Introducing Our Contributors: Elsie

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Photo by violet tintype

Photo by violet tintype

We are thrilled to be introducing you to our five regular contributors. As we mentioned on Monday, each one brings a different perspective on raising bilingual and bicultural children. We have already introduced Chelsea, a single mom who’s raising her son bilingual (English/Spanish) even when Spanish is not her native language. On Tuesday, you met Susan, a mother of two who is raising her son trilingual (English/Spanish/German) and has tons of ideas on how to do it.

Today, we’d like you to welcome Elsie who is hoping her daughter – whom she is raising bilingual and multicultural – will one day identify as Latina. Bienvenida to our family!

Elsie Rivas Gomez is a mother, wife, teacher, and writer living in Pasadena, CA.  She was born in El Salvador and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her first collection of poetry, Swimming in El Rio Sumpul, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her blogging over at MamaFeminista

Lengua Torcida: Mothering in Broken Spanish

I have been called a “coconut,” and while I didn’t like it, it wasn’t entirely untrue. I was born in El Salvador in 1979, and immigrated to California with my family in 1980. I then proceeded to have a very typical Californian childhood, filled with sunshine, bad television, and English. Sure, at home my Abuelita and Papi spoke to me en español, but my mom, who spent her days working as a secretary, and siblings (all five of them) mostly spoke to me in English. I grew up eating platanos y pupusas, but also hamburgers and fries. By middle school, Spanish was my language of last resort.

Like so many Latinos, I want to give my daughter the gift of Spanish, so that she may communicate, love, and dream in Spanish. I want the doors of linguistic opportunity and imagination to be wide open for her, and for a couple of very assimilated parents, this a challenging adventure.

In my daughter’s mind, we have a “doggie,” drink “agua,” give “besitos” and when her daddy says “love you,” she replies “amo.” Culturally, we are kind of a mess around here, but it’s a good mess: My daughter is half Salvadoreña, a quarter Mexican, and a quarter Anglo, with a bit of Native American in there somewhere. I hope that she will identify as Latina, like I do, but my own mother identifies as Salvadoreña, and wanted me to do the same. Even though she is mine, she is also her own and the identity she chooses for herself will ultimately be up to her. Perhaps it’s unrealistic of me to expect her to identify as Latina, when I am raising her in a very multicultural community, whose major influences, at least among our close friends, is not predominantly Latino.

We do have large families, and they are rich sources of Spanish and Latino culture, but most of our relatives live hours, or days away. We are in rooms filled with Spanish sounds only occasionally. Our friends and closest relatives, are Colombian and Salvadoran, but also Korean, Black, Anglo, Armenian, etc. Los Angeles is a treasure trove of Latino cultural events, art exhibits, and Latino community. However, at many of these events and exhibits, what we hear most is English! And while we do patronize our local pupuseria, we don’t live in Latino neighborhoods with Spanish-filled streets. Los Angeles is a wonderful mix of all cultures, and while the majority is Latino, in downtown, and in most of the suburbs, what you’ll find there is that mix—of all races. Yes, there are pockets of Los Angeles where all you hear is Spanish, but we don’t live there, and a visit doesn’t constitute a way of life.

So we try our best, which is not very good, to be honest. While I may technically be “fluent,” as my husband likes announce, I am not versatile, easy, or natural in Spanish. My vocabulary is limited to domestic situations, which are okay for now—our days are still spent playing with toys and learning the basic words and names for things. But I wouldn’t be able to explain to our mechanic a problem with our car, or communicate about health or science, because I just don’t have the vocabulary. Sure, if I think about it, look it up, or call my mom, I get it pretty quickly, but I am far more competent in English. My husband speaks maybe just enough Spanish to get through a basic situation, but can’t really have a conversation, so it’s on me.

I speak to her in my flawed Spanish; I catch myself mispronouncing words, speaking in Spanglish, instead of “real” Spanish, and just hope that this will have some of the intended benefit. I keep trying because even though my language is flawed I have those sounds inside me. I can roll my r’s, engage in conversation with other Spanish speakers, and I can sing as well as dance to Spanish music. I want these to be sounds that she finds comforting and welcoming, not alien or strange.

I am an imperfect teacher of Latinidad and español, but perhaps my intentions will make up for my ability. I will keep speaking my broken spanish, watching telenovelas, and reading in Spanish to try and fill the gaps in my tongue, and I will keep saying the most important words I know–“te amo”–in Spanish.

It’s possible that these issues of language and culture will matter very little to her, that her culture will simply be American, including bits of many cultures. Even at one and a half, she already likes sushi as much as burritos; she’s indifferent to pupusas, but loves bool kogi; and will dance to any music with a good beat. I hope that she will grow up feeling proud of her roots, and that I will understand when she chooses to branch out in directions I might not have expected.


We are so excited to be welcoming all our five contributors and can’t wait to keep sharing their regular posts with you! We have so many new things planned for this second year…one of the biggest ones is our new look which we will reveal muy pronto!

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