Episode 89 │ Wandering with Intention (MEXICO/ARGENTINA/PERU)
Updated: 14 hours ago
"What we try to do is take a holistic view of the student and just their passions, 'cause you can teach a lot of people a lot of things if they want to learn them, right? That's usually what makes the difference in the quality of someone's experience." (Tamara, Episode 89)
(Note: I had three quick announcements to make at the beginning of this episode:
September 2021: Christine Job (episode 73) included Young, Gifted and Abroad in her list of "Top Podcasts of 2021 Produced By & For Black Women Living & Thriving Abroad" on the blog portion of Flourish In The Foreign. Thanks, Christine!
November 2021: Elle Charisse of Speaking Tongues (podcast conversations with multilingual people) released the interview she did with me about how the French and Japanese languages have impacted my life. Check out "79. Speaking French & Japanese" and enjoy. Thanks, Elle Charisse!
December 2021: Jordan and Cameron of White People Won't Save You released the podcast episode we did analyzing (tearing apart?) the white savior tropes in the animated film, 'The Road to El Dorado'. Check Out "El Dorado (Feat. Danielle G.)" and enjoy. Thanks, Jordan and Cameron!
Now on to the show!)
Happy New Year! Can y'all believe 2022 is a real year that exists, and that we're currently living in it? It's still baffling to me, but I couldn't let my disbelief keep me from giving y'all a new Young, Gifted and Abroad episode to kick off the new year! The first guest of 2022 is actually the last guest I interviewed in 2021, wanting to have the conversation recorded and ready in advance of January. That guest is Dr. Tamara J. Walker, a Canada-based historian, professor, and co-founder of a non-profit organization called The Wandering Scholar, which makes international learning trips accessible to underrepresented high schoolers. She and her fellow co-founder Shannon Keating also host a travel podcast called Why We Wander, which they interviewed me for in May 2021. In the process of arranging that interview, I was informed that Tamara was interested in being a potential guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad to discuss her experiences studying and researching in Mexico, Argentina, and Peru. Wanting to learn more about her expertise on Latin America, I set aside a time for us to talk in November 2021.
Attending a private school enabled Tamara to go on trips to Mexico and France as a teenager, but the process of transitioning from public to private schools was not without hiccups. Born and raised in Colorado, Tamara transferred to her first private school in seventh grade. Before that school year started, she and other transfer students attended a summer program meant to get them up to speed so they could adjust to the private school's standards. Unfortunately, rather than giving them encouragement and support, the teacher of that program advised them to lower their expectations. More specifically, the teacher dismissively said that the best grade the students could hope for in their upcoming language classes was a B- or C, since they hadn't been studying foreign languages since kindergarten like their soon-to-be peers. At this, Tamara found herself motivated by spite to prove that teacher wrong, which she did. She did extremely well in Spanish, and it became one of her standout subjects, but she still didn't feel affirmed in being "good" at that language.
Fortunately, when Tamara transferred to a different private school called Colorado Academy for 10th grade and onward, her Spanish teacher there was exactly what she needed. She was motivated to live up to the high expectations that this teacher had of her, "In every way that mattered, she was the opposite of that other teacher. And she never assumed I would do anything but thrive." This Spanish teacher told an abundance of stories about Mexico in particular, which made Tamara eager to join her school's spring trip to Mexico when that opportunity came up. However, as a scholarship student, she was mindful of the fact that her family couldn't actually afford the trip. She was the eldest of two children raised by a single mom who worked two jobs to support them, and she had to strategize if she wanted to make Mexico work. Whereas students at her old school who couldn't afford to go on international trips were simply out of luck, at Colorado Academy arrangements were made so that Tamara's scholarship applied to the costs of the trip, slashing the amount that her mom had to pay. But to this day Tamara remains struck by the fact that even at private schools, students in America are expected to come out of pocket for things that she believes should be included in the education, "If you're gonna make it available to all students, then it needs to be available to all students in a really meaningful way, in the truest sense of the word." More on that sentiment later.
The two-week program in Mexico was focused on language and cultural immersion, split between Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Students actually spent most of their time in Cuernavaca, where they lived with host families, studied Spanish at a language school, and temporarily stayed in the dorms of a local orphanage. At the time, Tamara and her classmates were meant to delve into the world of said orphanage (even plucking chickens for dinner), and bond with their Mexican agemates in the process. In hindsight, and having developed her own critiques of the exploitative aspects of "voluntourism", Tamara acknowledges that having these orphaned Mexican teenagers host and form short-lived attachments with so many varying groups of American students did more to benefit the Americans, and was likely not the best idea for anyone involved. The approach to Mexico—as is often the American approach to developing areas of the world—was for Tamara and her classmates to perform a service, as if they were doing the local people a favor. On the flip-side, when Tamara went with her school to France the following year, the trip structure was completely different. She and her fellows spent a week in Paris being "straight-up tourists", followed by a week in Lyon living with host families and attending French high schools with their respective host siblings. Years later when Tamara and Shannon were introduced by a mutual friend, founded The Wandering Scholar in 2009, and started sending students ("scholars") abroad in the summer of 2011, they determined that regardless of the destination, they wanted their scholars' experiences to be less about providing some sort of service to their host communities, "and more about treating that place as a site of learning and a site of knowledge." This approach was of course influenced by Tamara's high school trip to Mexico, but even more directly traces back to her research trip to Argentina as an undergraduate student.
For undergrad, Tamara studied history and Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania. She dreamed of studying abroad for the entirety of her junior year, envisioning Spain in the fall (to immerse herself in European Spanish) and Mexico in the spring (to immerse in Latin American Spanish there for a second time). However, UPenn only ran summer study abroad programs at that time, and the admin of the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship that she earned in sophomore year—meant to help diverse students become academic faculty, now known as the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship—claimed that spending a year away would conflict with her fellowship. As such, Tamara opted for a semester in Argentina instead, viewing it as a solid middle ground between the Latin American and the European. Argentina has had a long history of European immigration, so much so that its capital city (Buenos Aires) has been called "the Paris of the Americas". Tamara found an Argentina program through Butler University that would allow her to do an independent research project in Buenos Aires, so that's where she went for the spring semester of 1998 or 1999.
Considering a career as an elementary or high school teacher at the time, Tamara set about researching how race, racism, and xenophobia were being discussed in Buenos Aires schools. She figured that Argentina's efforts to frame itself as white country (especially in the 1800s) and history of discrimination against Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Jewish populations would give her much to look at in the present of the late 1990s. What she found through reviewing textbooks and interviewing teachers, however, was that Argentines pointed to the United States when discussing examples of racism and institutionalized race-based segregation in their classrooms, but never looked within Argentina itself. Although America has consistently set an undeniable precedent when it comes to racism, Tamara observed that Argentine students were not learning about their own country, and she was astounded by teachers' assertion to her that Argentina had no race problem. Such assertions were doubly frustrating for her to hear as she personally experienced getting stared at for looking different (read: darker and with more Afrocentric features) than the people around her in most areas she frequented, being cat-called, and being confused for Brazilian (since many Argentines believed that darker-skinned Brazilian women were in Argentina to do sex work). When I brought up the widely-believed notion that Argentina's Black population was "gotten rid of" or had somehow "disappeared", Tamara countered that not only did enslaved Afro Argentines build Argentina, but that their descendants are still alive and well, and furthermore there's an increasing diasporic Black presence of people from Cape Verde and other West African countries. In short, "Argentina has always been a more diverse country than its reputation allows for," and Argentine historians, activists, and politicians have been pushing for the country to reckon with its history of exclusion.
Speaking of historians! Tamara used her research project in Argentina to apply for graduate school at the University of Michigan, and she'd assumed that her pursuit of a PhD in Latin American history would lead her back to Argentina. But she remembered the difficult time she had there previously, and she was struggling to find numerical data to support the enduring presence of Afro Argentines. (As she explained to me, census categories in Argentina and other Latin American countries didn't always allow for a "Black" category, and some people with African ancestry preferred to identify as something other than "Black" so as not to lose social status or face mistreatment.) Hearing this, Tamara's dissertation advisor suggested she examine a time period when the documented presence of Black people was undeniable (i..e., the period of slavery). Coincidentally, Tamara had been increasingly interested in Peru ever since working at a Peruvian-Chinese restaurant while in undergrad, she had found a rare 1850s document in a UofM library describing the clothing of Afro Peruvian women in a way that piqued her curiosity, and while she managed to visit Uruguay and Brazil during her time in Argentina, it had been logistically unfeasible for her to make it to Peru back then. So for her dissertation, Tamara switched gears, using the Fulbright Fellowship she'd earned to spend the year 2004 in Peru honing in on the clothing that enslaved people (especially enslaved women) wore there, and the meanings associated with said clothing. Her research in Peru later became the basis for her 2017 book, Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Lima.
While at a dinner for Fulbrighters who were based around the Andes (Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia), Tamara was quick to notice that she was the only Black person in the room. She asked a U.S. State Department employee whom she was seated next to about demographics, and they claimed that Fulbright had struggled to get "quality" applicants from students of color. Tamara took offense to their implication that the absence of POC Fulbrigthers was based on the Fulbright Program's objective assessment of candidates and of what made for "quality" projects. She knew—besides the criteria of foreign language skills and international experience that she had the privilege of obtaining from a young age—that Fulbright's process was largely subjective, and that the reasoning for people of color being left out was insufficient. From then on, she became determined to find a way to grant opportunities to students who are typically overlooked.
Describing the world
Today, through The Wandering Scholar, Tamara and Shannon strive to get a holistic sense of applicants, their passions, and the mediums they're interested in using for their "documentation projects" (immersive research projects). Language skills are a plus but not a requirement, and they actually prioritize candidates who've never had the opportunity to travel internationally before, including students of immigrants, first-generation students, and low-income students of color. Trips are typically two to four weeks, taking place during the summer through one of the Colorado-based tour companies that The Wandering Scholar collaborates with. Tamara and Shannon's goal is for participants to develop a skill set and sense of expertise that will make them even more appealing candidates for future opportunities, "More than anything, we want to give them the opportunity that's gonna make everything happen." For her part, Tamera believes that promoting diversity and intentionality in travel is part of her reason for being, and that "the more diverse people see the world and describe the world and engage the world, the better," because such diversity serves the interests of humanity and creates a more accurate record of what the world and the people in it are like.
As for Tamara's own travels, when we spoke she had an upcoming work trip to France in December 2021 that she was "nervous and grateful" about. She also keeps thinking about Australia and Singapore, which are far enough away that it would behoove her to set aside an ample amount of time to make those journeys count, although she's wary of being separated from her dog for so long. In the meantime, she lives in Canada with her husband (and dog), has been teaching at the University of Toronto since 2017, and looks forward to sending high school students abroad again in summer 2022 after having to sit out the past two summers. Tamara can be found wherever The Wandering Scholar is: thewanderingscholar.org, Instagram (@thewanderingscholar), and Twitter (@wanderscholar). She can be reached at email@example.com, and Why We Wander is available on all major podcast platforms.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Wandering with Intention (MEXICO/ARGENTINA/PERU)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Loganberry Books (Cleveland)