I moved with my parents and younger sister to South Florida from Caracas, Venezuela, in 2001, when I was 7 years old. I know that my sister and I had trouble understanding why there weren’t any mountains, why my parents didn’t think it would be a permanent move, why my grandparents visited often and then went back to a place that, due to poor memory and the short time spent there, I didn’t know that well. I also know that, growing up in Boca Raton, I had more Jewish friends than Spanish-speaking ones, and that the food I ate at home wasn’t what my friends ate—or at least not the same names.
To the Books
Fast forward several years and I’ve tried to learn other languages. I’m fascinated by the way French, Portuguese, and Italian all seem to sound like different versions of what I grew up speaking. It’s still a fun game being able to hear a language at a restaurant and be able to guess where the accent is from, and if it’s Spanish, which country it’s from.
I went to college in North Carolina and studied international politics and Latin America, soaking up as much as I could about the region at large to compensate for the lack of knowledge I had about the place I’m from. I took Spanish for native speakers classes to develop more professional confidence in my language, to understand the grammar that didn’t seem to require an explanation when it rolled without a thought off my tongue. And yet, my practice was fairly confined to family and family friends.
The first summer I worked with Rustic, I was a Program Leader in the Dominican Republic. My confidence as a translator was shaky at first but grew strong as the summer went on, allowing me to develop more open and honest relationships with my co-leaders and our community partners. My accent, as I’d been told many times, just couldn’t be placed, but at least I could understand and say anything. By the end of the summer, my parents told me I sounded like a real Dominicana, and while I didn’t use the colloquialisms that people associate with Venezuelan Spanish, I was speaking faster and with more certainty than ever before.
During my second summer (and now the third), I worked on our programs in Peru, spending more time in South America than I had in the past decade and a half. It’s been eye-opening so far seeing the similarities, how the region is united by a complex history: Simón Bolívar made his way through the region long ago and I kind of feel like I’m following his path. I feel proud of the region at large, proud of Peru’s incredible history, because of my own slight connection to it. Peru also made me nostalgic for my time in the Dominican Republic because, while Venezuela is part of the South American continent, it is more similar culturally to the Carribean than to the Southern Cone.
Making it Count
Speaking Spanish has been such an advantage for me on our programs. Translating language and culture for students feels every day like a bigger privilege. Being able to connect directly with, learn from, and thank our community service partners, homestay families, and the various people we meet every day makes me feel incredibly at home in a country and a place that is in reality very different from what I know.
Through my work with Rustic Pathways, I’ve been able to reconnect with Latin America and restore my certainty that I’m a part of it. It has also reassured me of my love for the United States, for Florida and the Southeast, and of my place as a part of the larger Latina community here and what that can mean going forward. Rustic has helped me develop a new understanding of my own language, of my history, and I am so thankful for it.