– by Samantha Steiner –
The talk show panel fired off questions in Spanish ranging in topic from my take on U.S. politics to the details of my love life. We were on live television.
I was six months into my grant period in Paraná (“pahr-uh-NAH”), a small city an hour north of Buenos Aires by plane. When word got around there was a Yanqui in town, the interview requests rolled in.
Sitting on the other side of the camera was Frederick*, who had moved to Paraná from Texas just two weeks before. The hosts’ eyes lingered on him. They had likely never seen a Black person in their studio before.
Earlier that day, I had asked Frederick whether he wanted to join me on camera. I thought his Spanish was impeccable, but he wasn’t so sure. It didn’t help that he was a self-identified introvert.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll just watch.”
“Are you sure? You could just wave hello for a second.”
“I mean, sure. I can just wave. That’s fine.”
I got fifteen minutes of airtime and Frederick, by choice, got fifteen seconds.
In my first week as a teaching assistant at the state university, my mentor introduced me to Patricia, the director of the English program. Patricia offered her hand, a thoughtful gesture toward someone uninitiated into South America’s usual greeting by hug.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “You don’t look American. I thought you were from here.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure what exactly she meant.
“You were very nice to Patricia,” my mentor later told me. “She was being very rude.”
In movies, he said, people from the U.S. are Caucasians with blond hair, blue eyes and lanky frames. This was an idea promoted not only by Argentine filmmakers, but also by Hollywood moguls who had found a market in South America.
It was also an idea that had very little to do with my life in New York, where sixty percent of my high school graduating class was Asian by heritage. Blond hair, blue eyes, and lanky frames were the exception, not the rule. My friends and I joked that just by being Caucasian, I was the odd one out.
The director of the English program must have been surprised at the new teaching assistant, a five-foot-two anomaly with black hair and eyes the color of soil. I wondered how she would react if she ever met Frederick.
“I wanna be where the people are,” Martín sang operatically, walking to the front of the classroom and offering me one hand. It was Thanksgiving in the U.S., but in Argentina, it was just another day.
I reached out and let him pull me to my feet.
“I wanna see, wanna see them dancing,” I sang.
As the rest of the class trickled in, they were treated to an amateur Disney ballet. We crooned together and he spun me around. Martín was only a few years younger than myself. When he, his boyfriend, and I got together outside of the classroom, silliness was our M.O.
Once my mentor arrived and everyone had taken their seats, class began. The course was called U.S. Culture and Civilization. I thought I’d speak to the theme, and to the day, by turning the conversation to an uncomfortable topic: the atrocities the U.S. committed against Native Americans.
A strong argument could be made, I told the class, that Disney’s Pocahontas added insult to injury. The animated protagonist has a stereotypically Caucasian face and body type. Her identity as Native American is defined by her skin tone and her wardrobe. Illustrators shoved her into what Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, calls “a buckskin cocktail dress.”
My students looked a little confused. Then Martín said, “That’s fine, but for me, Pocahontas is not a princess.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because she’s black,” he said with a giggle. “I’m just joking.” His tone spelled Black the only way he had ever read it, with a lowercase b.
If a joke needs to be labeled to be understood, it’s not much of a joke.
In accordance with U.S. and European fashion, Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba operate on a nine to five schedule. The rest of Argentina upholds the siesta as unwritten law. From noon until four thirty, I was free to read, spend time with friends, and do whatever I pleased as long as I stayed indoors or somewhere with a strong police presence. Muggers and pickpockets swarmed during siesta hours.
Frederick and I decided to get lunch in the main plaza, where officers were stationed at two block intervals. Yanquis that we were, we forgot that most restaurants were closed. We settled on a café where our only company was a bored-looking waiter who offered that we could sit wherever we liked. Frederick pointed to a table near the window, which offered a view of the fountain in the center of the plaza. We ordered and then sat back and relished the view.
A man wandered in and sat at the table next to ours. The rest of the restaurant was still empty.
“I can feel his eyes on us,” I told Frederick.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” he agreed.
I asked if he wanted to move to a different table, or if I should say something.
“I don’t want to make a big deal of it. Let’s just ignore it.”
Our food arrived and the man was distracted by the arrival of a friend in a salmon-colored shirt. Then I looked up to see Frederick raising a French fry to his mouth, and behind him, the man in the salmon-colored shirt standing by the window and taking a selfie. The man held his phone as if he were trying to capture the plaza outside, but I saw him swivel his arm so that the fountain was replaced with the back of Frederick’s head.
“¿Qué estás haciendo?” I demanded in Spanish.
He responded reflexively that he had the right to take photos wherever he wanted. He must have been curious, and embarrassed.
Frederick looked more than uncomfortable as the man returned to his seat, grumbling. The waiter did nothing.
I suggested again that we move to another table.
No, Frederick said. He preferred to ignore it.
Before Frederick arrived in Argentina, I felt powerless when it came to conversations on race. Whenever I encountered an individual with a troubling attitude, all I could do was share my perspective and amend it with the caveat that I could not possibly understand the lived experiences of people of color.
When Frederick came, I was excited to see him set the record straight. Gradually, I realized I had placed on him the same burden that many Argentines had: I had made him into a single story. His behavior and opinions somehow had to represent those of all Blacks from the U.S.
Frederick hadn’t asked for this burden, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice his time playing mascot for U.S. race relations. Some vital lessons were never taught, but one was: I recognized my own role in fueling a dangerous dynamic.
I was still glowering at the man in the salmon-colored shirt when one of my students, an Argentine, joined our table. Frederick looked relieved. Then I realized what he already knew. The goal of our time in this country was not to change hostile minds, but to get to know new friends. The three of us finished our lunch, wandered into the sunshine, and took a selfie by the fountain. This time, Frederick held the camera.
*Name changed for anonymity.
This piece was written by Samantha Steiner. She served as a 2017 ETA in Entre Ríos, Argentina. Her writings and illustrations have been featured inThe International Writers’ Blog, Pipe Dream, and the 2017 book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. This fall, she will begin an MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.