Kristina Caltabiano

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Interview Text and Audio


Kristina Caltabiano discusses her international experiences and how they have all shaped her identity. She talks about how central speaking Spanish is to her identity, and the battle present in valuing a transient lifestyle but also wanting a sense of community. Caltabiano makes comparisons between her Italian-American family to the families she has spent time with in Latin America, and goes on to describe the ways the good times and challenges she faced in Latin America has transformed her. Caltabiano closes the interview with remarks about how important it is for her to be seen as an individual, with regards to being and American abroad.



[00:00:00] Raina Enrique: I’m Raina and I am doing a research project for GLOBAL 382. It is currently March ninth on a nice Thursday afternoon at three o’ three, and I am here with Kristina Caltabiano, who graciously agreed to be interviewed today. So, Kristina, how’re you doing?
Kristina Caltabiano: I’m doing well, thank you so much for having me.
RE: Yeah, thanks for coming. So, could you just start off by telling me about your experiences abroad?
KC: Sure! [00:00:35] I have had the privilege of being abroad quite a few times. My first experience abroad was actually a trip to Mexico with my grandfather and his wife. They took my brothers and I camping when I was fourteen, it was the first plane I ever took, we went camping in Arizona and we crossed the border to Mexico. So that was the first time I was abroad and I knew ‘this was amazing, this was so different, this was so cool.’ And after that I did a two week trip my freshman year in college: one week in Rome, one week in Paris. Two weeks, or two years later I did a semester in Europe: five weeks in Rome, five weeks in Paris, and five weeks in Salamanca, Spain. And my time in Spain really solidified the fact that I wanted to learn Spanish. I loved Spain, I loved the Spanish culture, and I knew how useful Spanish was in the states. After that, I had the opportunity to do another semester abroad because I had finished all of my required courses, and I decided to go to Chile, to Santiago, in Chile, to do a full semester. So, this was like: OK, I’m going to learn Spanish and I know what will happen because I have no other choice, and my classes were in Spanish. So that was my pre-undergrad experience abroad. And I also had a research grant to go to Vietnam, so this was very much through an educational experience and a lot of scholarship, and also it was incorporated within the tuition I was already paying so that is what enabled me to be able to go, because I did finance everything myself. So, after I graduated, I was looking for a volunteer experience that I didn’t have to pay for. It’s a lot you have to-- they won’t fund you-- and I heard about the Peace Corps and so I decided to apply my senior year of college. Actually, it was late in my senior year of college and the application process was over a year so during that year wait period I spent ten months in Spain during the wait period teaching English, and then after that I came back to the states for a few months and I nannied and I saved money and then February 2013 I left for Guatemala for my two-year Peace Corps service. And since then, I spent last summer in Brazil, doing-- studying Portuguese through a FLAS scholarship, and I will hopefully (I will find out tomorrow) but I may be doing a semester in Rio in the fall.
RE: That’s amazing!
KC: To solidify my Portuguese.
RE: (laugh) So, I have eight different things listed here where you’ve gone off abroad, that’s really impressive. So, what was your favorite part about being in these countries? So, given that there’s so many listed I would say pick three and just say just the best parts of each of those for you.
[00:03:55] KC: Sure, so for me, I have found that I feel a lot more like myself, a better, the best form of myself when I am in unfamiliar territory. And it might come with being out of my comfort zone, that that suits me well. Just the newness, the excitement, the—everything’s different than what I am used to and I do well with change, I really, it’s an environment that I thrive in and so three things that I love. I love experiencing what it’s like with local people and so that for me means food, the language, and I would say dress, but some may dress similarly to people here. But specifically, in Guatemala they dressed very differently and that was an exciting part of their culture
RE: That’s amazing! And so, you did touch on this a little bit, but if you could just expand: in what capacity did you interact with the locals of these places? So, [00:05:10] in what capacity did you interact with the locals of say, Mexico, when you just went to camp, versus, you know, when you were on a research grant in Vietnam?
KC: Every experience has been very different and I think that the amount of interaction with locals comes with spending a long time there. So, for example, going, crossing the border in Nogales to go to a Mexican restaurant when I was fourteen and I spoke like three words of Spanish, it was super touristy and my grandfather was really protective and I felt very naïve but still really fun I was like “wow this is so different” and they really put on a show because it’s a border town and so they had all the mariachis in the restaurant and all the vendors in the streets and all the cat-calling which was totally new. And then thinking about when we did the research project, we, my professor, had a lot of local contacts and so we got to go to this really, really, really cool outdoor restaurant-buffet-Sunday ceremony place. It was just a sprawl of food and people and picnic tables and very much a local event. And that was my, definitely a high of the trip for me. Was just doing what local people would be doing. And that, like in Guatemala, looked like going to the market every day and not, you know, having a fridge full of food like I might here. And that was sort of a ritual, it’s a ritual that they do: go out, get your food for your daily lunch, and then cook your lunch and have fruit on hand and then do it all again the next day. And that for me is, I love it, it’s so rewarding
RE: Have your interactions with local people, so then I guess like a more recent time you might want to pull on might be Guatemala, and it could be any of your abroad experiences, but have any of these interactions revealed to you anything with regards to identity? So, for example, you know, you might say Guatemalan identity is based in cooking lunch or whatever. So, is there anything that you might’ve picked up from any of these places?
KC: I would say in thinking about my identity as an individual I’m very much—like I identify as a second-language learner. Spanish is a very big part of my life and it’s funny, identity comes out when you start dating people and seeing what you’re looking for and seeing what I choose to talk about when you’re getting to know a person. And so much of that is [00:08:28] Spanish is so big for me in that it’s a gateway to this part of my life that I want to continue to explore. So Guatemala completely solidified that for me. And it’s not just the language of Spanish it’s all of the connections that come from it. So, connecting, being able to travel with relative ease which is again a huge privilege, to places that speak Spanish and be able to understand them and know what’s going on and make genuine connections with people, which is reciprocated, it’s very exciting for them it’s really exciting for me, and part of it is sometimes I like the high of it, which I have done a lot of reflecting on this. It’s like why do I continue to want to be outside of the country? Why did I continue to want to be anywhere, you know, anywhere in Latin America? It’s not one specific place it’s like just put me there and I’ll be fine and they’re all, every single country, every single community is so different from another but what they offer me and what I, the way I connect and feel alive is what keeps me going back
RE: The majority of times when you have almost typical Americans they rather be in their comfort zone. They rather not change, they rather just speak English like whatever, and so for you to just say that you feel most Kristina when you don’t have anything to do with America, do you know what I’m saying? That’s not exactly what you said, but that’s just so interesting …but also, I think a lot of times we do find who we are by being in an uncomfortable situation, and by seeing how do you react in it, what are the types of things you’re saying, you know? And so, for you to see that in yourself, and you’re young, you know, and to like see that already, it’s--
KC: I’m twenty-seven. So, yeah. It’s weird that, I mean I’m definitely the oldest in the class, obviously. Yeah, I mean I think it’s funny to hear from your perspective because from my perspective sometimes it’s scary, in a way that it’s like I don’t know why but I don’t. I love the people in my life here I love what I’m doing here. I value my friends and my family and I know I need, I won’t be here forever. So, accepting that transient life and not feeling particularly attached or like I need to be in one place, that’s not what does it for me.
RE: I almost feel like that might be a goal of our previous generation, to be settled.
KC: That we strive to be settled?
RE: Yeah.
KC: Yeah, I mean that’s something I’ve definitely been exploring and working on. Not like to get to a point where I want to be settled because that’s certainly not my goal but to be just embracing ‘this is where I’m at’ and I do know that I’ll be moving around and what does that look like for me at this point in my life. You know, what are the priorities? Like my priority right now is school and my priority after school would be finding a job, building a career, and so, twenty-seven, you know, you start to think ‘ok where does a partner fit into this? ‘Where would I meet someone if I’m?’—yeah – well I mean this is a real thing and it’s not something that’s a concern at this point in time, and I have my own agenda so it’s thinking, just being aware of it. [00:12:45] Don’t, you know, set myself up in a way that won’t be a few months here, a few months there, a few months there, because that doesn’t build any community for me and community is a big thing that I need in my life. Whether it be a, what’s it called, a remote community, people that I feel connected to via skype and phone calls which is what I’ve done over the years. Have my solid people that have been with me here and here and here via phone conversations
RE: Thank you so much for that. So just to back track just a tiny bit. In regards to identity, do you see any parallels in the most salient aspects of your identity to those of say, Guatemala, or wherever else you might want to compare, or Spain- you spent a lot of time there too. So maybe a sense of valuing transiency or a sense of community or family; are there any strong parallels with other communities that you see?
KC: No, I would say actually the direct opposite and that [00:14:12] the communities that I’ve lived in are so grounded and don’t really leave where they are- that is the most comforting for me. So, when you said ‘do you feel any connection’ like identity with those communities, I immediately thought of my aunts and uncles who I would say for a while were global citizens. Very much traveling, very much abroad, moving around. When I think of my identity I think of my grandmother was an immigrant from Italy, and so there’s- I have a huge Italian family on my dad’s side and that’s very much a part of my identity that is big family, the loud family entered around food and lots of kids running around and that for me is very comforting and that’s something that I find often- I found in Guatemala I really experienced some in Brazil that whole centered around family that’s very important for me and then on the other side my mom’s side of the family they were all travelers and she was one of seven and my mom was the oldest and she was the one that stayed. She didn’t really travel a lot, she got married and had kids while her younger brothers and sisters were off traveling, off doing their adventures and when I was young so that was the role- they were the role models for me. And they used to give me spoons and all the countries that they went to and I have this massive spoon collection (laugh) from all these countries in Asia and all over the world and I didn’t understand it when I was that young but I have this weird spoon collection that’s actually pretty cool
RE: That’s something to say for icebreakers you know, I don’t know if you do this in grad school but.
KC: () Two truths and a lie: ‘I have a spoon collection.’ And it got so big because my mom would get me a case for it, we had to buy a second case for it and I think my mom has it somewhere.
RE: And it’s not in your house? (laugh)
KC: No, I don’t have any room for that.
RE: Wow, so [pause] (laugh) I’m really still thinking about all of these spoons on the wall. Could you tell me a bit about, if any, some of the biggest challenges that you faced while…yeah, well I’m kind of jumping around because you answered this question. Let me just kind of stay in order. Basically, my first question was going to be “is there one country in particular that you feel like shaped you more so than the others?” and from previous responses I’m getting the feel that it might have been Guatemala?
KC: (shakes head no).
RE: No? So, then what is it?
[00:17:19] KC: If I were to choose the country that shaped me, I would say that my time in Chile was the most formative because it was the first time I was abroad completely by myself. The previous, my sophomore when I did the semester abroad, it was with a cohort from St. Johns, from my school, and we all were together. We were in a dorm with all English-speaking students, all of our classes were in English and in my rime when I did the semester in Santiago I got dropped off, I walked off the plane, a host family picked me up, I didn’t speak any Spanish I didn’t know anyone , I…it was crazy and I look back on it and I think ‘wow yeah that’s why it was so formative because I had to learn Spanish, all of my classes were in Spanish, my host family didn’t speak English.’ And I made a couple English-speaking friends and they were two European girls and it was the first time that I wasn’t around Americans at all. It was so nice (laugh) it was so refreshing.
RE: I could imagine. (laugh)
KC: I didn’t realize it until the end of my time there when I went on a trip and I was around other Americans and I was thinking ‘man this has been nice!’ They were speaking in acronyms, these three girls, I’ll never forget. They were on their phones the whole time, they were speaking in acronyms. What have I been missing, you know? So, I-- and I started, I learned Spanish there. And so, coming back from that experience I went to Spain and that was like ‘ok my Spanish is getting better but I feel fine’ and I got to Guatemala and I could communicate perfectly, I was really confident where I was at that place in time with myself and where a lot of people, the two years in peace corps is hugely formative, whereas for me it was more…
RE: …solidifying?
KC: Yeah, solidifying. That I, this is where I, this is what I wanted to do with my life, this is what I wanted to pursue in grad school based on the work I did, it was more career-enriching as opposed to, and it was certainly personally enriching, but it wasn’t transformative. I was already, the transformation or huge growing peak had already, I had already done that.
[00:19:52] RE: So, with that, could you tell me about your biggest challenges that you faced in Chile? And so, I know you kind of touched on a few things but is there one specific thing, one specific scene that you’re like ‘ok, this is hard’ and you didn’t have to have overcome it, I’m just curious. (laugh)
KC: Yeah, definitely. I, so I was learning Spanish, I became very close with my host family and it was clear early on that there was this mutual love and I found out that my host mom had cancer and that was kind of traumatic because I was at a party with my host brother and he told me and it was just weird and then they had had a lot of drama around money and I knew I was a source of income for them and the relationship started to go in a way that was making me feel unconformable like they, I wasn’t going home for dinner because I was hanging out with friends and starting to build a life there and so they challenge was when I decided that I couldn’t live in their house anymore. Because it was no longer a place that I really felt comfortable, the relationship was just becoming off-balance. And it was hard because I was spending a lot of money to live there and when I found out that I could love somewhere for so much cheaper and have the freedom that I was craving I couldn’t pass it up, so it was a big challenge to tell them in the best Spanish that I could and then I left of like a ten-day trip and then I came back and I moved my stuff out and I and to leave, and I maintained a relationship with them after but it was really hard. Being able to explain it, feel a lot of sadness about it, and also know that I was affecting their lifestyle, like they were depending on that income.
RE: So, what did this challenge teach you about the people there? Or I don’t want to generalize but so what did this challenge I guess teach you about your host family and is that generalizable to Chileans or just in that region or whatever?
KC: I think that it’s—
RE: If that makes sense.
KC: Human nature. Yeah, I think that that’s just a product of…well think about culturally they were extremely open and really took me in as part of their family, like extended family. And I think that would be generalizable to the culture, very open and warm and part of that is because I look like them. That is, I’m, every place I am I have to, well now the point in time I am I recognize the privilege I recognize what it looks like to go in as a white female and be accepted without thinking twice about it. And in particular Chile is predominately white and their definitely some racist tendencies which I realized throughout my time there. So that becomes challenging to sit with and also be, I try and bring my best self forward and not everyone is aware, not everyone can be aware of what their culture is bringing to the table and how racism can be so blatant and what do you do when you’re just trying to get by.
RE: That makes sense.
KC: Yeah.
RE: And so, whether it be positive or negative what type of impact do you feel like you left on Chile?
KC: I mean it left a huge impact on me. I, what did I leave?
RE: Yeah. And even if it’s nothing, if that’s what you think.
KC: I mean on that, yeah, in particular that country I made a lot of friends. One friend that I made there, he and I met again this summer in São Paolo so I was there in 2010 so he and I met again now, in 2016. We hadn’t seen each other for six years and we were together the whole summer. He reminded me a lot of what my time was like in Chile and what Chile meant for me.
RE: To ask the question a little different, [00:25:19] in thinking of the relationships that you had in Chile, do you think that you imparted anything to people that you know there?
KC: Well (laugh) I have one friend that I meant there who wasn’t Chilean, he was Australian, who said that I was the first American girl that he met that he liked. Not romantically but that he could have a conversation with and not be turned completely turned off. And I was like ‘who have you been talking to?’ and it was fascinating how people have one or two interactions with a person form a country and then that person becomes a picture of the country for the, And I think with my host family they, we had a very loving, mutually-giving relationship until we didn’t, but during that time I still think very fondly of them. Same vice versa.
[00:26:28] RE: And so, to just end things off, thinking about what your Australian friend said to you what does that say about you? Whether as a woman, as a daughter, as a person, as an American, what does that comment say about you?
KC: (laugh) That I could have a conversation with him that was of some depth? He was a very deep thinker. He helped me challenge a lot of what my belief system was and pushed me to grow at a time when I was hugely vulnerable and growing in so many ways that for him to say that to me it just made me laugh and I just said ‘thank you, I hope you see me as a person, as an individual and not as an American girl.’ Right, and [00:27:42] that’s what I would hope for all my interactions, that I’m not just an American girl I’m an individual and that’s how we can interact, separate from our identities.
RE: Well yeah! Those are all of my questions (laugh) thank you so much, now at three thirty-four we are ending. [00:28:06]