By Maya Guerrero
In 2001 I went to live in Copenhagen as an exchange student from Colombia. Copenhagen was not my first choice to study abroad since I did not know anyone there, or anyone who had even been there as a tourist. But, it sounded interesting and the point was to have a great experience during an intermission from Colombia and my university. At first my lack of the Danish language did not matter since everyone seemed to speak English, but after a while I began to feel left out in conversations at university. I realised I couldn't understand anything around me—advertising, signs, media. Even in the supermarket I did not always know what I was buying. After two months I discovered I had been eating turkey instead of chicken. So I invented a game: buying a pack of something or other, which I had no idea what it was, but which looked nice, and trying to guess what was inside. Sometimes it was a wonderful surprise and sometimes not, like liquorice gummies, which I find hideous.
I took some Danish classes for a while but the pronunciation was impossible for me—all the vowels sounded the same. I did learn how to ask for a beer but as soon as people heard my accent they spoke to me in English, so I cannot say I mastered Danish.
Height was also a problem in Denmark. In my country I am of average height, but in Denmark I am very small, and I could not reach things in the house where I lived. Being small, combined with not understanding the language made for an intimidating experience. Despite this I was very happy in Copenhagen, learning how to ride a bike, eating lots of pastries, and getting used to the seldom sunny ambience. I made many international friends from many countries, but very few Danish friends. One girl I met was also part of the exchange program at my home university and had Danish-Colombian sisters living in Copenhagen. We went out together occasionally and we would discuss the Danes, but mostly my friends were Spanish and looked more like me–not very tall with black hair and dark skin.
Then September 11th came and things changed a lot. I had no idea what was happening during the events since the only television near me was at a bar and the news was in Danish. It took some time before I understood the whole news. A lot of mixed feelings began growing among people. There were many racially prejudiced reactions, and people who looked foreign or different were called names. If you had black skin you might be called as such. With my looks, people in the street told me to go back to my country, that I was not wanted in Denmark.
The relationship with my landlord changed completely because he was very pro-American. He began making brainless comments about immigrants in his country, that they were the ones making Copenhagen a dangerous city. Even though I was staying in Denmark as a student, and not illegally, I felt like he was directing the insult at me and I found this upsetting. He said the reason I was small is because Colombia is poor and we do not have enough to eat. Moreover, this was coming from an educated person who had studied geography. After a while I simply ignored his disrespectfulness and came home late at night to avoid him altogether.
The months passed and even though things settled, there was still tension in the air and the name calling was an everyday experience. After returning to Colombia I decided to do a project about the experience, with the title “Something is Rotten in Denmark”–a transatlantic contribution.
The project consisted of cutting off the blonde, white head of the Queen of Denmark in royal portraits and changing it for my own black head. Across the chest of the picture it read “Something is Rotten in Denmark”–a phrase with several meanings relating to racism in Denmark and to the way immigrants are becoming increasingly visible and significant there.
I made posters of this image and sent them to a friend in Copenhagen who distributed them across the city. The project was then shown in Bogotá, Colombia, including a video of the posters in the streets of Copenhagen.