On a sunny day in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, it was time to get my day started after waking up.
This was in my earlier weeks of Cocha because I had just met a chick named Mariana that I would have nice experiences with.
However, I didn’t have any data in my phone to call her and I hadn’t figured out that Whatsapp was a thing just yet.
So I walk a street over from my homestay house to the NGO building that I was working for.
This was an NGO that often brought in a lot of foreigners to do work for local NGOs in Cocha.
Once inside, I said hi to a few of the other foreigners that I already knew.
But this was when I met a new foreigner at the NGO that I hadn’t met yet.
A guy that we can call Frank who happened to be from the US.
Someone I wrote about months ago in this article here.
If I remember right, Frank was from New Mexico or Arizona maybe? My memory is fuzzy on that one.
But he was an older guy who was basically living on social security while also getting free rent from the NGO in exchange for maintaining the garden at the NGO.
After making a call to Mariana with the phone that the NGO had, I walked out to the back of the building where I would usually hang out on the sofa.
But after walking over there, I saw Frank sitting for the first time outside by the backyard area.
Eager to meet new people, I introduced myself.
Right away, I noticed Frank to be a very nice guy but dressed a bit weirdly.
He was literally dressed like an indigenous Bolivian guy.
He had one of those colorful ponchos on, a chulla on his head, sandals, some “spirutal” necklage hanging around his neck and more.
Anyway, I introduced myself as I said – “What’s up?” in English.
The guy looks up at me as he was sitting down and said some weird ass shit that I didn’t understand.
In the moment, I chalked it up to my Spanish still needing much improvement.
Which, in those days, was the case as I was still getting a handle on it.
When Frank responded though, I simply asked “what’s that?” in English.
And he chuckled and went on “oh, nothing. It’s Aymara for hey.”
Which, for those who don’t know, Aymara is an indigenous language in Bolivia.
To which I asked jokingly “do you speak Quechua too?”
And the dude literally threw some words down at me saying “of course” in Quechua!
Granted, I don’t know if it was actually “of course” since I don’t speak Quechua.
For all I know, he told me to piss off.
But probably not – he seemed like a very friendly guy.
“Interesting” I respond after he explains to me what he said.
For the next 30 minutes, the guy was cool though with going along in English…
Which is a good thing because I don’t speak Aymara or Quechua!
At which point I asked him how well he actually speaks those languages and he said “so so.”
According to him, he mostly just learns what little he can from stuff he finds on the internet and also whenever an opportunity presents itself in Bolivia.
From what he told me, he had been living in Bolivia up to this point for a little while now.
So his indigenous language skills are improving a little bit.
At one point, I even wanted to ask him “so you ever been to an indigenous village in Bolivia? You know, connect with locals out there and practice those languages?”
But I decided against that because I suspected, based on his tone, that this dude took the indigenous language thing quite seriously.
Mostly because, at some point during the conversation, he told me that he doesn’t speak much Spanish and prefers to not speak it.
Which, in the moment, seemed very odd to me because….
“How do you live in a Spanish speaking country like Bolivia and not speak the language?”
And, I shit you not, that triggered something in this dude’s brain.
It was like something snapped inside his mind and he started going off a tangent in a friendly but serious tone…
Going on about how “in Bolivia, Spanish is not the language! We have dozens of indigenous languages recognized by the government and Spanish was imposed on this land by the Europeans!”
And going on and on about how “we should respect the real traditions of the people here by speaking the languages that were already here.”
Now, keep in mind, this guy was non-Latino American.
Not even Bolivian.
At this point, I asked him “so you Bolivian?”
And he says no.
I assume anyway that he wasn’t Latino because his last name didn’t sound very Latino.
But I could be wrong!
Maybe he was but I doubt it.
At any rate, his 5 minute monologue about how “indigenous languages are the real languages of Bolivia” reminded me of a previous observation I've noticed before.
Where you notice a real difference between far-left leaning Americans and people who actually are from Latin America.
The former will sometimes throw out ideas similar to what Frank was saying while the locals don’t normally give a fuck about “not speaking Spanish because it was a colonizer language!”
In the same way that I have never wanted to abandon English because of its ties to the British empire.
So, in case you haven’t noticed, Frank had a real hard on for everything indigenous.
And not even any specific indigenous group but Quechua and Aymara seemed to be, I guess, what he attached to the most.
Probably because those groups have more prominence in Bolivia.
And when asked why Frank decided to move to Bolivia….
Well, in my personal opinion with hindsight, I suspect Frank just wanted a low cost of living place where his social security would work well.
But he went on about how the indigenous cultures in Bolivia were fascinating to him and all that.
Plus, if we are being honest, ayahuasca was a big thing for him also.
For those who don’t know, ayahuasca is a psychedelic in South America.
Here’s a video on it also for those curious.
So, putting it all together, I believe Frank was mostly drawn to Bolivia because of the need to stretch out his social security and also because he really enjoys ayahuasca.
And the indigenous thing grew on him after time here.
That was my impression anyway!
And over the few months of living in Bolivia, Frank would never fail to show up to any of the group events dressed literally like an indigenous Bolivian as mentioned before.
At one point, the dude even managed to bring in an amateur film maker who made a hour long movie about the history of indigenous people getting fucked over by the Spaniards and how they will “rise up again” in a process of “decolonization.”
Here’s a photo I took of that event.
Now that I look at it, I think the guy in the group way back with the hat was Frank.
It's either him or the film guy. Not too sure actually.
The film guy was actually kinda cool anyway.
Eh, he was nice.
Weird but nice.
In a way, you could argue that Frank had gone “native.”
Or maybe “full indigenous?”
I’m not sure but I suspect that the word “Latino” is as triggering to the guy as the Spanish language is.
I never asked him but now I kick myself for it.
Should Latinos call themselves “Latinos?”
Of course, we have the common criticism these folks make about how it should be “Latinx.”
But I bet you Frank is more progressive than that!
Given Wikipedia cites Latino coming from the Spanish language as you can see with this quote here…
“In the English language, the term Latino is a loan word from American Spanish. (Oxford Dictionaries attributes the origin to Latin-American Spanish.) Its origin is generally given as a shortening of latinoamericano, Spanish for 'Latin American'. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its usage to 1946.”
It must certainly be a bad word to use!
We must teach our Lati –
What word do we use?
We must teach our “decolonized brothers, sisters and non-binary people of the land south of the US” that the word “Latino” is colonialist and must be abandoned!
I will start now by going outside with a picket sign saying “Latino es mala palabra!”
Wait, that’s in Spanish though…
How do I say that in Náhuatl?
Jokes aside, that is the point to be made here.
That some folks who live in Latin America do go “native.”
Or “full Latino.”
Or, in the case of Frank, “full indigenous.”
The topic of this article, to give credit, was largely inspired by 2 sources.
The biggest inspiration for this article largely came from the following quote from a reader known as Dazza:
“‘Going Native’ was a British Army term of the times of the Raj (and colonial occupation of India) where soldiers would be stationed out there for five years or more – sometimes their whole career could be spent in India and it would be there they would learn to speak the language (of the place they were in…) get accustomed to the heat, the food and of course they meet women and one they they’re standing on guard in the midday sun and they go ‘fuck this’ and go off to live with their girlfriend/wife in her hometown or wherever and his friends would say of their deserted mate ‘Old Smithers has gone native!’
Back then this was a negative thing and it was something decent upstanding, white, British men would never ever do – only a bounder of the worst kind or a peasant of the lower orders would do such a thing but of course, in this day and age of a globalised world – going native is wonderful! This is how we can survive in foreign climes.”
You can find the context of that comment in this article here.
And credit should also be given to this article here titled “The Dangers of Going Full Latino” by the website known as MyLatinLife.
To summarize that article, it essentially covers a similar incident in which a young American named Benjamin is seen in Mexico City dressing like a local, insistent on speaking Spanish and being quite engaging in Mexican culture at a house party.
In the quote of one woman at said house party from that article, she makes the following observation about Benjamin: "I don't know...it's like he wants to be Mexican or something. It's weird."
And, to go beyond that, I’ve met other folks who have gone the route of “going native.”
But I emphasize the words “gone the route.”
It should be understood, at least from my perspective, that the aspect of “going native” or “going full Latino” is going to vary wildly depending on the person.
In many ways, it’s like a spectrum.
We covered the extreme case of Frank on one end…
But what about the rest of the spectrum?
Let’s cover the opposite of Frank and see afterwards what “the middle” looks like.
Rejecting the Local Culture
First, there is the case of not wanting to be Latino!
Believe it or not but some folks have a strong reaction against trying to be like the locals in anyway.
The strongest example I can think of regarding this is a young American guy I met in the Colombian city of Barranquilla.
He was about my age and was actually Latino himself.
From what I remember, one of his parents had Colombian heritage and the other Bolivian heritage.
Despite being Latino, he didn’t like being Latino.
Why was he in Colombia?
From what I gathered, his parents basically made him go to Colombia to spend some months there at the same school we were both studying at.
At a place called Universidad del Norte.
I remember walking around Colombia with him and made an observation about this specific market that we saw in this photo here.
And I told him how “it reminded me of the markets in Bolivia.”
To which he responded about how “Bolivia is a shithole” and the rest.
Making statements about Bolivia that Frank would not approve of!
If Frank was there, he’d probably run up to Chris berating him in Aymara before jogging back to some Aymara village high fiving the locals in celebration of standing up for Bolivia!
Anyway, it was my impression that Chris had a desire to be anything but Latino.
He never wanted to speak Spanish in any context while in Colombia.
Often shit talked Colombia and Bolivia.
All around, based on numerous occasions hanging out with Chris, there was always a negative feeling that came from him regarding anything Latin America.
To be fair, I don’t have any experience dealing with Latinos who feel a need to eject themselves from anything that has to do with their own culture….
But it does resemble anyway the type of gringo who talks endlessly about how “the West is DEAD” and “American women SUCK.”
Someone who wants to “escape” their heritage it seems?
Anyway, that was Chris.
And Chris isn’t alone.
In this group, you more commonly see the type of foreigner who lives in a very extreme version of “the gringo bubble.”
Where they spend years in some Latin country without any Spanish skills and only hang out with other gringos in very touristy neighborhoods of very touristy cities.
At times, this type of foreigner might engage in the sentiment that Chris has and look down on Latin America.
Though it’s OK to make critical comments, you got some of these folks doing much more than that by always trash talking the respective country.
It might feel like these folks consider themselves to be some type of “colonial American elite” living on the high balcony of Havana smoking cigars and looking down muttering “filthy locals” while calling the hot Cuban housekeeper to “service him” with a blowjob and a mojito.
“That’s right you filthy local…Suck it…Suck it good. Know your American daddy.”
Granted, that’s an extreme example being like the opposite of Frank, isn’t it?
Still, you get the idea: a foreigner who rejects about any aspect of the local culture and only really hangs out with other gringos while never speaking the language or leaving the “gringo bubble.”
When I was in Buenos Aires, I met another American guy like that.
You might argue there is no point to living down here like that but some of these folks seem happy doing so.
So more power to them if it makes them happy.
No judgement from my end.
But then we have “the middle road.”
The Balanced Gringo
So we have covered now two extremes.
The American Frank who is insistent on being “so native” that he seemingly wants to roleplay as an oppressed Aymara indigenous person of a rural village in Bolivia.
Or Benjamin from MyLatinLife who seemingly wants to roleplay instead as a mestizo Mexican from Monterrey or something.
Then you have Chris who seems to almost reject his Latino heritage (to a degree).
Along with those gringos who seemingly have no interest leaving the “gringo bubble” or Latino culture in general really.
But do we have a gringo that is more balanced?
Well, I hope I am!
But we’ll get to me later.
When it comes to thinking of examples of what a “balanced gringo” looks like…
Well, there are two guys I know personally who I’d describe as such.
First, we have an American guy named Alex that I met living in my apartment building in Roma Norte some months ago.
He was pretty balanced from what it seemed.
Spoke Spanish and willing to learn the language.
Always open to making a local friend and not just with other foreigners…
Didn’t seem particularly interested in the history or politics of this region but also was open to some other aspects of the culture nonetheless.
Wasn’t someone to constantly bitch about the local country but was also opened minded to criticisms of it.
Never once felt like he was trying to be “something he’s not.”
Then there’s another guy named Blayde who lives down here.
Also has a good head on his shoulders.
Has lived in touristy and non-touristy neighborhoods.
Knows he is American and proud of it.
But also isn’t the type to rub it in other people’s faces and is willing to engage the local culture.
Has plenty of gringo and local friends.
Completely normal guy.
And that is probably why we are friends.
He actually seems normal.
Best word to describe the “balanced gringo.”
They aren’t sucking the dick of Mexico nor constantly bitching about it with nothing good to say.
Proud of their heritage but not arrogant about it while engaging and getting accustomed to the local culture and language.
Willing to go outside of the gringo bubble also.
Perhaps willing to visit an indigenous village but doesn’t feel the need to live there LIKE FUCKING FRANK.
But enough about talking about where others fall on the spectrum….
Where Do I fall?
So have I gone “native” as Dazza says?
Or am I was one of those “ugly Americans” who is quite brazen about his culture and is insistent on rubbing it in the faces of the locals?
Running around yelling “dO yOu sPeAk EnGlIsH?!?!!?” while wearing cargo shorts, sandals and a Hawaiian shirt with a hotdog in hand.
To be fair, I have my few days out of the year where I mutter to myself “fucking locals” after getting annoyed one day after another of things fucking up.
But then, funny enough, go back home to listen to music like this here…
Eating food like this here..
Living in a neighborhood that looks like this here with no gringos nearby.
All the while having 1 gringo friend in my phone for every 5 Latina girls I’m trying to fuck.
Even when I’m bitching about the locals, I’ll still do it half the time in Spanish saying “pinches mariconcitos”
There definitely have been aspects of the “local culture” that have grown on me over the years.
Equally so, there have been aspects to life that I generally have just grown accustomed to by this point.
Mañana time, bargaining down the price, bribing people, etc.
On the other hand, there are plenty of things about me that are “very American” that I don’t mind showing.
As well there are things about the local culture I reject and never accept.
Anytime my last Mexican girlfriend told me to put spicy sauce on my food, I’d tell her “no, quiero disfrutar mi comida.”
I prefer good ol’ American whiskey over shit tequila.
Most forms of Latin music I don’t give a fuck for outside of some Latin rock or hip hop bands, reggaeton viejo (the new shit is kinda faggoty) and salsa.
But outside of that, none of it sounds well to the ear.
I’ll gladly take a hamburger from Chilis over enchiladas some days of the week…
And it certainly tastes better than 99% of hamburgers made by locals down here that I’ve tried…
“Why eat Burger King, Dominos, or Subway when you live in Mexico?”
“What’s the point of living in Mexico if you eat American food?!?!” they stutter in autistic anger.
Look, 6 fucking years down here in Latin America with 4 in Mexico.
I’ve had enough Mexican food in my life – much more than you.
And, as I wrote here, I like Mexican food made in the US more than Mexican food made in Mexico.
So shove it.
I don’t need to eat flautas, enchiladas and gorditas every god damn day.
And, if we’re being honest, most Mexicans don’t either.
When I go to those American spots, I always see mostly (or entirely) locals eating at them!
Hell, even when it comes to black iced tea, I prefer Starbucks over Cielito!
Because, on one hand, it tastes better…
And also because it supports an American company!
Reminds me of another American named Alex when he asked me why I prefer 7-11 over OXXO for buying containers of 20 liters of water when the containers at 7-11 are 4 pesos more expensive (about 20 cents).
“Because 7-11 is American. I’m supporting my country!”
Granted, I’m not sure if they are American actually but I always assumed so.
And, to be honest, that is my reason for preferring 7-11 and Starbucks over OXXO and Cielito.
If the company is American, assuming the product isn’t shit, I will support it.
Doesn’t matter if I live in Mexico – I will never be Mexican first (even if I get citizenship).
And almost none of the locals will ever see me as such either even if I live in Mexico for 90 years, have Mexican children and grandchildren with a Mexican wife living in a house in the deepest mountains of Chiapas.
American First – now and always.
But, as I said, that doesn’t mean I look down on Mexican culture or reject the culture.
In fact, I find aspects of Mexican culture more enjoyable than aspects of the culture in some other Latin countries.
Not every country is equal when it comes to how cool it is!
For example, I could never get behind drinking “yerba mate” in Argentina or Paraguay.
Not really a fan of “coca leaves” from Bolivia.
Aguardiente of Colombia? It’s OK but is definitely on the bottom of the list for what I’d drink.
And I say “OK” because this is coming from someone who has consumed some really nasty ass liquor in my life.
I’m used to it.
Still, I wouldn’t pick aguardiente over anything else.
Meanwhile, music like banda of Mexico or vallenato of Colombia suck dick.
I mean -- listen to this banda shit here. It's GAY.
And maybe I have my difference with Frank in that I don’t give a fuck about indigenous languages and am not going to dress like an Aymara person of Bolivia.
Or any indigenous person.
I’m not indigenous.
So while there are aspects of Latin culture I accept more than others with some countries having more positive things than others….
I also find it very distasteful if you don’t learn the local language while living here.
There are aspects of the culture and also history of Mexican and more broadly Latin American culture that I enjoy engaging with and learning about as I said.
And, more so, I find people should engage in the local culture if they are going to live here.
I do agree with the broader sentiment that you are missing out a lot if you:
- Don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese.
- Don’t make any local friends (especially any that you don’t want to just stick your dick inside of).
- Don’t leave touristy areas.
- Don’t engage in anyway with the local culture or learn about the history of where you are.
- Don’t leave the Gringo Bubble at all.
Despite my talk about being “American First,” perhaps you can find it ironic then that, in many ways, I’ve always seen myself over the last few years as living in a little bit of a “Latino Bubble.”
When I moved to Roma Norte about 8 or 9 months ago, I met the first foreigner in a long ass time.
That guy named Alex that I mentioned before.
Before I met him, on top of my head, I don’t think I hanged out with too many other foreigners for at least a year and a half.
And before that?
Well, I once in a blue moon met a foreigner, but it was usually only “met” and not really hang out with for the most part.
It’s only been very recently that I’ve slowly come out of my little “Latino Bubble” and have begun meeting other foreigners again.
The period at which I was in more of a “Gringo Bubble” in some ways was when I was traveling around South America.
And even then, I more often than not left my comfort zone and hung out with a lot the locals.
For me, I strongly prefer hanging out with locals over gringos for various reasons.
Like the fact that gringos are more likely to leave you when the locals stay.
And local friends can introduce you to aspects of the country that you wouldn’t have enjoyed or noticed beforehand.
Places to hang out at and whatever else.
But, above all else, I feel it also needs to be said that you identify with your respective heritage and where you came from the older you get.
Even as you get accustomed to the local language and culture of whatever Latin country you move to with those same customs sticking to you…
You also identify more strongly with your own background – especially as you feel the effects of being “an outsider” in a new country down here in Latin America.
I almost feel like it’s impossible to not gravitate to your heritage in a circumstance like being an outsider in a foreign culture while you get older each year.
In short, I find it hard to “pinpoint” me on where exactly I fall on the spectrum when it comes to “going native” or “going Latino.”
I like to think I have a “fair balance” but there are aspects of my personality and how I have accustomed to life down here that are on both sides of the aisle so to speak.
Either way, let’s wrap this up with the most important points I think you should take from this article.
The Overarching Messages
First, don’t forget where you came from. As you get older and continue being an outsider down here, you’ll probably gravitate towards your heritage more over the years.
Second, don’t be an ass rubbing your heritage into the face of the locals.
Third, engage in the local culture and grow with it! Take on aspects of the local culture. Have experiences with the locals. You’ll have many stories to tell.
Just don’t try to be like them literally.
As Vance of MyLatinLife summarizes it perfectly here from that article cited here:
“It's tough, the balancing act. You don't want to come off as an ignorant foreigner, who only speaks his own language, only hangs out with expats and completely shields himself from the surrounding culture. But you also definitely do not want to be the White guy who is trying to be Latino.”
Fourth, don’t necessarily think though that “going native” is a bad thing. As Dazza pointed out: “going native is wonderful! This is how we can survive in foreign climes.”
It’s not bad!
Just that, as I said many times here, find that balance.
He is right in that, in my opinion also, you have to grow, to a healthy degree, with the local culture to adjust to life down here long term.
Just don’t become a Wikipedia article of what a “Mexican” is.
Fifth, don’t constantly bitch about the country you are in but don’t feel the need you have to give a 10/10 rating for everything down here either.
Sixth, it is true that you will be disrespected and the locals (and gringos) will make fun of you for trying to become a Wikipedia article of a Mexican.
And all around….
Enjoy yourself while down here in the healthiest way possible.
That’s all I got to say.
Drop any comments you got in the comment section below.
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Thanks for reading.