From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA

I am beginning a new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.

* * *

Esteban and Magdalena at their home in Minnesota

Esteban and Magdalena at their home in Minnesota

Magdalena and Esteban imigrated from Spain to the US.  They have two children, both born in the US.  The children are fluent in Spanish by heritage, and are highly proficient in French, thanks to their French-immersion school.  The family constantly navigates the barriers and opportunities of multiple languages and cultures.  “I don’t belong to one place 100%,” Magdalena said; she stands in-between two worlds.  She and Esteban came too late to be truly bilingual, she said.

Language and cultural barriers

Communication at work can lead to frustration.  Esteban works at a large corporation in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and a lack of native ability in English has held him back.  The mannerisms and the formal language of native limit him from the top levels of management, despite his other qualifications and education.  Magdalena is often told at work, “You are so polite!”  This is not actually the case, she said.  In fact, expressing emotion deeply in English requires careful thought.  When she gets angry, she has to think through what she will say; so her reaction sounds measured and calm.  When she wants to tell a joke, she has to “spend all the time explaining.”  It’s just not funny after that.

Esteban and Magdalena said that it is difficult to become close to Americans because of the language barrier, but also the cultural expectations.  Their friendships at work are “mostly superficial.”  Through the kids’ school, though, they are learning more about US culture.

Finding a home in Latino culture

As a result, most of their friends are native Spanish-speakers, and they have come to identify strongly with the Latino community in the US.  Esteban was surprised at how much living in the US taught him about–and made him fall in love with–the diversity of Latino culture.  At one barbeque at their house, they counted 18 nationalities from all over Latin America.  He loves spending time and speaking Spanish at the Mexican “carnicería” (butcher shop).  They treat him nicely and give him a good deal.

When the couple came to the US, they considered themselves “white”, but now they proudly check their ethnicity on government forms “Latino.”  When I asked Magdalena what her mother would think of that choice of identity, she said, “She would probably ask, ‘Latin? Like Rome?'”  Or maybe her mother would think it was some kind of music, like Salsa.

Love of culture and language

The couple emphasize the importance of cultural education.  Because they have felt the tension of living between two cultures, they want their children to be able to work within a mixed identity, as Spanish and American; “They need to deal with that–like I need to deal with my half/half,” Magdalena said.  As a result, their son and daughter spend every summer, all summer, in Spain with their grandmother.  “It’s not just about the language,” Esteban said.  “It’s about the family relations. Family relations are very important in Spain.”  Also, the parents realize the disadvantage they had in coming to the US without deep, native cultural knowledge; they want their children to have knowledge of both cultures–even if they have never seen 4th of July fireworks.

Culture and language are deeply connected for Esteban and Magdalena.  I asked about their decision to send their kids to a French immersion school.  Why French school?  Would they have sent them to a Chinese immersion school if one had been close by?  “No,” said Esteban.  The new American interest in Chinese, he feels, is driven by economics, not culture.  “What is the point of learning a language if not for culture behind the language?” he asked.  “Language for me now not just a means for communication but means for amusement, enjoyment.”

Presuppositions challenged

Living in the US for this long, Magdalena often repeated how people are all the same.  The culture in the US was not how she had imagined.  She was concerned about sending her children to public school, that they would be taught a militant nationalism, singing “national hymns.”  She was pleasantly surprised to meet people that she was comfortable with.

When she goes back to Spain, she sees how many people look down on the poorer South Americans.  She identifies with the South Americans for their own sake, since so many of their friends are from South America.  Moreover, she sees them as immigrants like herself.  Most importantly she learned to “accept people how they are.”

What has navigating two cultures taught you?  How have you taught/will you teach your children as a result?

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10 comments
  1. Great start to a promising new series :) Can’t wait for the next installment!

  2. This is a very interesting post. I think families around the whole world make similar experiences as this family. It surely depends on the social context those families live; in a strictly monolingual and mainly monocultural context bilingual families will feel much more alienated. – I grew up in Italy and when we visited family in Germany, people often did look down on us because they thought we were emigrants in “poor” Italy (many Italians did emigrate to Germany in the late 50ies and 60ies to find a job). I never felt this way and probably never will. But I was sad “my” Italy was judged so poorly. – I’m looking forward to the next post in this very promising series!

  3. Jonathan said:

    I loved reading this and the way you told Magdalena and Esteban’s story. I think that being comfortable with where you are and who you are is more important than having a clear sense of belonging to a single specific place. I often hear people say that they’re half one nationality or a quarter something else, but I always find it hard to know how it’s possible to be so precise. Is it about where you were born, where your family is from, where you’ve lived and for how long, where you identify or some other combination or all these or even lots of other factors? I’m from Scotland, my parents are Irish and I’ve lived in Wales for just over six years. Wales now feels like home to me. I think it’s really important to explore how notions of identity can often be quite fluid and it looks like this series will play a role in this sort of process.

    • Thanks for your wonderful insights. One quote from Magdalena that I left out was “home is where your memories are”. When you have memories in more than one place, you have more than one home. For Americans this is hard because we move so much and so far.

      What sort of associations do you have with Scotland–from living there–and Ireland–from your family relations?

      • Jonathan said:

        I guess that I still have a family tie with Scotland as my parents live there, despite the fact that neither of them is Scottish and the fact that they’re the only relatives I have there. I also feel sentimentally attached to Scotland as I was born there and lived there until I as 18 (…apart from a year in California when I was pre-school age).

        I lived in Leeds (England) for six years while I was a student and also spent three years living in France before coming to Wales in 2007. The upshot of all this is that I wouldn’t say that any out of Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland or France feel like foreign countries to me. It’ll be fun to see where our six month old son identifies with. My wife is English so this, allied to where our parents are from, means that he’d be eligible to play football for Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

  4. It looks like this series will be fabulous. I really appreciated this post. My husband’s mother was from the Dominican Republic and his father has a French-Canadian background, while I grew up in a typical white middle-class family in Texas, so our family and boys are such a mix. We balance language and cultural diversity daily. My husband and I also recently made a multi-award winning film about immigration, which has connected us with many Latino events and communities and we have enjoyed experiencing the rich diversity of the Latino-American community.

    • Thank you for your kind words. It sounds like your family vs been navigating these worlds for generations. What sort of practical issues have you run into?

      I would love to hear more about your film. I hope it’s obvious that I find immigration and identity to be fascinating.

  5. Mike said:

    Pretty cool! I’m curious how difficult it was to communicate in Spanish between Magdalena and Esteban and their South American friends.

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