I’m not sure at what moment it hit me, but this summer I was determined to take my three kids, ages 9, 6, and 5 abroad for a cultural immersion experience. I wasn’t sure where we were going yet, I only knew that I wanted to be immersed in either the French or Spanish language and culture.
Why did I want to do this? Well, 34 years ago I was born in Mexico City, Mexico, to a Mexican mother and a Haitian father. We left Mexico for Haiti when I was still a baby. Around the age of 3, we moved to New York City and have been in the States since then. While I grew up listening to Selena, eating mole on special occasions, and hearing my parents speak Spanish at home, my brother and I spoke only English. My parents wanted us to help them learn English so we focused on learning English and eventually forgot how to speak Spanish and French. Even though we spoke English with my parents, my parents taught us about the Mexican and Haitian traditions.
As a bi-cultural mother married to an African-American, I have a big job ahead of me. I have three different cultures to teach my children. Even though I cook food my mother and aunts have taught me to cook, and my iPod has both new and traditional artists from Haiti and Mexico, I knew that something was missing. It wasn’t just that we didn’t speak Spanish at home, it was much more than that. It was the experience of going home and being totally immersed in the culture and the language, smelling the air, touching the soil.
When we were children, my brother and I visited Mexico and Haiti several times. The earliest memory I have was going to Haiti the summer before I entered second grade. One morning, we were in Miami, Florida and by lunch we were in Port au Prince, Haiti. Even though I was only 7, I still have many memories from that trip and our subsequent trips to Mexico. Those trips defined who I was and where I came from. I had a better understanding of my culture and family traditions.
It was this sort of experience that I wanted for my children. After careful planning, we chose Mexico over Haiti. We would spend a few days in Mexico City to visit with family and the rest of our time would be in San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel is a small colonial town located 180 miles north of Mexico City. It is rich in history, culture, and the arts. There is a small population of Americans that live there either full or part-time and, as a result, there are many great bilingual summer programs for international kids. The programs offer cooking classes, crafts and arts, Mexican history, and of course, Spanish.
In preparation for our trip, I checked out a number of different books on Mexico for children. We learned about the history, I showed the kids a map of where we were going, what we would see, and what we would do. I wanted to prepare them as much as possible to eliminate some of their natural fears they had about going away for a month. They were going to miss their friends at home, their rooms, and were scared about not knowing anyone of the language. I was also scared about going, not sure how they would react, whether our rental home would be suitable, or if we would make any friends.
Now, that we are back home, I can say that the experience well exceeded my expectations. We made many friends, we learned more than I could’ve learned in books and videos about Mexico, and the children are now speaking a little Spanish. Sure there were moments where they missed home, missed their daddy (who was only able to stay for a week with us due to work), and wanted to eat “plain food.” My son learned how to make tortillas from scratch, the children made beautiful piñatas, and met other children from Switzerland to California. I have no regrets about our trip and know that I hope to be able to return next summer. We promised our new friends that we would be back, gave kisses to our new teachers, and promised to Skype from America and stay in touch.
*** All images courtesy and copyright Justice Jonesie.