Growing up in a Latino immigrant home, I learned the importance of Spanish and English in the United States. Spanish is my first language and English my second. My parents figured they’d take this approach as being a Latina-American, I would be exposed to English everywhere else. My physical features clearly depicts where I am from, sometimes so much people are taken back when words come out of my mouth.
My parents were my only link to Latin America and where I came from — and they made sure this link was a steel chain…a chain that has become a strong part of my identity today. History, Literature, Politics, Values were all part of a foundation strengthening my identity. My eyes embraced poetry by Cesar Davila Andrade & Pablo Neruda; Literature by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — particularly his book, “El General en su Laberinto/The General in his Labyrinth”, a story surrounding itself upon a historical and important figure in South America, Simon Bolivar. I would sit attentively as my dad told me of the Gran Colombia and what became of this once ideal South American Country and what it was present day. I would watch and read news on current events in Latin America…I lived in Latin America all the while living in the United States.
I spoke, learned, thought, read and wrote Spanish but as years passed and as I integrated myself in a predominantly English-Speaking country I rapidly moved away from my little Latin America. I was always my family’s interpreter. But as I made friends and attended school, English took over as my first language. Eventually Pop culture took its toll on my life and I fell into a world of hanging out, wanting sleepovers or become part of the Girl Scouts and thinking friends were family. Next thing you know, my parents were at a fervent struggle, with me in the middle and Anglo-America on the other side tugging.
However, there was one thing that kept me from losing my identity…one thing my parents never forgot to remind me by doing this one thing….and that is Speaking Spanish. A language in which constantly reminded me where I came from, enforcing all I was taught through that language. And so I ask myself one perplexing question….why are so many families…as I have witnessed…within our own community so reluctant to pass this on to their first generation Latino-American children?
Walking down the street of NYC or riding its trains and buses I sometimes listen to Latino immigrant parents speaking to their children in English and sometimes when their children attempt to speak Spanish they would correct them. I have also met young Latinos who would not speak a word of Spanish nor associate themselves with their culture. Instead they seemed very removed from this part of their identity.
Throughout my Graduate studies I found an answer to this question and much of it has to do with living in a country in which constantly promotes xenophobia. This country was established by immigrants and there has always been an influx of different ethnicities throughout our history. When Irish immigrants migrated to this country, similar animosity was expressed by alleged true Americans in the U.S. They were socio-economically set aside. At one point they co-habited positively with African Americans a group also set aside by American society. Seneca Village and Five Points were two historically recognized neighborhoods in which Irish and African Americans co-habited. However, the Irish had one benefit working to their advantage, their color. Soon, Americans were not able to bear the idea of a white group living with a group of color. They rapidly integrated themselves to American society all the while leaving their culture in an attempt to portray what an American was implied to be.
As many of us have watched documentaries or tuned in to the daily news we see, hear and read about “real Americans” and their anger towards Latino immigrants — “We’re in America, in this country we speak English”…”Why can’t they learn English?!”. Rejection, repugnance, disgust are all expressed through crimes and even policy making on behalf of state governments.
Many immigrant parents feel and see this animosity and thus naturally feel the need to protect their children from hate and anger simply because of where they come from. Many then feel they need to inculcate their children the American way in order to be accepted by society, not realizing they were aiding in burying an important part of their identity.
Seventy-Five Percent of the world does not speaking English. That means English is only a small part of humanity. Everything else is composed of different colors, languages, food, history, politics, religion, etc. And the United States should represent what this country truly is…a country of Immigrants. An example of how humanity can live in harmony regardless of differences.
And as Latinos, we should be a little stronger than that and strengthen our identities through language because it is nevertheless our only enduring door to our rich and beautiful culture that many of us still take pride in.