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Study abroad in Latin America

Despite the best attempts of my high school teachers and college professors to emphasize the breadth of experience smushed into the terms “Latinx” and “Latin America,” before I studied abroad I could still only repeat their explanations blindly: “There’s a lot of diversity!” I also knew from a Pew Research report that Latinx is not how many “Latinx people” identify themselves first. Rather, many, especially foreign-born, identify first with their country of origin.

Despite knowing that, I still didn’t have a good grasp of what that diversity looked like or meant. Studying abroad taught me a little.

Duke doesn’t make it easy to study abroad in Latin America. There aren’t any semester-long programs led by Duke (called “Duke-In” programs) in Latin America, though there is a popular one in Madrid, Spain. Latin American programs fare better in Summer—there’s Duke-In Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Costa Rica. And yes, there are several Duke-approved programs in Latin America, but a Duke-approved program doesn’t represent university sponsorship or investment. The lack of Duke-administered programs says, “Latin America is not worth studying or learning in enough to have our own program. These people are not worth simply being with.” 

Despite the relative ease with which Duke students can study abroad in Spain, students learning Spanish to engage with Latinx folks in the United States or in Latin American issues should study abroad in Latin America, not Spain. 

Even assuming that your Spanish would improve as much in Spain as in Latin America where fewer people jump as readily to use English with Spanish-learners—language is not just a tool that can be divorced from its context. Language is a medium through which people communicate culture, history and themselves. It’s all of that context that textures an otherwise simplistic generalization of the Latinx community and Latin America. 

Why does understanding that texture and richness of labels matter?

Because recognizing diversity in out-groups humanizes them. Psychologists have coined the term “out-group homogeneity” to describe the phenomenon that we perceive our in-groups, the people "like us," to be far more varied and diverse than out-groups. Because we know our in-groups better, we give them more lee-way, more complexity and more richness as people. Can learning more about the diversity in out-groups transform them into in-groups, worthy of the same consideration, agency and respect?

While the Latinx community in the United States is undoubtedly different from any countries of origin they may descend from, the contexts of those countries still influence the Latinx community here. Different policies and histories around immigration have led to different immigrant trajectories here. For example, in 2010, 57 percent of Cuban-Americans were homeowners as opposed to 24 percent of Dominican-Americans. This range in homeownership rates within the Latinx community is lost if we don’t understand context.

Though it’s still possible to recognize this range of experience through other experiences, like coursework or service, I think it’s far more difficult. At the risk of sounding trite, there really only is so much you can learn in a classroom to challenge deeply ingrained societal characterizations. Immersive, experiential learning changes minds.

By no means am I now some enlightened guru on all things Argentina or Southern Cone. But I do know a little more about the region than before. I can tell you a little bit about how Paraguay was devastated by its 20th century dictatorships, how Brazil is a massive economic powerhouse and how Uruguay is perceived to be extraordinarily progressive. And I can tell you a little bit more about one particular villa and country town in Greater Buenos Aires that I did a comparative paper on as my independent study project. Now, if I meet someone from the Latin America, more comes to my mind than just “Oh, Spanish!” and a vague blob of the continent. I’m not sure if the same happens for those who return from a semester abroad in Spain.

Students, consider studying abroad in Latin America. Duke University, invest more in study abroad programs in Latin America. Experience sticks.

Grace Mok is a Trinity senior. Her summer column about studying abroad runs weekly on Thursdays.


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