Redefining Mountains

Ramon Giron-Melendez
May 6, 2013

It seems to me that in this current day and age the debate over merit, nature, and nurture has still yet to be decided. With the recent revisions and re-evaluations of affirmative action, society is questioning the validity of the minority experience. The experience has fallen from its formative position as an introspective moment, where the United States has pushed itself to widen the definition of what it means to be American. Unfortunately now, “minority status” has become a function of politics, peered into, fingered and exposed, reducing it to policy-making, ignoring the faces and social conditions that surround “the underdog.”

With so much uncertainty on what it means to be a minority, let us take a look at what past experts have said. Some say a minority is one who lacks the appropriate social capital to move through class hierarchies. Others say it is the result of lacking the appropriate cultural vernacular to use and penetrate the echelons of high society, consequently being forced to pursuit a life of second-class citizenship. Well, all these are intelligent answers and essays in themselves, but for now, let us focus on my favorite answer: It is being visibly different in physical appearance from a given majority. The phenotype minority consequently is judged as a “separate” entity and his body re-labeled as an “alternative” or the “other.”

Due to my choice of country for study abroad, the majority in my host-society is predominantly of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Despite their homogenous racial makeup, Austrian society does have an idea of the “other” and a basic understanding that in this world there exist different civilizations that think, act and believe in an alternative manner. However, what still remains to be clarified is the distinction and individual appreciation of each “differing” culture.  It seems that non North Atlantic civilizations can be lumped. Consequently the non-American Europeans societies are cooked together into an ethnic stew of exotic spices and unknown meats. What does this mean? What is the point?

Friends, the point is, like fashion trends from one decade to another, the “other” is constantly dependent on the surrounding majority. It is adapted to serve the needs of mainstream society, which is in this case European society. Still confused? Let me explain. My given phenotype, black hair, dark brown eyes, and my darker complexion, in an American setting, is often labeled as “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The visual sign of my physical appearance sets off social signals that makes mainstream society say, “descendant of a Spanish speaking household who’s country of origin is in Latin America” or in a more crass way “inner city young man.” My body is thus subjected to social conditioning, placing me in a fixed demographical category. Some might say, Ramon, it’s an uphill battle, just keep hustling, you cannot change how you look.

It seems that my phenotype is a feature that I will have to learn to just “live with.” It is permanent. However, as my experience in Vienna has taught me, it is moveable. Indeed my phenotype is not an exclusive classic example of an “alternative way of being found in the Hispanic experience.” In fact my phenotype can actually be attached to a variety of ethnic identities; My “look” has not remained “Hispanic” but instead has been transformed into “Turkish” “Egyptian” “Moroccan” or simply a “Muslim” appearance. My phenotype has undergone a rebranding and my body re-appropriated by Austrian society. Black hair, dark brown eyes, a darker complexion, all this no longer conspires to bless me with the title of “Latino” but rather they all now paint an image of a “Middle Eastern” for Austrian society, casting me as a “Turk” before the European lens of the natively blue-eyed Viennese.

Here at IES Vienna we often talk about a “redefined” life. We are told to “redefine” all things, redefining studying abroad, St. Stephens, and even redefining what it means to speak a language. Interestingly enough, this redefining has extended itself to the minority experience itself. It seems the question is no longer, how has being a minority effected your study abroad experience, but rather, what are my new handicaps in a still predominately Anglo-Saxon community, and how does one cope with and bring the personal self through such re-branding?  A minority is still a minority, but the challenge lies in understanding, what new kinds of obstacles he will face in his new society, and what must he now do to overcome that which was not originally there before? Essentially friends, the questions that emerges now is, what are my new mountains?

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Ramon Giron-Melendez

<div><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Ramon, originally from Boston, MA, is a Junior currently studying History at Columbia College. Specializing in Eastern European history with a focus on the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, he hopes to deepen his understanding of the fundamentals of the dual monarchy during his time in Vienna. Through comparative research of geo-politically marginalized regions, he aims to find new ideas to aid development in the 3rd world. Strongly believing that everyone has an inner child, he actively works to raise awareness on the rights of children worldwide through is involvement as co-president of the Columbia Child Rights group. However what most captures Ramon&rsquo;s imagination is his admiration for one of Europe&rsquo;s greatest institutions, The Eurovision Song Contest itself! Eagerly following year round developments, Ramon enjoys watching how countries choose to represent themselves to the world and how they project their national identities unto this unique international platform. A passionate fan of music, he spends as much time as possible following the music industry. He can usually be found reading Rolling Stone magazine, keeping his eyes peeled for new emerging music genres, and eagerly looking out for new artists on the rise!</span></div>

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