Experiencing a Different Hispanic Culture Than My Own

Studying abroad isn’t necessarily seen as something we do in my culture, but still, many students can probably relate to some of the questions and objections my parents had when I told them about my plans to study in Spain. “But it’s so far!” and “What if something happens to you and we’re not there!” and most importantly, “But why?” 

See, given what my immigrant parents had gone through to adjust and assimilate into American culture and its way of life, they just couldn’t understand why their young, Mexican daughter wanted to go face those same struggles in a foreign country, especially of my own free will. Then later, when I told them I wanted to study in Spain, even more confusion surged. Not only because no one in my family had ever been to Europe, but also because the city I grew up in is not very diverse and so my parents knew all too well the consequences of being a racial minority, which I would be in Europe more frequently than not. All this without yet mentioning the stereotype perpetuated in my culture that Spaniards don’t take particularly well to Latin American accents.

But still, a big part of why I wanted to study in Spain was because I wanted to live a Hispanic experience that was completely different from my own. Sure, in Mexico or Latin America I probably would have felt more comfortable in terms of culture shock, but I was craving something different from what I’d grown up with. Not only that, but I was also at a point in my life where I was starting to notice that my Spanish was suffering from academic neglect, and so Spain gave me the opportunity to cultivate it while also obtaining that foreign experience that I wanted.

USAC students gather for a meal in Spain during a study abroad

And so off I went, to the land where tortilla is made of egg and not corn. I felt prepared enough on the way there; I’d done some research on Spanish culture, the mannerisms, etc., but for some reason, even though I knew San Sebastián was in the Basque Country, I didn’t occur to me to brush up on some Basque, which I faced the consequences for when I got there. I’ll admit that getting used to Spanish Spanish was a bit of a bumpy road for me. Not only did I have little to no experience with the signature Spanish vosotros form, but add the Basque influence into the mix and you get a Spanish that had me constantly reaching for my WordReference and dictionary apps.

But it was all part of the learning process. For instance, it took me weeks to realize why every street was named kalea (they weren’t — kalea just means “street” in Basque). Or, there was  the time I heard someone use the word “coger” as the verb for “take,” which we don’t do in my culture because colloquially it means something that made my face go red when I first heard a Spaniard use it. After a quick explanation from my professor we both laughed at the differences and I found myself living by the old, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Needless to say, however, it was still not something I brought back with me.

A Mexican heritage student studies abroad in Spain with USAC

And sure, being in the Basque Country made the adjustment process a bit more difficult, but the blending of cultures I encountered actually became an unexpected blessing for me, mainly because the struggle Basque people face with the duality of their identities rang very similar to my own mix of cultures as a Chicana: a Mexican woman raised in the United States. I related to my Basque professors’ desire to maintain their Basque language, just as we strive to maintain our Spanish as Chicanos, and the pride in both of their cultures, for better and for worse.

That’s not to say that I never faced any form of discrimination while in Spain for some of my differences, my accent being the prime example, or that there weren´t racial issues in their society that I noticed. But I can happily say that most of my memories consist of kind, accepting people who were just as excited to know about my heritage (Mexican and American) as I was of theirs, and I did in fact receive a few compliments for my smooth Spanish, spare the vosotros.

Diana and local family in San Sebastian, Spain

Today, I continue working on my Spanish degree and I have a deeper appreciation for the diversity that can be found in the Hispanic world, from places like Mexico to places like Spain. At the end of the day, studying in Spain was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and while it helped me experience a rich and different Hispanic culture, it also helped me affirm a lot of the beautiful things about my own, which today continues to provide me with different perspectives, both academic and personal, in my studies and in my everyday life.

Diana Meza is a University of Nevada, Reno student and a USAC San Sebastián alumna.