Hola, Morocha!

Ah, the early twenties—that klutzy limbo between the teen years and inchoate adulthood. Mom and dad quickly become mommy and daddy when you need to be bailed out of a situation.  Your parents still willingly feed and house you, especially if you decide to move back home after college.  You most likely won’t have children or a true place of your own without roommates, and you’ll be deciding, “Masters? Or Career?”  And where I came from, very few black women asked those two questions, but what was even rarer was a third query—”Travel?”

The ages of 22 to 25 can offer the best time for international travel and I often wondered why my fellow queens weren’t following me abroad. But as I got older, I realized we didn’t really have encouragement to do so.

Turn on the TV, go to the movies or open a book. Are any of these entertainment outlets telling the narrative of a young black woman having an adventure abroad? No. It’s reserved for the cute awkward white girl suffering heartbreak or following her beloved overseas to tell him she loves him.

Well, I am a rebel. I don’t come from a family of travelers.  Even though my mom immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados, and I am the only one who continually goes abroad.

As a writer, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my artist predecessors, who fled the United States to nurture their art. The destination of choice was usually Europe, but the journey was about more than just artistic cultivation. Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Josephine Baker sought equality in France. I sought and found respect for my craft in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Like Paris, the citizens of Buenos Aires hold artists and their artistic endeavors in high esteem — an esteem that can be hard to come by in the United States. I was 22, working seven days a week at three different jobs for a whole year to have enough money to pack up and move to Buenos Aires for six months. Then someone said to me: “I wouldn’t just go hang out in another country. You should enroll in school.” The words were spoken in a diminishing tone, as if what I was trying to accomplish with my writing was not serious, but just an excuse to “hang out” in another country. I felt like someone brought a mallet to my gut; I was so infuriated by the comment that I cried.

After I was done raising Atlantis with my tears, I hopped on a plane and left anyway. Years later, I developed a successful travel blog and a soon-to-be-published manuscript of memoirs.  If I had listened to that person — none of this would exist. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this very article.

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Image: Jennifer Poe

 

My journey wasn’t all perfect. Once I arrived in Buenos Aires, I immediately felt I was different. There aren’t many people from the African Diaspora in the capital or many parts of Argentina, and Argentines are a staring people. The fact that I was different made them look at me and sometimes treat me as if I hopped off a spaceship. In a sense, I lost my anonymity. Some would scream MOROCHA! from across the street or from trucks like I was some celebrity they spotted out on the scene. Morocha kind of means brunette, but Argentines use it towards black women for their dark skin, eyes and hair.

There was also the time I went to buy birth control pills over the counter…Yes, over the counter.  So there I am buying my pills, when I see the young, cute pharmacist with the green eyes checking me out. He pretended to straighten out some products, then slipped me his number on the shelf next to me and put his fingers to his lips and said, “Shhhh. Or when I spent seven hours trying to save the package of black hair care products from Argentine customs I had sent to myself from the States. None of my non-black friends could understand why these products were important and why I couldn’t just use the shampoo or products from the Argentine supermarket.

The things I experienced because of my blackness, my surroundings, and the people who inhabited it compelled me to write. I had to document them because I knew if I didn’t immortalize my stories, no one else could or would. Plus, it felt nice to be the black girl protagonist who was finally the exotic one who had the fun, sexy adventures.

I wrote as if my words were facing extinction. Gone were my inhibitions, caused by the echo of naysaying voices that often bounced around in my head. I felt artistically liberated and began to see the truth in the translation of Buenos Aires: good air. I felt like I took in an abundance of it, indeed.

 

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Image: Jennifer Poe

I will never forget the moment when I was at a friend’s house, spending one of those laid back, trademark Buenos Aires evenings, when her boyfriend asked me what I studied in college. A little skeptical, I gave him a brief account about how I tried college, decided it wasn’t for me and began to pursue my craft on my own. He paused, took another drag on his cigarette and blew out the smoke. He looked at me. “You’re an autodidacta. That is wonderful!” He said in Spanish, shrugging his shoulders. Then he began to name all the greatest autodidacts such as Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci, telling me I was in great company. “Thank you,” I replied, staring at him incredulously. I couldn’t believe my ears. There was no speech about how I was ruining my life because I was not in college, or because I did not have a backup plan. No dream-balloon bursting statements like “writing is a hobby, not a profession.” This is what I was used to hearing at home.

Instead, here was a man introducing me to a word for what I was that I had never heard before and reassuring me that I was not alone, that some of the greats chose their own paths as well. He had me sold when he mentioned my idol — Shakespeare. It was that evening that sealed Buenos Aires in my heart forever.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: whether you’re an artist or not, if you need a bit of fresh air to recoup, to get away from the negative energy of the critics and naysayers or to expand your horizons — hop on a flight to the first place your heart desires to go. The possibilities are limitless, so you should be too.

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