I Can’t Travel Like A Local Even If I Speak The Language — And That’s OK

Courtesy of Melanie Mignucci

I found myself stumbling over my Spanish on my first day in Mexico City. My partner and I took a four-day trip to explore the city, and as with our previous trips to Spanish-speaking countries, I was the designated trip planner, tour guide, and translator. This role typically falls to me not only because I’m a Capricorn, but also because I speak Spanish, thanks to my Puerto Rican dad and Latin American history minor in college. So, when I caught myself asking our taxi driver on day one to take us to “Michoacán Avenida,” not “Avenida Michoacán,” I flashed red. It was such a basic error, something I should have avoided through muscle memory alone. Now, the driver knew we were just like every other American tourist — flying in for the weekend to Instagram the blooming jacaranda trees and leave.

If you have the privilege to vacation across the globe, there’s pressure to “travel like a local.” Obviously, there are tons of benefits to this kind of trip: you get to authentically experience the place you’re in, and connect with people you would never have gotten to meet if you’d stayed at home. There are also enormous economic benefits to patronizing local businesses over international chains, a fact I found myself repeating to everyone who asked me if it was OK to travel to Puerto Rico after Hurricane María.

I’m not going to be a local anywhere but New York, and being aware of that means that I can navigate cultural differences respectfully. But I couldn't shake that lurking sensation that I'm still an American tourist when I visit Mexico City, no matter how much my Puerto Rican accented-Spanish starts to emulate the Mexican accents I hear around me.

We arrived at our Airbnb in Mexico City’s Hipódromo neighborhood, which sat on top of a café that was also owned by the home's host. After taking a quick shower to get rid of the airplane feeling, Peter and I got ready to walk the 40 minutes through el Bosque de Chapultepec to the National Anthropology Museum, widely considered to be one of the best museums in the world. The weather was cooler than I’d expected, and I found myself wishing I’d brought something to layer under my denim jacket. We walked through Parque España, through the Condesa neighborhood, and through el Bosque, which is kind of like New York’s Central Park. We sat down in front of Lago Mayor, the big lake where families were out on paddle boats, enjoying the beautiful Saturday.

It was exactly the same thing we would do if we were at home in Brooklyn — set ourselves up for a long walk, with the end goal of people-watching in a park, or seeing a new exhibit at a nearby museum. I felt comfortable sitting on that bench, even though my chest was a little tight from the altitude change I’d forgotten would be a thing. I felt at home, hearing Spanish all around me.

But even if Peter and I didn’t stick out as tourists, we moved through the city like them. We went shopping in the storied Roma neighborhood, ate quesadillas at el Mercado Coyoacán, and skipped the line at el Museo Frida Kahlo, where I’d bought our tickets online ahead of time. We asked for our drinks without ice, knowing our bodies weren’t used to the bacteria in the water and we could get sick.

“El agua es potable, totalmente,” a waiter at a mezcal bar told us, “The water is totally fine to drink.”

“Yo sé, pero somos gringos,” I responded, apologetically; “I know, but we’re gringos.”

Courtesy of Melanie Mignucci

I felt embarrassed to have to identify ourselves as gringos, as Americans, as tourists. For one, it shattered the illusion that we could be locals, let alone travel like them. It felt disrespectful to decline something like ice cubes because of our delicate American stomachs, even though it had nothing to do with how “clean” we knew the water was.

Even though this embarrassment felt trivial — just get over yourself and enjoy the trip, I thought to myself — it also reminded me of all the times I'd overhear tourists at the table next to us, whether I was in Chile or Morocco, complaining that they "couldn't understand" anything on the menu. And that attitude made me wonder what people around me must think of us, two Americans traveling in Mexico, hundreds of miles south of the humanitarian crisis at the border. When I got a push alert that Trump was threatening to close the border while we were en route to the airport, I felt a nudge of panic — a pit in my stomach felt similar to how I reacted to every push alert about Trump’s response to Hurricane María. That time he threw paper towels into a crowd of people who wouldn’t have power for almost a year; that time, just recently, he called its lawmakers “grossly incompetent.”

I may be Latinx, but when I travel, I still feel like a gringa.

I knew I didn’t want to be associated with “that” kind of American — one whose xenophobia shows itself when they say all the food is “too spicy,” or that they wish “everyone would just speak English.”

But in acknowledging my discomfort around this kind of association, I realized that, actually, I wasn't that kind of tourist. I was the tourist who sought out the things on the menu I didn't recognize, who went out of my way to find a guide native to Teotihuacán to take us around the famed temples. And even as I Instagrammed the jacarandas while walking around Roma, I understood the privilege I had to blend in with my surroundings, and acknowledged how special it is to experience a place that's so far from home.

Even when I'm not traveling in Latin America or Spain, being able to connect with those around me — in Spanish, English, or through Google Translate — is the reason I travel in the first place. I may be Latinx, but when I travel, I still feel like a gringa. Now, I'm starting to realize that maybe, that’s actually OK.

Bustle’s Míranos package highlights the extraordinary people of the Latinx community, letting the world truly “see us” at a time when it matters most.