From Boyle Heights to Paris: What I Learned While Studying Abroad
By Ricardo Alexander Ayala
I am very fortunate. Not many young people in Boyle Heights have the opportunity to take a few months out of their lives to travel and study in another country.
I come from a working class family, but I am also a university student. As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I was able to look for programs and take advantage of financial aid in order to study abroad this summer. At first, when I suggested countries in Central and South America, my mom was not in favor of me traveling to one of those countries, mostly because of reports of kidnapping and extortion. Ultimately, we both agreed that France was a good, safe choice. I had also studied French for three years at Roosevelt High School, and enjoyed learning the language, so I wanted to practice it abroad.
During the year, I talked to many friends about my trip, and received tips and suggestions week after week about what to visit and where to eat. They suggested I visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Orsay Museum, the historic neighborhood of Montmartre, and different places to buy cheap food. Many of my friends at UCLA come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds as mine, so they kept money in mind with every suggestion.
When I first arrived in Paris, I felt uneasy about my level of French, and even about missing the frijoles and tortillas I was so used to at home. All of my life, I’ve had rice and beans with tortillas for dinner, because it’s relatively inexpensive, so I was worried about feeling as though I needed that kind of food while away from home.
My time abroad was also an academic quarter. I was part of a program with two quarters of French and an anthropology class. Although I traveled with a more extensive knowledge of the city than most, many of the students in the program didn’t exactly share my experiences growing up. Most were from middle-income households and had the opportunity to travel with family before.
When talking to people also in the program, it was the same as being at UCLA, so it was nothing too new. However, in talking to locals, it was interesting—for them and for me—to understand each other’s backgrounds. I didn’t expect them to react to the fact that I am Latino and I came from the United States.
Je viens des Etats-Unis mais ma maman est d’El Salvador.
“I come from the United States but my mom is from El Salvador.”
During the entirety of my visit, this sentence made me think the most because this is a very common way to introduce myself in the United States. However, the people I talked to in Paris knew very little about Latinos in Los Angeles. Their first guess was that I came directly from a Latin American country, such as Colombia or Mexico. They told me that they hardly, if ever, encountered Latino visitors from the United States.
I learned a lot about Paris and France from conversations I had with people there. I was familiar with some history and geography, but I didn’t know a lot about race relations and class distinctions in the city, and I was interested in learning about both. During the seven weeks I spent in Paris, I saw that the homeless people on the streets were ignored. Immigrants from other countries, namely Algeria and Senegal, were stigmatized. This definitely reflected what I see in LA, which has struggling immigrant and homeless populations.
This seemed very familiar to some of us, and hit home when we started to hear news about current situations in the U.S., especially with the reports of detained and deported Central American migrant children. I talked about these themes with peers extensively, and we continued our program with all of these ideas in mind.
From this experience abroad, I definitely learned to do my own research about people from other countries. It wasn’t until I visited Paris that I learned about the people who live there and how some of them are stereotyped and discriminated against. From this I know that anything I’m told about people, I will always have pay attention to who is being ignored and pushed to the side.
I am home now, and will continue to organize with a Central American student organization on campus when the school year starts. This organization, called Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios or USEU (Salvadoran Union of University Students) is comprised of a group of students dedicated to issues affecting Central Americans in California and abroad.
I am very grateful and happy to have traveled for such a long time in a foreign country. I enjoyed and captured many beautiful sights in photographs, practiced a foreign language, and experienced the world outside of Los Angeles.
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Ricardo Alexander Ayala is a student at UCLA majoring in Psychology. He was born and raised in Boyle Heights. His mother, Alma Diaz is from Santa Ana, El Salvador.