Bilingual is Better

photo by Sidi Guariach

I struggled a lot in writing this post. Not because it was difficult really, but because this is my husband’s story and it’s one that I don’t take lightly. I really wanted to do justice to the challenges that he’s faced, and ones that we are now facing as a family. I know that we all have different stories to tell and I believe that we all need to be heard. With that in mind, I want to share part of our journey with families who might be facing similar challenges.

My husband was raised in Laredo, a small border town in south Texas. At the age of 13, his family packed up all their belongings and decided to make a life in Michigan, where his father was born. They moved there looking for a better life, but what they found was an unimaginable culture shock and a world so very different from anything they had known.

Previously, my hubby had grown up in a land of Catholics and Tejanos. But, living in Michigan, he was suddenly aware that he couldn’t identify in the same way anymore. His parents, cousins…his whole family was Mexican, so there was no need to point it out. But now, being the minority, he heard labels like “Mexican”, “Latino” and “Hispanic” often. They were forced upon him along with various slurs about his less than acceptable heritage. It seemed he couldn’t escape being reminded that he was different, an outsider, “Mexican”. In Texas, he’d only identified as “Ricardo” or “Riqui”, but when his family arrived in Michigan, he was pushed to change his name to “Rick” or “Richard”. His father insisted that they study more English and get rid of their Spanish accents, in an effort to fit in with the more assimilated families…the more “white” families.

My husband began to loath living in the north and questioned his parents often about when they would return to Laredo. He grew to hate his new name, “Rick” and fiercely defended his right to be called by his birth name, “Ricardo”. On several occasions, he’s recounted to me how his grandmother in Michigan, a mexicana born south of the border, refused to call him by his name, the one that he’d known and come to identify with for so many years. He would get so upset that he would hang up the phone on her or refuse to visit with her if she wouldn’t address him in Spanish. It was like a slap in the face to him. Here he was, unaccepted by so many in this strange place, and even his familia made him feel like an outsider, like a “no good, dirty Mexican.”

I’m sure it was disheartening enough coming to a place where you were ridiculed for being “Mexican” and chased down empty streets by Aryan nationals spouting racial slurs. I can’t imagine having to go home and be renounced by your own father, uncles and grandparents for “acting too Mexican.”

Growing up between the two communities wasn’t easy. Over the next 20 some years, my husband struggled with balancing his identity. He struggled to fit in and get along. But his forced assimilation by his father left him barely speaking Spanish and isolated from the Hispanic community. He was too gringo to fit in with most Latinos and too Mexican to fit in with mainstream America. This left him in an odd place and it was difficult for him to relate to individuals on either side of the divide. Over time, he has come to realize that being Mexican is a source of pride. He’s learned his history, found his roots and allowed himself to let go of the stereotypes and just be Ricardo.

As a family, we’re facing another challenge together; how to raise a confident, bilingual, Latina daughter. Sounds easy, right? I mean, he is Latino after all…he has that in his favor. But how do you teach your child Spanish when you’re not fluent yourself? How do you include Mexican heritage in your daily life when you’ve missed out on so much of it? How do you raise your daughter to be confident and shake off criticism when you struggle with it so much yourself?

We take it day by day, practice our Spanish frequently, do plenty of online research into our history, attend every cultural event within traveling range, cook a variety of Mexican dishes, crank the Latin jams and meet up with other Latino parents who have similar concerns.

We give each other support and we look to others for understanding. Even with all that we have done to take part in our heritage and create our family identity, we still can’t help but wonder, “Will it be enough to instill in her a sense of belonging and a confidence about who she is?” Only time will tell.

Chantilly Patiño lives in the Midwest and loves to explore new cultures and relationships. As well as being the founder of MulticulturalFamilia.com, she writes on her personal blog, BiculturalMom.com, about diversity, discrimination, parenting, relationships, and other important topics relevant to ‘bicultural’ families.

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