Un Latino en Rwanda
Rwanda’s perception and curiosity of the Spanish language and Latino culture made me more confident and in love with my own cultural upbringing and heritage.
Since I can remember, when someone asks me where I am from I have answered, “I am from California, but my mother is Colombian.” Growing up in a household where only Spanish was spoken made me feel extremely attached to my Colombian roots. My mother had accepted to move to California with my father under the condition that at home and between the family, Spanish would be the only language spoken. Because of this decision, my sister and I grew up bilingual while many of my other Latino friends, whose parents hadn’t forced their kids to speak Spanish, could understand but not speak the language. This didn’t make them any less Latino than me, but it was always evident to me how much language is directly involved in your ties and accessibility to your culture. At University, I decided to pursue a double major in International Relations and Spanish. I wanted to not only have the ability to speak and write at an informal level, but I wanted to have a mastery of the language that would allow me to work in a professional setting.
(Image: TEFL and English Support Volunteer Andres striking a pose near his site.)
I was always proud to be bilingual, but the stereotypes and stigma that came with being Hispanic, especially Colombian, were always present. The amount of times that friends and strangers have made references or jokes about drugs is more than I can count. With friends, if it is a joke or opinion that comes from a place of naivety I don’t take it seriously and I use it as an teaching opportunity; when it comes from strangers who are just blurting out their misinformed beliefs — it can be hurtful. Without realizing it these attacks on your identity start to wear you down, but my experience in Rwanda has rejuvenated my love for the Spanish language and my Colombian heritage.
In the United States, Spanish is often seen as the language spoken by minorities even though there are more than 45 million Spanish speakers throughout the country. Many Spanish speakers in the U.S. can tell you that speaking Spanish fluently in a public setting can attract negative attention and judgment due to the stigmas that exist in current American culture. These stigmas are further propagated by politicians, media, and a lack of empathy that labels Latinos and Spanish speakers as “others.”
(Image: Andres with his school's basketball team.)
In contrast to the view that much of the United States holds of Latinos and the Spanish language, Rwandans are intrigued and amazed by the language and culture. Although there are very few Spanish speakers in Rwanda, the obsession with the language and curiosity about Latino culture is common throughout the country. Before joining Peace Corps Rwanda, I hadn’t really thought about how Rwandans would react to a Colombian American volunteer who speaks Spanish, but the positivity, openness, and willingness to learn that has been present in almost every Rwandan that I have interacted with is a better reaction than I could have possibly imagined. In Rwanda, I am an English Education Volunteer in the Northern Province at an all-boys boarding school. I teach English Communication Skills and Literature to 380 students. In my Communication Skills class, I have structured the class in such a way that the students get to vote on the topic we study each term. Though they are curious about many topics, the term they were most enthusiastic about was when we studied the political and social issues between the United States and Latin America. Their obsession with Latin American culture and Spanish reinforces my love for my heritage and makes me feel great about myself and my people.
My students aren’t the only ones who are enchanted by my culture and language. When some of my fellow teachers learned that I am Colombian and speak Spanish they asked me if I would teach them. I never thought that as an English Education Volunteer I would be teaching a few teachers in Rwanda how to speak Spanish during our lunch breaks. When I asked them why they were so passionate about learning Spanish and about my culture, they responded: “Because it is the most beautiful language and is the language of passion and love, and from Colombia come the best artists like Shakira and some of the best football players.” Their response to my question made me feel so happy. The fact that their first thought about my culture and language was so positive, especially compared to the negative associations evident in the United States, was enlightening. I can’t remember the last time something positive was said in the US media about Latinos, especially during this Hispanic Heritage Month. Knowing that in Rwanda another story is being told about Latinos and Spanish speakers makes me feel good about being a Latino, Spanish speaking PCV.
When I came to Rwanda I expected to speak no Spanish for the entire duration of my experience other than with friends and family from back home. However, not only have I taught the other teachers at my school Spanish, I use Spanish almost every day to talk to my landlord and a few others in my community. My house is owned by a group of nuns, many of whom speak Spanish. They don’t speak English and my Kinyarwanda is still emerging after two years, but due to an exchange they have with a convent in Barcelona most of them are almost fluent Spanish speakers. Never would I have imagined that in Rwanda one of the languages I would be using to communicate would be Spanish. Maybe it’s fate or just coincidence that I am able to use Spanish in my community, but if you are a Spanish speaker who is considering joining Peace Corps outside of Latin America, know that there is a good chance you will be able to use your Spanish and talk about your culture and heritage.
(Image: Andres with one of the Spanish-speaking nuns at his site.)
I am due to complete my service December 1st and after more than two years in Rwanda I can say with confidence that this place has taught me so much. I don’t believe that I am a changed person, rather I am more confident and assured of who I have always been. The positive perspective and curiosity that Rwandans have had about my language and culture gives me hope and confidence for America. If more Americans were willing to listen and learn about each other’s cultures, traditions, and languages then we could become a more united people. If common negative stereotypes were replaced with positive knowledge then we as Americans could embrace our differences and tell the full story of America. This all begins with a willingness to explore a curiosity and choose to see the best of a people or culture, which I’m grateful to have received from the people of Rwanda.