The importance of being culturally sensitive when studying abroad: A perspective from Argentina

When I read about the Argentinian dictatorship in history books when I was in high school, I never imagined that I would one day visit the very place where so many tragic events occurred, not to mention receive the opportunity to speak with people who lived during that time. I have been able to do just that while I have been here in Buenos Aires.

The key to discussing a subject as grave and painful as this is to remain aware and empathetic. You never know when you might offend someone or make someone feel uncomfortable, so from my experience it is best to first try and gauge how someone feels about the topic and which questions are appropriate to ask. It is also a great idea to read up on historical events before you go to a country so you know what people are talking about and also because it shows the citizens of the country that you have a genuine interest in their history.

The Argentine military dictatorship began when Jorge Rafael Videla came to power in a coup d’état in March 1976, displacing Isabel Martinez Peron as president, and lasting until 1983. He led a brutal campaign against any opposition to his regime and an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and then murdered.

A group of women whose children had been kidnapped and killed formed a group that is still active today, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Their first march was in 1977, in the Plaza de Mayo, which is a public square in front of La Casa Rosada, the office of the president. They marched, and still march, every Thursday in the afternoon carrying posters and large banners with the names and photos of their children that have disappeared, demanding justice.

To this day the current government and social activist groups, like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, continue the search for people, answers and information of the whereabouts of peoples’ loved ones who disappeared during this horrific period in Argentine history.

I was fortunate enough to know a great deal of information about the dictatorship before I arrived here, which made seeing the Mothers of Plaza Day Mayo march one Thursday afternoon so powerful and moving.

I also have had the chance to speak with my host dad about life under the dictatorship.  He has been more than willing to talk to me about it and answer all of the questions I have lingering in my mind. It obviously was not the first subject I brought up at dinner with my host family, because I wanted to wait and gauge how open they were to talk about it, if they were really comfortable sharing such personal and painful information with me. Once I asked him about it, he opened right up to me and offered me a vivid glimpse of what life was like under such a brutal regime.

My host dad was in his early twenties under the dictatorship; it is almost unfathomable for me to think that he was around my age when he experienced so much violence and repression by his government. He spoke about the fear he felt every day, the constant feel of insecurity even in his own home, and how his friend and brother’s girlfriend were kidnapped and killed for their involvement with the opposition. He also explained how careful he had to be about what subjects he talked about when he was in school or else he could have met the same fate. He told me he did not feel safe speaking out about the regime to anyone because you never knew who you could trust; people were turning in others left and right.

The military dictatorship is a more recent event in history, so it is still fresh many Argentines’ minds, making the topic a very delicate subject to many. Some of my friends have told me that their host parents do not speak about that time in history or if they have asked them they have just shook their head in disgust.

When studying abroad outside of the United States, you should also expect to get questions in return about our current U.S. government and major events such as September 11th, 2001. It has been my experience that people who are not American are very interested in what our thoughts and experiences are regarding our country. But once again, if you do not feel comfortable talking about subjects such as those, do not be afraid to let someone know your boundaries if the conversation gets too personal.

It is one thing to read or study about something in class, but it is so incredible to sit down with people who experienced these events and were affected by them and hear what they have to say about it. I encourage anyone who is studying abroad or thinking about studying abroad to try to have really deep, meaningful, honest and profound conversations about topics of the country’s history in order to gain new perspectives and insights into the lives of others around the world.

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