In Just One Generation, So Much Can Change…

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Photo by al-Taqi

Photo by al-Taqi

The following is a guest post from Angélica Pérez.

I remember growing up in a very cultural, Latino home.  We spoke  only in Spanish; we listened, sang and danced only Spanish music; watched Spanish-speaking television networks; had primarily Spanish-speaking friends; lived in a Dominican neighborhood; and enjoyed a Latino existence.

I remember early Saturday mornings — designated by the women in my family as “deep cleaning days.”  Armed with broom, mop, a Mr. Clean bottle, Windex and cleaning rags, we would dust away at the beat of the melodic songs of Julio Iglesias.

Hugging our heavy wooden brooms, we took half-minute breaks to dance the latest fast-paced merengues, and then got back to scraping metal pots (shiny pots were a symbol of cleanliness and good housekeeping).

Throughout the day, our door bell would ring (a looong ding dong sound), with friends, neighbors and family members parading through our home, unannounced.

The sun would shine through our fifth floor window, while louder music, coming from outside, would compete with our record player sound system.

By late afternoon, my mom would begin defrosting the pound of red beans she had boiled from scratch for hours (using beans from a can is totally sacrilegious to mom) and season the steak, so it could sit for a couple of hours before cooking.

Oh, the smell of oregano, cooked garlic and red onions in olive oil, and Adobo Goya…

Today, at our home…

Our children speak only in English; listen and sing to English songs on their iPods; watch only English-speaking television networks; have primarily English-speaking friends; live in a predominantly white, suburban neighborhood; and live an American existence.

This is why I treasure the times when we are invited to abuela’s apartment back in the city, for dinner.  They know abuela reserves her limited English to her coffee-shop clientele — she owns a really, really small coffee shop in midtown Manhattan.

They know that she’ll be blasting the popular Sábado Gigante show, with no chance of changing that channel to Nickelodeon or another English-speaking channel.

They know abuela will only speak to them in Spanish, hug them so tightly and kiss them so loudly, that they’d have no choice in the matter.  They expect dinner to be some type of rice and beans, either cooked separately or together, with a sizable portion of some tasty meat.

Do I feel guilty about this tremendous cultural dichotomy?  Do I feel bad that my children do not speak fluent Spanish?  The answer is a resounding YES!

So I ask myself why have I done nothing about this?  At the very least, why have I not made it a priority to teach them Spanish?  Here’s my  list of excuses:

•    Whenever I try to speak in Spanish to them, they go “ha?” and give me a please-don’t-go-there look.
•    It’s too late to start now.
•    I’m too tired to say things twice (Spanish, then English)
•    They’ll learn later in school
•    It’s too much work to fight this language battle.
•    It’s too much work because, unfortunately, English has become a bit easier than Spanish, for me.  (Wow…that’s really sad…)
•    I’m too tired — did I say that already?

The decision to make Spanish a part of our daily lives…

Yesterday, Saturday morning, as I was cooking pancakes, I excitedly announced to Carlos, my 9-year old, that “starting today, I am going to speak to you guys in Spanish.”
Immediately, Carlos turned around to assess the seriousness of this out of left field announcement.  When he noticed no evidence of humor, he almost collapsed on the floor — “No! Mami…please…”  His eyes began to swell with tears, as he covered his head with his arms.

In vain, I tried to explain to him why.  I told him about the fact that we are both Latinos and American.  I told him about the many job offers he’ll have as a bilingual professional.  I even told him that some day in his adult life, the number of Latinos in this country will triple.

Nothing resonated.  He could care less.  All he said was “You’re not going to feel like my mom…”  And with that profound comment, I sadly realized that I had robbed my son of his “real” mother, all of these years.  I had been hiding behind one part of myself — my Americanized self.

Taking on the challenge to speak Spanish at home…

Today is day #2 of bringing Spanish home.  I will admit that by late afternoon and early evening, I had forgotten about my commitment and promise to speak more Spanish.  Luckily, we had a family gathering at abuela’s apartment last night, so the kids got their dose of Spanish everything.

Tips on introducing Spanish into your daily life at home:

For those of you who would like to take on the challenge of incorporating Spanish into your daily life at home, allow me to give you a couple of suggestions (to spare you of my mistakes, thus far):

•    Prepare the kids ahead of time.
•    Ease in the idea of speaking more Spanish.    Instead of a dramatic change (like I did), take turtle steps.
•    Begin by tuning in to Spanish television shows, listening to Spanish radio stations or downloading current hip songs in Spanish.  You are bound to find a cross-over artist that your children recognize and/or like.
•    Engage in more cultural events:  museums that celebrates our culture (e.g, El Museo del Barrio in NYC), concerts in Spanish, or fun places in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
•    Start with a weekly Spanish Night at home:  enlist your children’s help in cooking a delicious meal you enjoyed growing up; speak in Spanish during dinner; listen to Spanish music while cooking or doing homework; and end the night watching a favorite Spanish television program.
•    Use command words (“come here;” “pass me that”…) and simple questions (“what happened?”) in Spanish.
•    Use lots of non-verbal behaviors, pointing and facial expressions while speaking in Spanish.
•    Don’t make it academic.  Speaking Spanish at home should be presented and experienced as a fun experience.
•    Have more gatherings with extended family members or host more family parties at home.
•    If your child is into baseball (or other sports), point out all the Spanish-speaking baseball players and borrow books from the library about their lives and their personal journey.
•    If you have young children (babies, toddlers), read to them in Spanish and definitely speak to them in Spanish now, before it becomes more difficult to introduce the language.

Do you have any other suggestions?  Any other thoughts, comments or experience with this issue?

Angélica Pérez, PhD

Angélica Pérez, PhD

Angélica María Pérez, PhD is a Latina psychologist in private practice and blogger. The oldest daughter of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Angélica Pérez was born and raised in Washington Heights, New York City.  She has dedicated her career to helping women feel good about themselves, and live happier, more empowered lives.  Her blog, Salón Angélica is a blog spa dedicated to women who are super busy taking care of work, career and others (but themselves).  As a recovering super busy, career-oriented woman herself, she is still learning how to slow down, relax and live a more “me” conscious life.  She lives in New York with her husband and 4 children. You can also follow her inspiring insights via Twitter.

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