Being the daughter of a Latino immigrant prepared me for life as a full-time traveler more than anything else ever could have. I have a deep sense of gratitude for my way of life as I’m all too aware that many people are forced to travel far from their homeland in order to flee danger. My father walked across Latin America when he was 24 to escape a bloody military dictatorship. Choosing to travel is such an immense privilege that I’ll never take for granted. I’ve had a passport from birth and grew up going back and forth between two very different places—Kansas and Uruguay. From a young age, I was aware that there are many ways to live life and that all are equally wonderful and worthwhile. 

There are many advantages of traveling as a Latina. I rarely meet other Latinas, but when I do we have an instant bond. I launched the @latinaslovetravel community to bring Latinas together on Instagram while inspiring others to chase their travel dreams. I feel a kinship when I meet other people of color and have been fortunate to forge friendships over shared experiences.

Almost everywhere I go, people assume I’m a local. Perhaps it’s a touch of the confidence I developed after living in New York City for seven years. But, it’s more likely my brown complexion and features that make it hard for people to place me. I enjoy this ease of blending in—it brings me a sense of comfort and safety as I can fly under the radar. Being accepted as ‘friend, not foe’ makes it easier for me to truly immerse myself in a destination.

Even in India, Myanmar, and Indonesia people looked at me with curiosity and asked if I had a parent local to the country. I’ve been spoken to in Italian, Greek, and Arabic—only to apologize in English that I don’t understand. This has led to many cultural exchanges with people who are excited to learn about my background and has allowed me to ask questions about their culture. These genuine conversations are key for establishing a greater understanding of each other and combating racism. Outside of the United States, I’ve only ever faced discrimination for being Latina in Spain. However, I do often deal with ignorance and misconceptions about Latino culture and sexist stereotypes about Latinas. 

Latino culture has so many parallels with numerous cultures around the globe. There are many  communities with similar foundations around family, food, and music. Growing up with a strong sense of culture makes me eager to experience other customs. I know so little about my indigenous Charrúa heritage (which became nearly nonexistent after colonization) that I especially love to learn about ancestral practices or visit at-risk communities.

traveling as latina matias contreras
Photo by Matias Contreras.

Growing up in the United States, no one knew where Uruguay was. However, the tiny South American country has been recognized internationally for world-famous futbol players and for being a leader in clean energy and human rights. It brings me so much joy when people tell me they’ve heard of Uruguay–or have even visited. 

I’m extremely proud of my roots and feel a responsibility to represent Uruguay as I travel. Uruguayans are non-existent in the global Latino community and media representation. I don’t represent all Uruguayans or all Latinos, which is such a diverse community. We come from over 30 countries. There are Indigenous, Asian, Afro, and White Latinos. Our cultures and customs vary widely across Latin America.

A major advantage of growing up with a parent who isn’t a native English speaker is my innate ability to decipher most accents. I’m very patient and would never dream of teasing someone for making a mispronunciation. Unfortunately, this same courtesy hasn’t been extended to me and I’m often made fun of for my lack of Spanish linguistic skills. I have a deep respect for those who are multilingual and wish it was a skill that came to me naturally. 

I have a disproportionate advantage over other Latinas who desire to travel. I was born in the United States and have a passport without many limitations. However, I grew up in a middle-class family and never dreamed of traveling abroad—when we traveled it was to see family in Uruguay. I didn’t apply for study abroad programs as I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the fees. If someone would have told 15-year-old me that I’d one day visit over 60 countries and have no intention to stop exploring the globe, I would have laughed at that ludicrous statement. I didn’t dare dream that this could ever be my reality. But, at 25, I took a leap of faith and left behind life as I knew it and dove into the great unknown—I turn 30 this year and haven’t looked back since.

Header photo by Juliana Barquero.

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Lola Méndez
Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American freelance journalist writing about sustainability, travel, culture, wellness, lifestyle, and more. She's a full-time globetrotter who travels to develop her own worldview and has explored over 60 countries. Passionate about sustainable travel, she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities.