The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
“First, the United States is increasingly Latino; Latinos outnumber Caucasians in California. I hear Spanish being spoken everywhere I go in San Francisco….I firmly believe that Americans should learn to speak Spanish. It is a matter of utility, and it is a matter of respect. The demographic future of our country is Latin, and we need to integrate that.” — Jeff Pawlak, independent traveler
America shares a complicated history with Central and South America, in no small part due to repeated US incursions, sometimes forceful, designed to shape the political landscape of Latin American countries (Economist 2016). Polls have shown that Latin America has historically considered the US more trustworthy than China or Russia (Azpuru and Zechmeister 2013), but these numbers vary considerably based on country: in 2015, 44% of Bolivians liked the United States compared to 83% of Dominicans (Economist 2016). Typical predictors of favorable responses include proximity to the United States and the prominence of conservative governments (Economist 2016). According to Pew Research, Mexico showed the largest perception drop of the US of all countries surveyed after the election of Donald Trump (Pawlak 2019).
Recent Open Doors reports have indicated an uptick in US students studying abroad in Latin America. Among “non-credit experiences” such as volunteering or internships, Latin America is already the top destination overall (Oppenheimer 2017). Some hope that this increased prominence as a study abroad destination will draw greater attention to US relations with the region as some of these students move on to work within foreign policy or government (Oppenheimer 2017).
Discrimination towards students based on US origins has not been widely reported in Central or South America. However, students of color are likely to experience confusion among locals regarding their identity as Americans: many Latin Americans believe that US citizens are primarily or exclusively white (Diversity Abroad, n.d.).
“The public transportation was excellent and it seemed like people in Argentina knew what a white cane meant even more than in the US. Everyone always offered their help, and while at times it honestly felt like they were too helpful, living there gave me a certain sense of independence. I could walk three miles across Buenos Aires by myself and cross all of those six, eight, and ten-lane roads like it was nothing.” — Emily Molchan, University of Dayton student
“I definitely have to work a lot harder here to surpass or break down people’s cultural assumptions. I feel like every day in big and small ways I’m pushing the limits of Chileans’ assumptions about people with disabilities…The process was really smooth, but it required a lot of self-advocacy on my part to very clearly state my needs, state the kind of accommodations I would need.” — Antonia DeMichiel, Jesuit Volunteer Corps
Students with disabilities studying in the Americas may face greater challenges than they would at home. South and Central America often lack facilities for individuals with physical, visual, or hearing disabilities (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). In South America, this can manifest in poorly-maintained sidewalks as well as the rareness of wheelchair ramps and lowered curves. This is also the case in Central America: Lonely Planet described Central American services such as “specially equipped phones, toilets or anything in braille” as “rare to the point in nonexistence” (Lonely Planet, n.d.-c).
Some countries may be better equipped to handle travelers with disabilities than others: The “Cono Sur” (which contains Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and some regions of Brazil and Paraguay) is more likely to provide these resources in their largest cities compared to the cities of neighboring countries (Lonely Planet, n.d.-c). Mexico has made many strides towards accessibility in recent years, increasing the prevalence of handicapped parking, ramps, and paved sidewalks in urban areas (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e). Countries that rely economically on the tourist trade (such as Belize and Costa Rica) are also more likely to provide for guests with disabilities, due to the prevalence of elderly tourists arriving on cruise ships (Lonely Planet, n.d.-b).
Many countries in the Americas have implemented legal protections for citizens with disabilities, including prohibitions against discrimination and the implementation of benefits. However, many of these laws are significantly outdated and poorly enforced, resulting in a lack of compliance in some regions (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b; Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c; Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). Students should be advised to research ahead of time, as well as to plan travel carefully: An international hotel in Latin America will more successfully cater to a guest with disabilities than might a cheap hotel, and air travel or other pre-arranged transportation will typically be more accessible than local bus routes (Lonely Planet, n.d.-b).
“I experienced a lot of verbal sexual harassment as a female in San José. I heard people saying this would be an issue, but I guess I just did not expect it to be as prominent or as aggressive as it was. I did not feel safe walking alone and automatically felt safer walking with one male than with 3 other females. However, [program] and many of the Costa Ricans I talked to were very supportive and kind about this situation.” — CGIS Alumnx
Most feminist conversations in Latin America center around the topic of machismo, described as an “exaggerated masculinity” or “assumption of male superiority” common in the region (Mainusch 2019). This can manifest as rigid gender roles regarding who works outside of the household or who makes decisions on behalf of the household (Diversity Network, n.d.-c). In a worldwide poll regarding respect for women, Latin America was perceived as the most “disrespectful,” with 61% of Latin Americans saying that women were not respected (compared to 35% who said they were). More than half of the participants in 17 of 22 Latin American countries surveyed believed that women were not respected in their home countries (English and Godoy 2014). A gender pay gap of over 25% exists on average in the region (Un News 2019).
Perhaps more urgently, Latin American women face disproportionate threats of domestic violence and death at the hands of men. A Reuters poll indicated that half of the women in the region between ages 15 and 25 regard domestic violence as “normal” (Moloney 2018). Domestic violence and sexual assault is underreported (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). However, Latin American feminist movements work to actively dismantle these power structures. The “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Less) movement, started as a hashtag in Argentina, draws attention to “femicide” across Latin America (Alcoba and McGowan 2020).
Female students will likely experience street harassment in Latin America, typically manifesting as catcalling and sexually-charged commentary (Mainusch 2019). Like the CGIS alumnx quoted above, many students who are warned generally about catcalling still do not anticipate the sheer volume of comments or the psychological impact on their day-to-day sense of safety. Locals typically advise students to ignore these outbursts, which can leave students feeling vulnerable or unsupported but does represent one strategy for handling street harassment (Mainusch 2019). Students should consider their own level of comfort when responding to or ignoring street harassment. They should also take safety precautions when traveling alone (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b).
“I think the richest yielding from my study abroad experiences [in Mexico and Chile] has been the reconnecting of my family and the healing process I have undergone in learning the roots of my family’s unresolved traumas and of my own personal traumas. We might not be able to undo whatever harm was done to our families along the way of leaving our countries of origin and starting anew, but we can come home and do some deep searching, honor our histories, and heal.” — Elisa R. García, writing for Travel Latina
“When Americans walk up to me talking in broken Spanish, I just let them for a few minutes. When someone asks me how I learned English, my standard answer is ‘Biggie and Tupac.’ People keep asking me if I feel more ‘at home’ here, as though all non-white Americans feel a soul-aching yearn to return to some mother country.” — Lisa Martens, writing for PGSG
Students may travel to Central or South America to attempt to reconnect with a Latin American heritage. Latinx students may be excited to travel in a region dominated by a culture that represents their family’s (Machado 2014), especially if they are to stay with a homestay family: A study by Teranishi and Hannigan indicated that Latinx students abroad felt more connected to the host culture if they experienced a positive relationship with their host family (Teranishi and Hannigan 2008).
However, heritage-seeking students in Latin America may be surprised to learn that their perceptions of their own identities do not always match the perceptions of the host community. The Diversity Network notes that in Costa Rica, Hispanic American students may be perceived as Cuban or Mexican rather than American, due to the local perception of Americans as white (Diversity Abroad, n.d.). The perception of American citizens as exclusively white also exists elsewhere in Latin America (Machado 2014).
By contrast, Latinx travelers have written about the experience of being told by locals that they are “too Americanized,” forcing a sense of disconnect with the local culture (Machado 2014; Martens 2019). Children of immigrant parents may also face family resistance to travel to Latin America, contending with parents who’d moved to the United States to avoid violence or economic hardship (Rojas-Becerra, n.d.).
The issue of language is prominent in the writing of Latinx heritage-seeking students. Students may be expected to speak fluent Spanish in Latin America and may feel disappointed if they are not able to do so. They may express discomfort with the American accent of their Spanish, even if they are fluent (Machado 2014). However, students place a high positive value on improving their Spanish through study abroad experiences so as to better understand their heritage and communicate with extended family (García 2019).
“As a bisexual man in a predominantly Catholic country, it was difficult to share or express myself in the same ways I could on campus….I knew that topic is a sensitive subject in the particularly conservative region of the country we were in and I didn't think it was worth it to try and discuss the subject based on the short time we were staying there….I think I was just afraid to hear something that might make future interactions uncomfortable.” — CGIS Alumnx
“I studied abroad in Chile and felt very comfortable being openly bisexual there. All of my friends knew. I did not tell my host parents about being bi, but I told my host siblings, and they were really supportive of me. My advice if you're staying with a host family is to just trust your gut in who and when you decide to open up about it. If it is really important to you that your entire host family know you're part of the LGBTQ+ community, you could write it on your housing application just so you know that you are entering a safe living situation where you can be yourself.” — CGIS Alumnx
LGBTQ+ students studying abroad in Latin America have reported varying comfort levels, depending on their country of study as well as whether they are located in an urban or rural environment. Buenos Aires, Argentina is occasionally touted as “the gay capital of Latin America” (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a) and other large cities (such as Valparaíso, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) have similar reputations as “safe havens” for the LGBTQ+ population (Simmons, n.d.; Lonely Planet, n.d.-b). Rio’s “Carnival” openly celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, and São Paolo hosts one of the largest annual pride parades in the world (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c). However, students who study in rural regions of these same countries may find their host communities less accepting (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d).
Queer women may experience different forms of discrimination than queer men. In Mexico, lesbianism may be regarded as a “foreign” influence and largely dismissed — LGBTQ+ women will find themselves fielding questions about marriage and settling down with men (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e).
Queer students’ treatment may also vary by country. Writing for IFSA-Butler’s “Unpacked” blog, Kellie Chin described a classmate’s discomfort and fears for her physical safety in Cuba, leading to a decision to remain closeted for the duration of her program (Chin n.d.). Some countries remain overall socially conservative on the topic of queer rights (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b), and students must navigate their own comfort with being out of the closet in these environments. It’s important to note that the existence of a “progressive” urban center may not indicate an overall positive climate in the country: Brazil, despite the popularity of Carnival and pride festivals, was rated the number one capital in LGBTQ+ murders, particularly for transgender people (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c).
Many Central and South American countries have shown progress on the front of legal rights for LGBTQ+ citizens. Argentina and Chile have passed anti-discrimination laws (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a; Carey 2019), whereas Bolivia’s constitution is “one of the most diverse and advanced regarding individual protections for LGBT populations” (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). However, students should research the climate toward LGBTQ+ individuals ahead of time, using resources such as purpleroofs.com to seek out LGBTQ+-friendly accommodation during travel (Lonely Planet, n.d.-b). Students may also find it rewarding to make connections to local queer activist groups in Latin America (Sullivan-Knoff, n.d.).
“Although I would [recommend the program], it should be noted that this trip would not be easy for every student. The trip (and the country of Brazil) are not very accessible to people with mental or physical illness/disorders/difficulties….Students should be aware of this because although it is incredible, it is not worth getting hurt.” — CGIS Alumnx
“Anthony knew that his PTSD and anxiety were things he needed to be aware of while abroad [in Ecuador]. During this time, he says that his disability made it easy for him to isolate himself—which was not something he wanted to do. There were only five people on the program, and a key part of this experience was trying to stay engaged with and relate to the other students.” — Anthony Treas, Oregon State University
Students with mental health concerns may find that resources in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean--particularly in rural environments--are less robust than they might expect in the United States. In Mexico, 2% of the overall health budget is allocated for mental health, 80% of which is used to operate psychiatric hospitals (Gorn et al. 2013). In the majority of Latin American countries, less than 2% of the total health budget is dedicated to mental health. Among these resources, most are devoted to long-term cases, leaving even less funding for outpatient care (Alarcón 2003). This contributes to the operation of psychiatric facilities where patients have reported resource deficiencies and experiences of degradation — or, in some cases, ostensible human rights violations (Alarcón 2003). 59% of people with depression and 63% of people with anxiety disorders in Latin America and the Caribbean have no access to treatment of any kind (Caldas de Almeida and Horvitz-Lennon 2010).
Some researchers have argued that a culture of machismo has contributed to underreporting of mental health concerns in Latin America: Because mental illness is considered shameful, particularly for men, citizens are less likely to seek help even in regions where resources are sufficient. One study reported that components of machismo (and its feminine counterpart, marianismo) directly led to higher levels of emotional stress (Nuñez et al. 2016).
Some movement towards reform has taken root, focusing on integrating mental health with primary care services in countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama (Caldas de Almeida and Horvitz-Lennon 2010). Students should be encouraged to research resources in their region of interest, particularly if they plan to study in a rural area of any country in the Americas. Students may also choose to explore remote therapy and mental health resources provided by their school or their family healthcare providers.
Religion & Spirituality
“I got stared at a lot more than my peers because I was the only Muslim girl who wears a hijab in my group, and there really weren't any Muslims in that area of Mexico from what I could see (I only encountered one other hijabi while there). It was mostly bearable because I expected stares anyways and learned to ignore them in the city, but in the village, it was more uncomfortable because people would actually touch my hijab without asking. It wasn't necessarily negative, because they were just curious, but that made me really uncomfortable because people were touching my head nearly every day.” — CGIS Alumnx
Most regions in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean are strongly Catholic Christian by demographic, though Protestant churches are gaining ground (Pew Forum 2014). Public holidays and traditions often revolve around the Catholic calendar and are religious in nature (Hernandez-Cabal, 2017; Leeding 2017). Students may wish to learn about the cultural context of Catholicism in Latin America to understand these celebrations and events, as well as to understand the influence of religion on the national political landscape. The historical colonization and forced conversion of the region produced blended spiritual belief systems that often maintain native religious traditions alongside colonial influence (Hernandez-Cabal, Catalina).
Despite Catholicism’s outsized cultural and political influence, many Latin American countries guarantee religious freedom in their constitutions. Brazil, for example, outlaws “speech that promotes religious intolerance,” (Diversity Abroad, n.b.-b) while reports from the Dominican Republic emphasize that students from other faiths should feel comfortable expressing themselves in the country (Diversity Abroad, n.b.-c). However, such students may encounter a general lack of knowledge surrounding their faith traditions, such as the CGIS student quoted above.
As in many countries, the statistical dominance of a particular religion does not prevent the existence of minority religions, and in many regions, students will be able to find communities with whom to practice their faith traditions. The seventh-largest Jewish population in the world resides in Argentina, a country that accepted refugees during the Second World War (Leiter 2019). A small Muslim community exists in Buenos Aires, and Pentecostalism has increased its numbers in rural communities throughout the country (Diversity Abroad, n.b.-a). These populations sometimes face discrimination — antisemitism remains an issue in the country (Leiter 2019).
Students of Color
“People would call out only the ethnically Taiwanese student and I (Korean), literally pulling their eyes to the side, asking why our eyes were like that if we are from the US. People would assume we couldn't speak Spanish….People would refuse to believe my ethnicity or say I am definitely Japanese or Thai….People would assume the Taiwanese girl and I were sisters or even if we said we weren't, they would insist that we look like twins (when even the Caucasian students would say that we don't look similar or related at all).” — CGIS Alumnx
“After the first meeting of a production class at the local university, I go home to my homestay mother and discuss the topic of the documentary that I will be producing: The Presence of Afro-Argentinians in Buenos Aires. She looks me in the eye and then proceeds to ask me what an Afro-Argentinian is.” — Charles Hamer, IFSA-Butler Student
Because Latin America is a racially diverse region, the experience of students of color may vary. In some countries, white people are a minority: 51% of the Brazilian population identifies as African Brazilian or mixed-race (Araujo 2015); and in Bolivia, its Indigenous groups total half of the population, the largest percentage in Latin America (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). However, this ratio does not hold true in other countries. Many Argentinians can trace their ancestry back to white European immigrants (Dennis 2017), while Chile consists of a primarily white and “mestizo” population, with 20% identifying as Indigenous (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). One Black student blogger found that he felt much more comfortable in Chile and Peru than in Argentina, due to what he considered a more diverse population in urban environments in the former two countries (Dennis 2017). Students may also find that the local racial makeup varies by socioeconomic standing within their city of study (Pittman 2019).
Pervasive systemic discrimination against people of color exists in Latin America, some of which targets people of African descent specifically. Locals in this category may experience employment inequality and mistreatment by police (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c). In the Dominican Republic, Indigenous roots may be championed, while African roots are minimized. Skin bleaching creams are common (Machado 2015).
A factor that perplexes many students is the differing perception of race and race relations in many Latin American countries, especially compared to the perception of race in the United States. Brazil champions an ideology of “racial democracy,” which posits that Brazil’s diverse population (European, African, and Indigenous roots) has effectively eliminated racism in the country. Students may be skeptical of this premise due to visible economic and social inequality for Afro-Brazilians (Araujo 2015). Students of color may find locals to be blunt on questions of race, especially in rural regions where the population is more homogenous (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). Previous students have described having their hair touched by strangers (Pittman 2019) or encountering general confusion regarding identity categories as defined by the US (Hamer 2018).
Students of color may also be miscategorized by their country of origin. North American tourists are perceived as universally white, so American POC may be assumed to be from elsewhere in Latin America--particularly from countries with racially diverse populations such as Brazil (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). Black students may be perceived as hailing from countries with larger Black populations, such as Ecuador (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e) or parts of the Caribbean (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c). Asian-American students may be assumed to hail from Asia as the CGIS Alumnx quoted above. Students may be distressed by this pigeonholing, or in some cases may face discrimination based on their perceived origins.