Name: Melina Montesino
Hometown: New York City, New York
Study abroad semester and location: Spring 2013 San Jose, Costa Rica
What was the most unexpected thing you encountered during your off-campus study experience?
I looked into salsa dance lessons in the area of San Jose and joined the Promenade academy of dance. I took a salsa lesson and I was stopped by the instructor after the class, who asked me if I was interested in joining his competitive salsa team. I wasn’t quite confident in my salsa abilities but I said “sure, why not?” I wasn’t expecting to really compete but in the first week of April we were backstage with 8 other competitive groups, huddled together in a circle saying our last prayers before hitting the stage—then it all became real. Quickly after, they’re calling our name “Salsa en Linea Costa Rica,” as first place winners of the 2013 Salsa Open Central American Championships. Next thing I know, I’m changing my April 23rd flight back to NY to a July 22nd flight to Puerto Rico where the World Salsa Championships take place. Aside from the financial struggles of trying to live in Costa Rica for an extra 3 months, my teammates helped me every way they could whether it is housing, food, or simply treating me to a movie when I couldn’t afford it. After months of training, we were finally on our way to Puerto Rico. There, we spent a week training and receiving workshops by one of the most renowned salsa academies. By the end of the week, we were once again reliving the moment backstage huddled in a circle praying. Although, we didn’t win first place, Salsa en Linea CR won 8th place worldwide which in my book is an incredible experience—I thank Beloit for this.
What was your favorite place in your host city/country?
My favorite place in Costa Rica would have to be Montezuma. It is the most breathtaking place I’ve ever been to with waterfalls, beaches, Congo monkeys, it was as if I was part of the childhood movie - The Jungle Book. The hostels are right at the foot of the beach where you could step outside onto the porch, lay on a hammock with a book in your hand, look at the sunset, and hear the waves against the sand. There are a series of waterfalls that almost resemble a giant staircase except each step is a waterfall falling into another one. At night, I would walk along the beach leaving behind trails of bright blue/green glow resembling the patches of bioluminescence algae in the sand. It is a place I will never forget.
How has your study abroad experience affected your identity as a minority back at Beloit?
I feel compelled to be a part of minority groups on campus. Before I never really considered it, rather I would focus on fitting into the majority. Now I feel a social need to meet the international students and join more clubs. In part, I feel my experience as a minority in a different country opened my eyes to the exclusion that subconsciously occurs between different racial groups.
How did your identity as a minority influence your experiences abroad?
My physical attributes typically confuse people when I say I’m Dominican. People expect to see dark skin and afro-textured hair, but in my case you’ll see a small, light-skinned, light-haired “American” girl standing in front of you. My interactions with Latinos in the US have turned into some sort of emulation to prove that I am as Latino as they are. Sometimes I actually have to break out the Spanish words just for them to say “ah, ok.” In Costa Rica this wasn’t the case. I spoke and looked like a Costa Rican or “Tica” as they call it, which made it easier to conform with the culture. Due to this, my Costa Rican friends would forget I was a foreigner and expect me to understand everything they said or did as if I were Tica. When I didn’t understand they would openly joke about it, while I sat there trying to defend myself “you were speaking to fast, you were mumbling your words, I don’t know what that means”— this was quite uncomfortable. Eventually, I realized they were doing it to make me feel a part of the group so I’d ask myself “why am I bothered by this?” My insecurity about speaking perfect Spanish would make me self-conscious; I guess it was noticeable since their efforts were definitely geared towards making me loosen up through humor.
How will your study abroad experience be beneficial to you in the future?
The “pura vida” lifestyle meaning “pure life” is a quite happy one. The people were much friendlier and much more open about race. The majority of Costa Ricans I met treated the discomforts surrounding race with comic relief. Their television shows would openly stereotype Asians, Americans, West Indians and pretty much every racial group you could think of. Yet, the use of humor was not intended to make fun of these racial groups but rather it emulated their acceptance to other cultures. My understanding is that Costa Ricans and other racial groups had different priorities in mind such as work, family, and general well-being. While Americans, on the other hand, focus on success and self-achievement, which creates the need to defend their differences amongst others competing for the same goals. Then again, this all relates back to US history and the racial struggles we have had in the past. Although, we may not achieve the “pura vida” lifestyle, I have been exposed to a world where differences are comforting. Through this experience, I feel the need to make other minorities feel comfortable and embrace their racial differences whether it is physical, verbal, or social. So that the next time someone comments about their Jamaican-side/Latino-side/Russian-side contributing to their curvy body, I can reply, “Girl, I’ve been there. Embrace it honey, curves are beautiful. You’re milkshake definitely brings the boys to the yard.” This may not work for everyone, but at least the people I know will get the sense that their differences don’t bother me.