their assumptions. I tried to wear looser clothes. At one point, I started wearing an Islamic style hijab. But to no avail — the calls of “puta, cuanto?” continued, and the jeers made me feel inherently uncomfortable and unsafe.
Of course, I had my regular tourist and student moments like the rest of the people I studied abroad with. We all marveled at the beautiful architecture in Palermo Viejo. We enjoyed phenomenal operas at the Teatro Colon. I felt the weight of history as I watched women demonstrating at the Plaza de Mayo about their sons and daughters who were “desaparecidos,” having “disappeared” during brutal military dictatorships. I enjoyed watching and dancing the tango in La Boca. Moreover, my courses such as the Social Imagery of Peronism at the Universidad de Buenos Aires were intellectually engaging and enriching.
But my white, female study abroad mates did not experience constant sexual propositions, and unlike me, they were always regarded as American tourists. My “gringa” accent could not convince most Argentines that I was American. They were always in disbelief that I was not Latina. One of the students who I tutored in English explained why I did not look like I was from the US. He told me that when he thinks of an American girl he thinks of a slightly overweight blond woman — not me, a slim, dark-skinned black woman with braids. The bias there was so great that even a Nigerian man in Buenos Aires assumed I was a prostitute. He would give me dirty looks in an Internet cafe until he peeked at my computer screen one day, saw that I was typing in English, and then exclaimed, “You’re not a Dominican streetwalker!”
My experience was radically different from most of my study abroad mates. They immersed themselves in Buenos Aires life by dating Argentines and spending the entire semester in Buenos Aires. On the other hand, I was so burdened by the threat of racialized sexual interest that I resisted any and all advances from white Argentine men. In a city of very few black people, I wound up dating an Afro-Uruguayan medical student named Jorge. Visiting Jorge’s family in Montevideo was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience. I also traveled back to the states for Easter break and savored every moment of being back in New York. I would have gone home more if money were no object.
Am I still grateful for the travel experience? Yes. My host mother Carmen and host brother Tito were wonderful and showed me all the kindness and love a student could ask for. Jorge was a great guy who I thought about a lot after my trip. My study abroad mates were great and I value my connections with them. Even to this day, I crave the delicious empanadas, milanesas, pasta, and noquis that I ate in Buenos Aires. Most importantly, the experience bolstered my interest in economic development in countries like Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Brazil because I believe that economic opportunity and raising awareness are the best weapons against sex-trafficking. I wrote my college thesis on the topic.
Am I itching to go back to Argentina? Absolutely not. Although over a decade has elapsed since my trip, I am still traumatized. My time in Buenos Aires has made me forever vigilant about doing race and gender-based research before I travel. Since my trip, I have heard from White-American women who were perceived as prostitutes in the Middle East because of the “Natasha” sex trade in trafficked Eastern European women to the region. I have learned of Black-American women who have suffered severe street harassment in Spain and Italy where Nigerian and Ghanaian women are frequently trafficked for prostitution. Clearly, global travel is not an equal-opportunity endeavor.
A version of this article was originally published on The Grio, and has been re-printed here with permission.