Samuel is a Practical English for Success volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.
One of the things I most appreciate about being from California is the diversity I have been exposed to my entire life. I grew up interacting with people of all backgrounds and cultures. I had friends who were Native Americans, children of immigrants, or recent arrivals to the country themselves. I had friends whose families, like my own, had been in California and/or the U.S. for generations. I grew up hearing different languages, eating different foods, and being exposed to different holidays and other cultural traditions from around the world. It was not always this peaceful multi-cultural utopia where everyone always got along, but being different from one another was normal and that diversity was usually respected. I have been privileged enough to study, travel, work and live abroad at various times in my life, and what I always missed the most while being abroad was the diversity of the United States.
Now here I am just a few months into my Peace Corps service in the pueblo of Santo Tomás in Caribbean Colombia and as a darker-skinned Latino of Mexican background in a multiracial family, I find myself blending in with the majority of the population here like I never have in a place before. Of course, like most of Latin America, the incredible diversity of Caribbean Colombia — comprising a mix of indigenous, African, European and several other backgrounds — cannot be disputed. It definitely is a place of diverse peoples; however, I can’t help but look around and see that most people around me now look like my parents, cousins, siblings and perhaps I even see a doppelgänger or two.
I must recognize that physically blending in with a lot of the population here is providing me a certain anonymity that my other non-Latinx Peace Corps Volunteers are not experiencing. This is giving me a chance to go fairly unnoticed while I am adjusting to life in my new community. Being male also provides me a certain freedom and mobility that women are not as often afforded in this region where machismo reigns supreme. Growing up as a queer, working class, person of color in the United States has definitely provided some challenges and this is the first time in my life that I am blending in with the group of dominant power. (*Disclaimer*: being a part of the LGBTQ community here in conservative Caribbean Colombia is definitely one of my biggest struggles, but it is recommended that we keep our queer sexuality discreet, at least until we are very well integrated and trusted by the community. Being an out, visible queer is one part of my identity that unfortunately must be neglected right now; but, as a result, it is not something that I have to deal with the community reacting to.)
Attempting to understand race, gender, class and sexuality, at least on a surface level, is inevitably one of the first things I try to do when I find myself in a new place. Being in Colombia and blending in has definitely caused me to readjust, reevaluate and start seeing privilege through an altogether different lens. As opposed to being in different parts of the United States, here in Colombia I have noticed that I don’t have the same fear and paranoia of seeing a police officer and feeling like I am a target because of the color of my skin. I also am able to go into a store without feeling like people are staring at me thinking that I may be a shoplifter. Not dealing with these everyday struggles that black and brown men face in the United States is something I very much appreciate about being in Colombia. At the same time, I am inspired to be currently surrounded by some many professionals with a Latinx background. I have been working in the field of education for a decade and most times I am one of the few, if only, educators that is male with a Latino background. Obviously, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, etc. in Colombia are going to be Colombian, but it really is something unique and inspiring for me to have Colombian colleagues and role models to work with, learn from, and look up to.
Being a gringo-Latino here in Colombia has already been an eye-opening experience just in these four short months. The world as I have known it has been turned upside down, or at the least tilted a little on its side. Navigating life in the pueblo requires my adjusting the norms and rules of my San Francisco/California/United States society while simultaneously staying unbiased and letting my experiences here in the town shape and form my ideas about life in Colombia. If privilege comes along with parts of my identity here in this society, I must figure out a way to be the best ally I can be. I love and appreciate the diversity of the United States more than anything else about it. I feel blessed that being around a diverse population is the reality that I grew up in and I can’t imagine making my permanent home in a place that isn’t like that. For now, my reality is being here in my Colombian pueblo where I can blend in like a local. That is until I open my mouth and speak my broken, slow, gringo-accented Spanish and cause all the people around me to do a double-take and wonder where I hell I came from. I may not look like most Colombians’ perception of an American, but I am beyond happy to be here exposing the people of my pueblo to at least some of the diverse identities that are coming from the United States.