Every morning, I wake up to two huge volcanoes right outside of my window. One is named Imbabura. According to native folklore of this region, he is the father volcano. The other, named Cotacachi, is the mother volcano. They both are highly respected, especially by the groups that are indigenous to this region. I have a lot of respect for them, too; but a lot of that might have to do with the fact that Cotacachi is currently registered as a “dormant” volcano - not an extinct one, so technically she could blow at any moment. Everybody has got to respect that.
For 7 months, living in rural highland Ecuador as a medical volunteer; I have grown to see both Cotacachi and Imbabura as mother and father figures, too. Always watching. When I have a chance to watch them back, I get to thinking about my own parents. My mother is Latina, and she raised me to see myself as just as much Latina as I am African American. It made a lot of sense, until I actually came to live in South America. Here, if I decide to go on a hike, sporting my hiking boots, waist pack, and North Face raincoat screaming extranjera, I am automatically labeled as a gringa - or American foreigner. Let’s say I’m not dressed to hike, though. When I open my mouth, some people have a hard time figuring out exactly what or who I am. Taxi drivers have commented on my Caleña accent and slang, assuming that I am from Colombia. Bus drivers have asked me if I am a refugee from Venezuela, but no one ever guesses that I am American. The truth is that most people who are visitors or volunteers in this region are not Brown people. They are white, wealthy, and do not usually live within the communities that they serve. They bump around from hostle to hostle, here for the experience - not necessarily for the impact.
Of course, there are groups who do fantastic work here that are truly in it to build relationships and create long-lasting solutions to the pressing issues that poverty often creates. These groups are made up of people who recognize that they are not only here to serve, but to learn; also, to see the beauty and opportunity that exists where many would only identify need or lack. The problem is that, when you are a Brown person serving within these groups, the image in the minds of many people who benefit from the groups’ activities directly conflicts with the reality of who you are. In other words, white surpremacy exists in volunteerism, too - and it doesn’t even need white people to survive. It says that if you are Brown, you are on one side of the exchange, which is almost always the side where there is need.
I self-identify as an Afro-Latina, but my Afro-Latina is broken down a little bit differently from the movement that has become more mainstream in recent years. Being Afro-Latinx is usually understood as being a descendant of enslaved people from the continent of Africa that were brought to the shores of Central and South America (and some islands in the Caribbean) during the Atantic Slave Trade. The majority of enslaved people were sent to South America, actually; many more than were sent to North America. We know that we have Afro-Latin roots on my mother’s side, which means that she is Afro-Latina in the way that Zoe Saldana is, or Laz Alonzo (amen), or Cardi B. My dad, however, is African-American. Like many African Americans, he has a bunch of different ethnicities mixed in, including Native American and Guyanese; but he doesn’t really have any Latino ancestry to speak of. I have spoken about my background to a few people here in Ecuador, and when I explain that my mother is Colombian, I am embraced as a Morena or Negrita (endearing terms in the Afro-Latin community). However, when I explain that I have a whole half of my racial identity that is not Latina at all, I am usually defaulted to Gringa or Extranjera. Little by little, this response and the internal knowledge that I am “sort-of” Afro-Latina, creates an invisible but very tangible distance between me and the Latinx community that I serve. I love my work, and do it with pride every day, but exist outside of both the white-majority volunteer community and the Latino communities here all around me. My Afro-Latina looks a little bit more like “African-American-Latina,” and African-American is not exactly what folks see around here outside of Youtube or the occasional American tabloid.
African-Americans in international media are generally not doctors, professionals, or volunteers providing aid in disenfranhcised areas. More often than not, African-Americans in international media are characterized as rappers, video girls, or Barack Obama. Now, I am just as happy as the next Black person to be in any way associated with the forever POTUS, but when the doctors at the hospital are playing a boisterous guessing game right in front of your face, determining whether you more closely resemble Lebron James or Barack Obama, it can get very old, very quickly. Many doctors who see me as African-American just flat-out do not believe that I am a medical student at all, which makes it very difficult to work with them directly in patient care. When patients, however, use the stereotypes that they have learned about African-Americans to build a slanted narrative around who I am and what I am in Ecuador to do, my work becomes most difficult. Granted, it is difficult to work within a broken healthcare system no matter what color you are. Many of the challenges that I face are very much part of the growing pains that happen when you set out to do a long-term international volunteer experience. However, the rights and small steps in the direction of postive representation that African-Americans have worked so hard to secure in the United States have not yet reached many parts of the world. Part of this is because there are not many Brown Americans here as volunteers in these areas to represent ourselves.
In this area, the Kichwa people are one of the few populous indigenous groups who maintain their native language and customs in all of South America. They have worked very hard to maintain this unity and presence. However, a huge part of my work is making sure that the healthcare system does not expell or outright refuse to provide indigenous people medical care. Many, despite the larger group’s unity, live in poverty and do not live with the priviledges that are afforded to folks who can leverage things like education and generational wealth. Like in the United States, Brown people worldwide suffer because of prejudices that have been designed to deny their humanity. Prejudice language and narritives matter because they feed systemic injustice. This whole process is known as racism, and it impacts indigenous people all over the globe in very similar ways that it affects African-Americans in the United States. Many Indigenous people in this region know that African-American’s have not always had it sweet, and still don’t. So, when an African-American-Latina (who is not a rapper, video girl, or Barack Obama) shows up to help those on the same side of injustice that her own people have been subjected to - many indigenous people, along with their Mestizo (White-Latinx) doctors, have a hard time processing how and why she got here.
I have been physically pushed into a wall by an administrator at the hospital, but have also had a young mother grab my hand and thank me with tears in her eyes for showing up to care for her and her children. I have felt voiceless, but I have also summoned the words to say “don’t touch my hair” to anyone, anywhere, at any time. I have doubted my belonging here, but I have also made a home. Afro-Latinxs don’t all come from the same background story, but we are connected to the same roots of injustice. Many of these injustices are those that indigenous folks all over the Americas have experienced, too. Despite the lack of representation of Brown people in international volunteerism, we have a special opportunity to reach out and connect with communities that have also been misrepresented and mistreated. I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve internationally, especially in an area where medical care is a major need. However, I am recognizing more and more every day how important it is that Brown people open the doors for each other to serve abroad, too. To share our own stories, to write our own international narratives, and to feel a sense of connectedness with communities of color around the world. This connectedness, only people who have been oppressed by the savages of colonialism and it’s residual capitalistic damage can understand. Showing up to create this beautiful and important network may hurt, it may take some more effort, but ilke anything in life that is hard - we will be better for it.