A Letter: Dear White American Tourists
Dear [American] white people traveling to Latin America and the Caribbean,
I think too often trips are booked to “exotic” locations without any real understanding of what those trips mean to people living in these countries and how damaging it has all actually be to the communities. So if you are going to be traveling, for any given reason, to any of these “third world” countries, I am going to need you to understand these 5 things.
1. Locals are not picture opportunities
You would not take a picture of a person randomly in your hometown. Chances are that if you’re in a big city, to do that would mean signing some sort of media release form. Furthermore to take a picture of someone is invasive and goes beyond the acceptable frameworks of consent. Furthermore, to assume that someone would WANT their picture taken for YOUR own collection is creepy. I cringe when even professional photographers go into our poor countries, take pictures and then sell our cultura and our brownness to the highest bidder. It is extraordinarily exploitative then, and even more so when you all do it on a consistent basis.
Do not take pictures, unless the person who you are capturing is very clear about where that picture is going, and even when they approve, remember there are power dynamics are play and their response can be oftentimes drenched in layers of duty to you as a white foreigner. We have been told for centuries that whiteness is best, smarter, prettier, and to acquiesce to you willingly can be a layered response to internalized racism and colorism.
2. ALL the people are NOT friendly
One of the things I hate the most about people coming into my country is when they say: “EVERYONE is so friendly here!” Because that is something that westerners say, in every single country that they visit, and it is a reductionist way of framing ALL of us into this caricature.
Historically, FDR made the people in our countries seem friendly so as to politically justify going INTO these countries and exploiting our natural resources. The “these people are friendly” narrative has never done our countries any good, and to blindly project this statement without knowing our history of exploitation by the USA, is actually a statement that has a history in colonialism and brings more sadness than good to people hearing you say that.
Yes, some of us are hospitable. Yes, a lot of industries rely on tourism now. Yes, your country taking our natural resources from us is a part of the problem as to why we depend on you. Yes, our smiles have ancestral tears in it. Yes, we say welcome because we have no choice.
3. You are a guest
You are on foreign lands, meaning you are a foreigner who is usually neither invested in the communities nor here for an impactful amount of time. Be respectful. Treat people with respect, and try to learn some of the basic customs prior to coming our way. Example: our elders are like gold in our countries, when you see an older person open the door, smile, say hello.
Be aware that, whether intentional or not, you are perpetuating a model of visitor and guest, that looks very similar to the models of conqueror. You are coming into our lands, eating our foods, enjoying our people’s work, and leaving to tell people of your time in our lands.
Be mindful of how you move in our countries, in our lands, and in our sacred spaces. We are humans and our countries, lands, and sacred spaces are important to us. Treat it like you would treat your own, but knowing that they are not.
4. Be aware of your privilege
You have race privilege, that means that for thousands of years the darker skinned people in our countries have been told that they are inferior to lighter skinned people, so much so that we have begun to believe it. This tradition of colorism has been passed down to us through an untraceable way, where I still do not understand why my family refuses to publicly acknowledge that my great-grandmother is black. The minute that your blonde blue-eyed existence walks into our stores, restaurants, hotels, resorts, tourist attractions – by the very notion of white privilege – you will be treated with the utmost respect. Shit, you might as well be a dignitary with the privilege that your whiteness will afford you.
Furthermore, you already walk into spaces like you own. When imperialism and colonialism has your face on it, you begin to believe in your entitlement. Please check yourself, often. When you see those smiling faces, know it is because they envy your country’s wealth, the same wealth that was built off of many of our countries backs. So do not treat us like inferior because of where you come from, because your country would be nothing without ours.
5. Do NOT talk down about our country without understanding the layers
Too often I have seen people mock our posadas, and our vigils, and our religious practices, because they do not understand them. Yet that is not excuse enough to mock us. To MANY people around the world, your traditions are hard to understand and someone mocking something that feels so intrinsic to your person-hood is dehumanizing. So when you come to our lands, and gawk and/or point and laugh at our traditions, is extraordinarily harmful and quite frankly IGNORANT on your behalf. Our traditions have rich historical significance to many of us. Try to mirror our posture of solemnity or mourning or glee; or watch respectfully at a distance. Do not disrupt or take up too much space, these are not your spaces to thrive in, these are our spaces.
Going into new countries should be an enjoyable experience, for everyone involved. Be mindful and keep us all in mind.
Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez breaking it down….
Contributing Writer, Founder of Latina Rebels