Buenos Aires, Argentina 2009
Deciding to come to Buenos Aires was not an easy decision for me. So much seemed to rest upon this experience- whichever country I chose was going to influence my Spanish more than any other place yet. After I saw Italy I thought I would choose Spain. Europe was so beautiful and inviting. It was like being dropped in a post card. After two summers in the Dominican Republic and three months at language school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, it seemed to be a logical choice.
But I found myself drawn back to Mexico. I went to Tijuana twice with my college on two incredible trips. For a long time I had hoped I could find some way of returning. My freshman year at Gordon, Professor Lutz set up a Spanish table once a week in Lane. Anyone who wanted to practice was welcome but they might have been a bit discouraged as I used it as a chance to argue over the fact that Spanish majors aren’t actually allowed to chose Mexico as a study abroad location. I remember asking her if the department would let me study in Tijuana. I like to think she enjoyed these interactions and my rather theatrical pleas. I still knew I had to go to Latin America even if it was not Mexico and began sifting through programs, cities and countries. I tried to weigh my motives and reasons for going to Latin America. It began to feel trickier when I began to lean towards the Paris of the South, Buenos Aires.
As my time here begins to fill in and form into an actual experience I am not completely sure why I chose Buenos Aires. Sociology played a role, peoples’ recommendations, opportunities, the chance to do something different, to stretch myself, etc. I do not tell many people this but I actually considered dropping my Spanish major and heading of to South Africa. However, when I really thought about it I wanted to keep chasing this dream of fluency. The most concrete reason, however, is fulfilling the remaining quota of Spanish credits. I would like to think it to be more profound than that but there it is in all of its honesty.
I do know I am being stretched, first and foremost linguistically. Mexican Spanish continues to be the easiest for me to understand. When Mexican telenovelas are on television here it’s a refreshing break from the Buenos Aires accent. I love Mexican accents. Once I was told that I sounded “like we do” by a Mexican. I was on top of the world. Last year when I was in Guatemala on a sociology seminar with Gordon, I made friends with our driver, Oliver. We bonded over our shared love for Latin music. He’d always look back at me in the rearview mirror to see if I knew who the artist was when a new song came on over the van’s speakers. When he told me I spoke like I was from northern Mexico I was giddy with happiness at the idea. He may have been lying or trying to please me because it’s obvious I do not speak that way anymore. Not even close.
Mostly people tell me they can’t identify where I am from, that is, if they cannot note right away that I am American. They tell me my accent is a combination. For anyone who has never learned a second language, imagine combining four accents- a New York accent with an Alabaman accent, and then mix in a few words that only the British use with the pronunciation of a Canadian. I imagine I sound that bizarre at times. I say “yo” like a Dominican and then throw in “ahorita” like a Mexican all while trying to make the “sh” sound when I make the “ll” sound like the Argentines then I slip up and lisp like a Spaniard (blame it on all those Almodóvar films). I am also sure this is amusing but one grows tired of not just talking but striving constantly. I quickly get irritated with patronizing smiles and try to resist speaking in English “just because.” One of the people who strongly recommended Buenos Aires to me told me not to be deterred by the accent. “Your accent will always be a mix” he said. I knew that was true but I did not want it to be. My host mom, Claudia, says she likes the way I talk. She added that the most important thing is that they understand me. So is it just vanity then that I want a pure accent- fully one country or the other?
I had this idea that I could develop into a fully bilingual human being with two complete identities in both English and Spanish. When I was seventeen this was incredibly much more plausible. Now, I’m twenty-one and not to be all fatalistic, but I am getting older. It is not nearly as easy as it once looked to my big blue eyes.
I am desperate to move beyond the typical and comfortable topics like the weather (yes, New York is cold and no, I do not like it) and music (no, I am not a huge Charly Garcia fan and yes, I like reggaeton). But I want to sound intelligent when I talk about politics or someone asks me to explain what we are studying in my Latin American social thought class. I do not want to talk in haltering sentences or look to someone else in search of the word I need to make sense.
My identity is more English than Spanish. I knew this but adjusting to the weight of this statement takes something out of me. I’m running up against a wall. There are things that I cannot ever change about myself. Even if I looked Argentine I will never sound Argentine. I am a native English speaker. I am not Hispanic by any means. Even if my cultural understanding was superb and my people skills were excellent, I am American. When I put my pen to the page or my hands to the worn out keys of my computer my instincts are in English. When I aim to understand a thought or an intellectual idea my perspective is American. My political understanding, my social norms, my spirituality, and my way of being are inherently American.
I do not know that I will ever feel like I fully blend into this country or even this continent. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I am being taught a deeper empathy than I have yet to know. You cannot know the difficulty of moving from one place to another until you do it.I am beginning to know deeper parts of my being- some of them beautiful to me and some of them more painful to assess. I have come to no concrete conclusions but that I still want to be here. That is the most important at the moment. I would like to be here and have answers to all of my doubts. I am not yet halfway through my time here so I daresay I will at least have a few erased. Perhaps the other questions and doubts will stay with me- there to remind me that I am only human, and that purpose does not always require perfection.