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Melanin Anxiety Abroad: Traveling to Poland as a Brown Woman

When the priest at my church first announced that a youth group would be traveling to Poland for World Youth Day in 2016, I didn’t pay much attention. The worldwide event is supposed to be a gathering of Catholic youth from around the world meet up every three years with the Pope in different cities for prayer, concerts, tours, and more. I had heard of it before, but didn’t think it was a bit deal.

That was until I was handed a colorful flyer with a beautiful picture of the architecture in Krakow, where we would all be staying for the events.

If all went well, this would be my first time in Europe. Most of my other travels had been to the Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to visit family. It was also a way for my parents to ensure that I would grow up bilingual and multicultural. And in 2011 I travelled around Central Mexico with my aunt and her church friends. We visited old churches, museums, went to events, and got to hang out with so many new people.

My first hang up was the price tag.

I’d have to pay over $2,000 USD out-of-pocket. Bake sales, fundraising, and a grant from the Archdiocese of Brooklyn would cover the rest.

I didn’t mind putting in extra time to help sell food or organize events if it meant that extra expenses would be covered for everyone.

But my second hang up was the fact that we’d be a group of Latinos. From NYC. Traveling around Poland.

My neighborhood is a mix of Polish people, Italian immigrants, every shade of Latin American, some Indian, some Nepalese, and a sudden influx of willowy transplants.

I’ve liked Polish people and have always liked Polish food, especially the chocolates and pastries. Their stores had signs that read “Se Habla Español” (“We Speak Spanish”) and everyone I’ve met from American-born Poles to Polish immigrants has been pretty nice.

It’s the actual country I was worried about.

I’m someone who reads several newspapers, follows various media sites, and tries her best to stay on top of what’s going on in the world.

And I’ve become thoroughly disturbed by the rise of nationalism everywhere, including the US.

As I helped plan fundraising events at church, 2015 came with articles on anti-refugee and anti-immigrant protests in Poland’s large cities. Far-right politics were on the rise, and I was worried that we’d have to be extra careful or keep an eye out for any mobs.

My fears grew as the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 brought with them a series of attacks and anti-brown sentiment all over the continent, and all over the US.

Days before I was set to leave, there was a shooting in Munich, not far from the Polish border. At first social media was full of the usual condolences and support. But ugly tweets and posts soon surfaced, many of which called people of color “barbarians” and “uncivilized” animals who were hellbent on destroying Europe.

I remember asking my priest if he was nervous. Of course he was. But just like all of us, he wanted to travel.

So, towards the end of July, I got on a plane and landed in Warsaw.

From there we took a three-hour bus ride to our hotel in Krakow, where I settled into a room and that night and got to exploring the surrounding area.

We were given backpacks that came with a map and a matching poncho. Our nametags doubled as identification and public transportation passes. We were also given what looked like Monopoly money to buy food in stadiums and arenas that had “Pilgrim” signs on it to highlight that people attending World Youth Day could use their “fake” money there. A lot of my fears went away after that when I saw how organized everything was and how convenient the trip was made for people who had come from other continents.

And so we attended events, daily prayers, and concerts. We walked for miles on end every day and ate who knows how many potato pierogis. And we drank lots of wine (at least that was true in my case, since a decent glass with dinner was cheaper in Poland than it is in NYC).

Eventually, we found ourselves in some of the smaller towns outside of Krakow.

A few of the local townspeople wanted to take photos with some of the Black and brown travelers who were with some of the other parishes under the Archdiocese of Brooklyn.

On a particularly scenic hillside outside of Krakow, my church group stood by a wall and attempted to take a group selfie. A young woman in a bright red skirt timidly walked up to us and asked if she wanted us to take the photo. We thanked her and posed.

“Where are you guys from?” she asked, smiling.

We responded that we were from New York City. She did a double take.

“But you were all speaking Spanish just now,” she told us.

We explained that our particular group was from everywhere, but based in our church in Brooklyn. She seemed excited about that.

Other people had questions about our politics and asked how we felt about our country making international headlines over the upcoming election. I tried not to get into that too much with a lot of the people I met.

On one of the first days that we heard Pope Francis speak in person, we had to walk for miles to the arena and make it to our designated spot in the field.

We weren’t that far from the road on which he’d arrive in the Popemobile, so I was excited. On the way there, we got to stop into local shops, look at the amazing old architecture, and wave back to the people who called out greetings from their balconies.

A home near the field had a huge white sign on its second floor balcony. It said “Welcome” in several languages, including English and Spanish.

Closeby, a group of Polish soldiers started dancing with travelers from Central Africa. Next to them, a young man with a Colombian flag shirt also started dancing.

I tried not to cry. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a little when the Pope told us to have courage in a changing world.

Towards the end of the trip, nearly one million people all converged onto a huge field.

We walked for over an hour in the hot sun with our backpacks, sleeping bags, and supplies behind a man holding a huge Archdiocese of Brooklyn sign, and sang “Drunk in Love,” “Formation,” and “7/11” together.

We passed the armed guards and police everywhere, and eventually settled down together in a section. I walked around with some of the girls from my church group, and handed out pins with an outline of the Brooklyn Bridge on them. In return, I got back little flags from around the world and pins of different saints, stickers, and little erasers.

I gave a pin to a boy from Spain and said that I liked his sneakers. He stared at us in disbelief.

“But you’re Americans,” he said, looking at our matching t-shirts with the bars and stars emblem.

“Technically,” we told him.

We sat around with them and chatted for a bit, then went on to different groups. Every time I saw someone from either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic — where my parents grew up — I’d ask what town they were from. I took selfies with Canadians who happened to be East Asian. They told me to come live in Canada if things kept getting weird in the US. I laughed.

The trip was so memorable. Every single minute of it.

So what if some people did double-takes? They were far outnumbered by those who had polite questions, willing to give information about themselves and their countries as well.

I got to meet new people and experience a new place (and the best pierogies I’ve ever had). I got to see the pope speak. I got to visit one of the oldest salt mines in all of Europe, where there were glittering carvings of Polish legends in the walls and replicas of the wooden pulleys that navigated people and horses under the ground. I got to see a beautiful chapel carved entirely out of rock under the mine. I got to eat dinner in a catering hall that had shimmering walls carved right into the stone.

I didn’t want to leave.

By the time I landed at JFK airport and hugged my parents — who handed me a bouquet of flowers — I was jetlagged. But I’d also caught the travel bug.

As we made our way back home, I wondered how much money I would have to save under my bed to travel to another country. I imagined being in a place where I’m forced improve my Spanish. I wanted to be put in a situation where I had to just figure things out.

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It's been real Poland. Thanks for the memories. #warsaw

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The next World Youth Day was announced during the final days of events in Poland. The Pope told us we would meet again in Panama City in 2019.

I’ve never been to Panama.

So what does a girl do in the meantime when she wants to take her tan to other places, regardless of their proximity to her home in Queens, New York, but isn’t able to do so quite yet?

She prepares.

My international neighbors tell me stories of their hometowns. Some of them are a three-, five-, eight-, or even ten-hour plane ride away from my own hown. I daydream about all the cities I want to visit. I now have an envelope of savings that I keep in my room, on which I’ve written “To Canada and Beyond.”

And that’s just the beginning. I’ve begun to look at what hotel prices and tour prices abroad are like. I’ve also begun to compile volunteering abroad with reputable companies that don’t try to profit off entitled voluntourism. I want to go places I only imagined. It’s about time I took that step for myself.

Here’s to hoping I’ll be taking off sometime soon.


Melanin sisters, what’s been your experience going to majority-white countries? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

Angely Mercado
I am an NYC Latina, based journalist, and sometimes creative writer. I've recently caught the travel bug and I'd like to explore the world and push back on cultural gender norms that dictate where women can travel and with whom. My work has appeared in Hello Giggles, The Billfold, Lenny Letter, The Wisdom Daily, and more.

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1 Comment

  1. This was such a nice read. I truly enjoyed reading this. I myself am not much of a traveler, and I have never been to Europe. I would love to travel someday, but at the moment- I am not able to do so. I am from Nepal, and it is one of my dreams to visit Europe and enjoy that culture. Anyway, it is a really nice article and I enjoyed it.

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