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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Sonia Santana
Summer 2002

Observation of and speculation about a culture and a series of historical events become necessary to experience a part of the new world in hopes of developing a more refined feeling of the past world in which you are interested in studying.. It is said that learning about your past enables you to know more about the current state of affairs in which you live today. A true notion indeed, because learning through auditory and visual methods about the facts involved with the trans-Atlantic slave trade would not have been possible or feasible without actually visiting Ghana for a month. When you learn about a historical event, it is usually told through the viewpoint of one perspective, the author's. And depending on who you're reading or what you are reading about you may actually only be able to get one side of the story, and this in a sense becomes "his-story" and not "their-story" or "our-story." So in actually learning about the trans-Atlantic slave trade through oral accounts from a vast and diverse grouping of people, I feel as though I was able to get a clearer picture of what actually happened and how an event of such atrocious measures could actually have occurred in history. We traveled from the south of Ghana to the very north, listening and talking with people who had varying opinions and accounts of the degree in which they have been affected by the slave trade and still are today. This majority of information provides me with a basis from which I can confidently say that I know what actually may have happened. I am very doubtful and even cynical about believing in "facts." But, even I can not deny the proof of what occurred and continues to plague those of us who deal with the negative externalities that are still present in our very lives and within the realms of society today.

As a Puerto Rican woman, at this stage in my life I felt as though I had adequately and justifiably traced my ancestral lines sufficiently. However, I was wrong. Let me explain, because this was the learning experience that affected me the most and that I will carry for the rest of my life. The African Diaspora that resulted from various events throughout history, namely the trans-Atlantic slave trade, affected me on a larger scale then I would have ever imagined. This is very personal but necessary in my documentation of events.

I have always felt pride in my ethnicity, pride in who I am or who I always thought I wanted to be. Again, I was wrong. I erred in my judgment through a bought of ignorance and irrational assumptions that I contended in hopes to curtail the negative effects that as a minority we all eventually encounter. You see, until recently, I always believed being Puerto Rican was somewhat similar to being Spanish.

I grew up in an all-white community with a minute mixture of African Americans and very little of anyone else. So, as a child, when people asked me "what I was," I always replied that I was Puerto Rican, which then would more than likely prompt them to ask, "what is that." I would then explain that it was like being "Spanish you know, from Spain." I mean my mother and father both spoke Spanish, and we had similar customs to that of Spaniards, so to me I thought that established that what I was saying was true. You see, this seems very minor in significance. However, recollecting this is a very significant event because I must have had to undergo this very process a million times. But, the most shameful aspect of it all is the fact that people would mistake me for African-American at times in the summer and Indian at other stages of my life. However, I always would firmly state that, no, I was Spanish. It wasn't until later in my life that I began doubting this very statement, because Puerto Rico, you see, is nothing like Spain.

So when doing some research I learned that the reason people would, at times, assume that I was African-American or Indian was because Puerto Ricans, in fact, are comprised of this very mix. The Portuguese conquered the small island and enslaved the Taino Indians (the indigenous people of the island). However, due to the spread of disease and the death of the Taino, the Portuguese imported African slaves to cultivate the land and perform manual labor. Eventually, the inhabitants of this island intertwined, and therefore a new race was created.

Once I found this out I felt more confident and comfortable with who I am. In fact, I've made it a point to inform people of this very fact. However, when I went to Ghana, and more specifically to Cape Coast, I felt anguish and shame when learning that El Mina, the first castle to export slaves, was in fact piloted by the Portuguese. This made me very distraught at my past ignorance and ashamed that I had been uplifting the oppressing nation and denying the nations that had been oppressed by these very people. I must confess that I cried for my ignorance (even though I was a child), my family's ignorance, and the ignorance of the world. How could such an event take place against an entire race? How do these things ever occur? These are questions that I will never be able to answer, but as human beings living on this small planet, we are responsible for the external repercussions we all face as a global nation and should be held accountable for the things we say and do that continue to disgrace our very existence.

I will never forget my experience in Ghana. I have plans to go back. It provides a feeling we should all as people be able to experience, a hands-on experience in the world of reality, not commerce and mass globalization. (But I guess that is reality here.) I hate to end on a sad note, but traveling to Ghana has given me something no one can ever really relate to nor ever take away. I now know that I will have to work in a field where I will be able to travel internationally. There is just so much to experience and so much to learn that a book will never do justice and a movie will never really represent. The smell, the taste, the sounds, and the feel-it was surreal. Traveling without expectations and with an open mind is necessary, making those three weeks in Ghana a beautiful time to just be alive. The very spirituality of the land was also a factor that will remain in my mind. There are so many varying religions in one country where people live harmoniously while practicing their beliefs individually.

I know that there are a lot of things I'm leaving out, such as the close and special connection I feel with the group (ten IU students) with whom I traveled. The protection our guides provided and the friendship they extended went far and beyond what they were paid for. At every opportunity, Kevin Brown (trip facilitator/leader) tried to expose us to something new, something real, something we would probably otherwise never be able to experience again and for that I am grateful.