Watered down Hispanics?

I am born of a Mexican mother and a Peruvian father, both first generation immigrants to the United States in the early 70’s.

Watered down Hispanics?

That’s me as a baby dressed in typical Peruvian attire.

My parents met and fell in love in California. When they decided to get married, my father told my mom they had three options. (1.) Return to her native Mexicali, (2.) return to his homeland in Lima, Peru or (3.) build a new life in California. Without hesitation and with no regards to the fact that she hardly spoke a word of English, my mom chose the latter option. Nevermind that she had spent the first weeks of her stay in California bathing her pillow nightly in tears. The homesickness had subsided, she had found a new home in her new companion husband and she saw in America a land of opportunity that would allow them to build a home and family…

I must have been a honeymoon baby because exactly 9 months following their April 14, 1972 wedding, my mom was holding her firstborn daughter Maria in her arms in a maternity ward in Gardena, California on January 10, 1973. Of course, my Abuelita Maria of Mexicali, Baja California rushed across the border in a Greyhound bus to be able to hold her sweet new grand-daughter (me!).

Watered down Hispanics? | Trilingual Mama

Here I am pictured with my Abuelita Maria from Mexico and my parents.

I can only imagine that my parents were very in love and deeply happy with the presence of a child in their home because that very same year my brother Fred was born on December 9th – we are just 11 months apart! Roberta, Mike, Melody, Sergio and Andrew followed in perfect succession! Seven of us in all! A large typically Hispanic family, but a bit of an oddity in our North American surroundings…
Watered down Hispanics? | Trilingual Mama

Can you believe how calm my parents both look with seven kids?!

So here we were, the products of a Mexican mother and a Peruvian father, born and raised in California. Hispanic hybrids and raised in a culture that was worlds away from what my parents had known growing up.

Now although my mom did learn English (and all on her own without having ever followed a single course!), the early years were filled mostly with Spanish and I still have memories of a time when I spoke only Spanish and only dreamt of speaking the wonderfully mysterious English! Indeed, although we lived on U.S. soil, the cultural context of our early formative years must have ressembled a conglomerate Latin America more than the United States!

Watered down Hispanics? | Trilingual Mama

Here I am celebrating my first birthday with my mom and a lot of brown-skinned, dark-haired Latinos.

But that English language would intrigue and call to us, like a new friend entreating us to join the in-group. My brother Fred and I would speak gibberish to each other in eager hopes that our mouths would finally cough out that English we so longed to speak! And once we did, we loved so much the feel of our new American English with its high-pitched syllables and nasaly tones that we would lay down our Latino robes in hopes to forget them, in hopes that immersing ourselves in this hip new language would allow us to be just like the other American kids at school. The shameful stigma associated with Mexicans in California would push us to shun the truth at the roots of our heritage and embrace English with ever-more force. My parents would speak to us in Spanish and we would respond in English.
The years would pass, my parents became more assimilated into their new country and culture and their English progressed. Although Fred and I spoke our first words in Spanish, our five siblings would speak theirs in English. With stubborn resolve all seven of us would respond to our parents’ Spanish in English. And our parents continued to lovingly perpetuate their language and culture by speaking to us in Spanish. But little by little, English would creep in and finally take the upper-hand. Today my parents speak mostly English with all of their children and grand-children, although it is often interspersed with vibrant, warm tones of Spanish (and gratefully so!).
Watered down Hispanics? | Trilingual Mama

My seventh birthday party à l’américaine with Caucasian & Latin American friends. No piñata here, only Happy Meals & Ronald McDonald.

So what became of our Hispanic culture? It slowly evolved… Hamburgers and pizzas would replace the tripe and hominy menudo, although carne asada remained a strict staple of our diet. Arroz chaufa, pollo verde and an occasional papa a la huancaina would remind us we were part Peruvian, but didn’t prevent us from demanding we eat at Metonta’s (that’s how Fred and I would pronounce McDonald’s when we were really little). Abuelita Maria would visit from Mexicali and we would eat her deliciously soft homemade tortillas hot off the comal with a generous dab of butter, but Twinkies and Ding Dongs would also climb in rank on our multi-cultural palates. (By the by, I never have eaten a tortilla that quite equaled the homemade goodness of my Abuelita’s…)

My parents did all they could to preserve their respective cultures, but also to help us blend in. Bless my mom’s heart, how could she have known as she packed our sack lunches that our aluminum-foil-wrapped bean burritos would earn us mocks and snobbish stares from our bologna sandwich endowed contemporaries?

Our new American culture dictated the absolute necessity of a bed and a bedroom for each child (which we had), but it was not uncommon to find all of us children huddled on the floor, sleeping on blankets and pillows around Mom and Dad’s bed, vestiges of humbler times in a not-so-distant culture. Nightly vigils during the Mexican posada were promptly replaced by the presents Santa left under the tree on Christmas Eve, but our Mom would labor for hours to make sure dozens of homemade tamales in corn husks were served side-by-side our Christmas turkey and ham. A rug made of llama skins adorning the wall above our American sofa and a Peruvian Tumi sitting in my Mom’s fancy china cabinet, sat as silent yet bold evidences of my father’s South American heritage.

And once my parents’ immigration papers were all in order, all seven of us siblings would pile into the back of my Dad’s Ford truck with a camper shell, to make the four hour drive from Rancho Cucamonga in Southern California to Mexicali, Baja California right across the border into Mexico. We would cross the border with gleeful delight and visit Abuelita Maria, Abuelito Nico and our Mexican aunts and uncles and cousins. Never mind that our Spanish was terrible, we could understand enough to play with our cousins and it never stopped us from enjoying churritos con chile y limon or our favorite spicy tamarind candy – the vintage Pelon Pelo Rico!

But ask me about Mexican history and I’ll tell you I celebrated Cinco de Mayo every May 5th in California without a clue of its historical significance (or insignificance for Mexico) and with absolute disregard for the Grito de Dolores on September 16, the true Mexican Independence Day. And ask me if I’ve visited the ancient Incan ruins of my dad’s beloved Peru and I will sadly tell you I’ve yet to see Machu Pichu and the sacred land of his heritage. If you want me to tell you about Mexico or Peru, their geography, their politics, their regional accents and typical foods, I’m afraid that for the time being, I can do little more than disappoint! (Note to self: I must read more books. I must travel.)

Today in my hometown of Magny-les-Hameaux I have friends who are Mexican (Cyntia and Zitlaly). Increase the geographical circumference (beyond my little hometown) and you’ll find that France is filled with Hispanic citizens like Itzel & Daniel with their children Denise and Iban, but also Jessica, Pierina, Jakeline and so many more! To each I am drawn by a special je ne sais quoi, a powerful undercurrent of cultural commonality and yet I realize that by my American upbringing we are also worlds apart!

Growing up in California, I had such trouble fitting in. Always feeling like the odd one, never able to fully grasp all the cultural codes of my mother land! Set apart by my cultural heritage that I would in time learn to appreciate, in my formative years I always felt it created an impossible abyss of difference with my American contemporaries. Time and special experiences would allow me to become fluent in Spanish and proud of my rich heritage, but today I find myself in a much different place! I married a Frenchman and we are raising our four trilingual children in France!

When I look at my four children, I am awestruck that they are 1/2 French, but nonetheless amazed that they also share my American nationality and my Mexican and Peruvian ethnicity! They’ve got blood running through their veins that is French, Mexican and Peruvian! And yes, they speak Spanish, but sometimes I wonder… Will taco night and watching the Disney telenovela Violetta suffice to make them Hispanic by culture? Watered down Hispanics, what do you think?

And yet, just like me, my children feel this special je ne sais quoi, this cultural undercurrent that draws them to Latinos and to so many things Hispanic: like tacos and Violetta the teen star, but also a keen interest in the geography of Central and South America, an affinity for the language by my girls, an eager desire to eat the hottest chili peppers on the planet (that would be my eldest son), and above all a special love for their Abuelita from Mexico and their Abuelito from Peru!

Are my children watered-down Hispanics? Is the blood that runs in their veins enough to make them Hispanics? And what remains of the Hispanic culture in their upbringing today?  Is it worth it to continue? 100% YES, I say! Watered down or not, I cannot let this Hispanic heritage die! Up to me to do my research and to make their Hispanic Heritage a little bit more a part of their everyday lives.

P.S. Yesterday was Cinco de Mayo and in honor of, I made a huge pot of pinto beans in my crock pot that we ate with carne asada, avocados and tortilla chips. And I told my children about how proud they should be of their heritage (French, Peruvian, Mexican and American) and I explained to them why Cinco de Mayo is truly an important day for us. I didn’t get it before, but the little blurb by Sasha Martin in her article about Mexican grilled pizza, helped it click for me. (It’s about a third of the way down the page in a section entitled What’s the story with Cinco de Mayo?) Go read it! And while you’re at it, go drool over her pictures of Tlayuda – a real Mexican pizza!

Note: This post first appeared on Busy as a Bee in Paris. I am reposting it here for the May issue of the Multicultural Kid Blogs blogging carnival. The theme is "Where are you from?" and will be hosted by Stephen at Head of the Heard. (I will include the link as soon as the carnival goes live.)

15 Responses

  1. Marie-Chantal says:

    Very interesting article Maria. Thanks for sharing. I know you a little better now :)

  2. Tu es courageuse d’avoir tout lu! Merci chère amie! Bisous xo

  3. IrisM says:

    Loved this post! Your family is beautiful Maria! Que ce soit celle dans laquelle tu as grandi, ou celle que tu as maintenant :)
    xo IRis

  4. Gina says:

    Love your post Maria. I absolutely related to a lot of your experiences and thoughts on being an American Latina. As individuals, our personal experiences are uniquely our own. However, as a human being, common experiences unite us in hopes of finding not only empathy, but understanding.
    As a young person, it’s rare to have full self-awareness because you’re trying to figure out just who that “self” is. As a result, it is all too common to fall prey to a “group mentality” because, let’s face it, adolescence is all about survival. As you mentioned in your post, standing out to be ridiculed (the burrito vs. bologna sandwich) is not a desirable position and you would do almost anything to avoid it.
    Hindsight, as they say is 20/20. I wish that I would have taken advantage of my maternal grandmother’s wisdom and talents while she was here because I can’t crochet and I have yet to taste a chicken mole that comes remotely close to how delicious hers was. I am grateful that because she never made a concerted effort to learn English, my siblings and I always understood and were able to speak some form of Spanish (Spanglish!). Thankfully, I had the blessing to really reconnect with my mother tongue (I lived in Lima, Peru with my parents when I was learning to talk) and can speak, read and write it fluently.
    An interesting experience I had was that although the world at large probably saw me as a Latina, among my peers that were first generation immigrants, I wasn’t Latina enough because; I was pursuing a formal education, I fully embraced American pop-culture (which of course included speaking mainly English and Spanish only when necessary) and I am fair-skinned. That school of thought always baffled me because I knew that I wasn’t like my “white American” classmates (and I use “white” because there are waaayyy too many Euro-Anglican ethnicities to cover, I do know that “white” denotes race and not ethnicity), and yet according to some of my fellow Latino contemporaries, I wasn’t like them either. To say that I suffered through an identity crisis at some point in my formative years might be an understatement. That is why I personally identify with my nationality, and most especially state (CALIFORNIA!) residency more than anything else because such a multi-cultural experience and upbringing I feel is unique to where I was born and raised.
    I fully embrace all that has made me who I am, Peruvian father, Mexican-American mother (she was raised in the States since the age of six and my Spanish is a lot better than hers) my international extended family, (Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Spain) my international travels, (Guatemala, Spain, France and Peru- yes I’ve explored Machu Picchu, navigated Lake Titicaca and consumed anticucchos from a street vendor) and the amazing cultural and racial diversity of California. I love the diversity and know I would miss it because I experienced a more homogeneous environment on a cross-country road trip. I was really feeling the difference traveling through Wyoming and told my mom (my traveling companion): “I’m tired of being a minority, I want to be home!” We laughed about it, but I was being serious! I would feel unsettled if such an environment were constant. Not that we were at all mistreated or feared for our safety, it just wasn’t what I have taken to be the “norm”. My sister told me that a friend of hers had traveled to a small town in Michigan or Illinois for work and he said that he had an uneasy feeling he couldn’t make sense of. Then it hit him. Everyone was white (well, the overwhelming majority). The interesting part is that HE is also white! Weird, right? Needless to say, he didn’t accept the job offer.
    I could go on about how my nephews and nieces are being raised- but that would take another ten or so paragraphs…. But they know their heritage and some embrace it, and others not so much. The interesting part is that I don’t think it’s because of “shame”, but more to do with exposure and the efforts, or lack thereof, made by their parents. Who knows what the future holds….
    Keep up the great posts and insights!

    • Beautifully said Gina! AND I learned a few things about you and your family that I didn’t fully realize before (about your mom’s background especially!). And I love what you say about being able to go on and on about your nieces and nephews because that is exactly the intersection that fascinates me! When two cultures marry and produce children, what is the culture of the children? One day we’ll meet up in Sacramento and talk for hours on the subject! 😉 Thanks Gina for your insightful comments. -Maria

  5. jelenapg says:

    Lovely post. Raising third culture children myself, I often wonder how much my children would feel the connection and sense of belonging to my culture and when (if?) the time will come that they refuse to speak my mother tongue to me. Hopefully, having a very close relationship with my sister and her having children close in age to my own should help.
    And your parent do look super relaxed in that photo, amazing with seven small children!

    • Thanks! I agree, close family, especially cousins can make all the difference in keeping a language and a culture alive! When we travel to the United States, my children are especially grateful to speak English and when we come home to France, their happy memories are filled with bits and pieces of life over there! This makes me happier than they’ll ever know!

  6. MsXpat says:

    Lovely post such found memories. You caught me for a moment my heart leaped when I saw Menudo. I thought yo meant the 80s pop group from Puerto Rico :0) I loved them so much.

  7. Maria what a fantastic post, thank you so much for joining in with “my expat family”. What a wonderful heritage your children have, and how amazing that even living in France they still have that draw to their roots. You’re parents made such a brave and strong decision to stay in California for you and your brother and sisters (and wow there are lots of you so that is a lot of love!!)

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