Traveling while Latina: The Real Deal with Lola Méndez
From being told to buy whitening cream to being mocked for her accent, Lola Méndez has faced some difficult experiences traveling while Latina. We had the privilege of speaking with her about these. Here’s a glimpse into our conversation.
Where are you from in Latin America?
I’m the daughter of an immigrant; my father is from Uruguay and my mother is from the US. I was born in San Diego, California, but we temporarily moved back to Uruguay when I was three and visited often throughout my childhood. Sadly, I haven’t been back in almost a decade, but I hold dual-nationality and plan to spend extended time in Uruguay in the future!
Where do you enjoy traveling most? Do you typically travel alone or with friends, family etc?
I’ve been in Asia for a year and a half and it quickly became my favorite continent to explore. While I absolutely loved Europe and traveling around Latin America, those places are comfortable and familiar for me. In Asia, I’m exposed to different ways of life, culture, religion, food, architecture, and more on a daily basis. I’m always learning and I’m always challenged. There’s so much more for me to explore in this part of the world that I see myself staying in Asia for a few more years before hopefully traveling overland through the Middle East and then around Africa.
I’ve been fortunate to go on some trips with a few friends that I’ve met while traveling, and my sister has visited a few times, but I mostly travel alone and very slowly. I’m currently in Vietnam for three months solo after spending the last three months in Thailand.
What are some major cultural differences you’ve encountered during your travels?
Discovering cultural differences is what motivates me to travel! Currently, in Vietnam, it’s fascinating to encounter the vast variety of beliefs people have here. Although the country is technically communist, there is tolerance towards religion here. The majority of people I’ve met are Buddhist, however, the temples here are so different than those in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, so it’s interesting for me to learn about the Buddhist beliefs and the way people interpret and follow the teachings of Buddha in Vietnam. Many people I’ve met in Vietnam told me they’re ‘free thinkers’ and not religious.
There’s also an entirely unique religion that was started here near Saigon: Caodaism. I was able to visit their Holy See for the noon ceremony and was astonished by the beautiful way they worship and incorporate ideas from various religions. Novelist Victor Hugo is even one of the religion’s Venerable Saints.
I also recently had the chance to visit Mindat in the mountainous Chin State in Myanmar. I went in hopes of learning the truth about why women from various indigenous tribes in the area tattoo their faces. It was such a memorable experience, to learn about a cultural phenomenon that so directly contradicts the western perception of beauty.
What have your experiences been like traveling while Latina?
Luckily, I haven’t faced many issues while traveling around the world because I’m Latina, most problems arise simply from being a woman. Any negative experiences that I’ve had regarding my ethnicity have occurred in the US.
In Asia, being Latina is so foreign and odd that most locals don’t really understand where I come from or the prejudices I face back in the US. Here, they gawk at my skin color. Although they tell me it’s beautiful, I’m constantly told to avoid the sun and recommended various bleaching creams. Most people are astonished when I tell them I love my tanned skin and feel beautiful when my skin darkens in the sun.
I had these awkward conversations in India too, but in India, I had a hard time accepting that to locals I was a ‘White person’ even though my skin was darker than theirs. I realize they used ‘White person’ as an umbrella term for all Western people, but it was upsetting to be rejected when I tried to find a camaraderie over being people of color. It’s also very hurtful when people tell me that I don’t look Latina, especially when I look quite similar to most Uruguayans.
Have you ever felt discriminated against because you are Latina? If yes, how have you dealt with it?
The discrimination that I’ve faced for being Latina while traveling has been exclusive to two groups of people.
First, fellow Americans who ask me where I’m really from, where I was born, etc. They can’t accept when I say that I’m American and from New York City, they have to know more. Some even comment that I don’t have an accent. Why would I? I was born in California and grew up bilingual.
Secondly, while living in Spain, I was shocked to realize how prejudiced Spaniards are against Latin Americans. My Uruguayan accent would be mocked literally any time I spoke Spanish, to the point where I just spoke in English instead. This was so disheartening. I wanted to live in Spain to perfect my Spanish language skills and connect with that part of my identity, as my paternal grandfather was Spanish and my ancestors come from the Basque country. Instead, I felt entirely rejected, as if I weren’t Spanish enough, and instead too Latina. I even met Spaniards who had one parent from Latin America but completely rejected that part of their lineage, they’d rather the world think they’re 100% Spanish.
Do you have any advice for Latina travelers?
Throughout my world travels, I rarely meet other Latinas, and seldom see women of color featured in travel media. To combat this and create a community for Latina travelers, I launched @LatinasLoveTravel, which features trailblazing Latina women who explore the globe. Latinas Love Travel has brought traveling Latinas together while inspiring other Latinas to chase their travel dreams.
We as Latina travelers are so underrepresented and misunderstood that it’s important that we band together to support each other and lift up each others’ voices and stories. I’ve connected with some fierce viajeras who inspire severe wanderlust from their Instagram feeds, all while spreading cultural awareness about their beloved Latin America.
These Latinas represent the diversity of Latin American cultures and are shattering stereotypes as they cross borders around the planet.