Perceptions of Hispanic-Americans in Ethiopia

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In Oregon for my brother’s wedding. My mom, brother and sister.

Growing up I hated the fact that I spoke Spanish and that I looked different from my peers who had blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted to fit in desperately and the more I tried, the more of an outsider I felt. I would always be different and it was a fact that I had to accept. A few years later, 14 years to be exact, I have had the privilege of serving in Ethiopia where not only am I proud to be an American, I am proud to be Latina. Although my complexion and height may not be that of a typical Honduran women, I am easily amused by the people who have stopped me on the street and asked me if I am “ferenji wayin habesha” which translated to foreigner or habesha (Ethiopian). Some Ethiopians in the Amhara region, although I have never seen have a light complexion so sometimes I can fit in in Ethiopia.

I think being Hispanic-American gives me a unique perspective on Ethiopian culture. I see many similarities between the two cultures, especially when working with youth. Because I can speak another language fluently, it’s easier for me to connect with the kids I’m teaching English to as English might be their second or third language. Learning a new language is difficult and while I have done a decent job learning Amharic, it’s not enough to consider myself fluent. It takes dedicated hours to studying and practicing to really begin to get the language down and I can sympathize with the struggles that students face in comprehend grammar and correct sentence structure with syntax.

European Colonization of AfricaI am proud to be part of the 28% of minorities in Peace Corps. In Ethiopia, I am one of about five volunteers who consider themselves from Spanish descendant. As a light skinned Hispanic-American, my experience has been similar to that of my white peers. Walking in the street, I receive ferenji comments and sometimes, I get Spain, Italy or habesha thrown at me. It is particularly humorous watching people guess what I am because in Ethiopia, what you are matters. Ethiopians do not like the Chinese, but because Italians occupied and were run out by the Ethiopians in the 1930’s, the Italians left a mark here. For example, macchiato, pasta, pizza, and cappuccinos can be found locally. Therefore, the Italians hold a higher status than those of Asian descendants. Although at times tough, my experience as being Latina is negated by the fact that I am also an American.

The American Dream is believed to be BIG PRIZE for Ethiopians and it is why so many want to start over in the good old Americas, specifically the United States. People believe that thins are easier in the States and while that may be true on certain ideas, it’s also wrong. Families have to fight to get ahead in the States and most times, it is seen as looking out for number one. Although the government does a good job of providing services for those who need help, help is not provided to ALL and that is a concept that people in Ethiopia cannot grasp. When my family arrived to the States thanks to my stepfather, it wasn’t a breeze… just like life isn’t a breeze in Ethiopia.

Americans, whether they be African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian American, or some other type of American – they have money and will be asked for help to getting to the United States.  Most importantly, speaking more than one language truly helps to connect with those who speak many languages and understand the struggle and the fear that comes from speaking a language, specifically the universal language that is known as English.

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