One of the greatest gifts I received from my father is being fully bilingual and bicultural. I am very aware that many Latinos in this country do not enjoy such an advantage. As immigrants, their parents were discriminated against if they spoke Spanish. In order to assimilate, they had to not only learn English (fair enough) but also do their best to forget their mother tongue and certainly not pass it on to their children, so they wouldn’t suffer the same prejudice.
My father immigrated to the U.S. when he was 16 and spoke little English, a language which he had taught himself to speak. He attended college in Pennsylvania, and obtained a B.A, an M.A and by the time he was 25, a Ph.D. He then became a college professor. His English was, and still is, so good that nobody would have guessed it wasn’t always his first language.
But he never forgot his Spanish. He furthered his education in both languages and became bilingual. And when he had children, he was obsessed with us being bilingual as well. When we lived in Pittsburgh when I was a kid, he spoke to me in Spanish and my American mother spoke to me in English. I learned to speak, read and write in both. So did my sister.
When my parents divorced and my sister and I moved to Spain with our father, he still made it a priority to make us bilingual. One day, he told us that we would only speak English as a family, since Spanish was all around us and he worried that we would lose our English abilities. From that day on, we haven´t shared a word in Spanish. He also worked very hard to send us to an international school, where I studied in both languages.
As a result, I am just as comfortable in Spanish as in English and I speak, read and write both fluently. I made a good living as a simultaneous and consecutive translator for many years. The fact that I knew more than one culture well has also been and still is, an invaluable asset.
I realize I’m privileged. Not everyone has a parent who is so adamant about making their children bilingual and bicultural, no matter what. I admit to feeling extremely challenged when it comes to raising my own children in the same manner. Also, my children don’t have the opportunity of attending a bilingual school, even if I could afford it, because there just aren’t any where we live.
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Now that we are kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month, I am reminded of the importance of keeping our culture alive and well in our homes. One thing that I did not enjoy when I was a child is pride in my heritage. Back then it was not so well accepted to be “different” or part of a minority. I want things to be better for my girls.
My daughters are not (yet, I hope) fully bilingual. This is something that weighs on me heavily. I mostly address them in Spanish. My eldest understands more Spanish than she can speak, and the youngest is even less proficient. Although they don´t yet master both languages equally, they are very proud of who they are.
Their heritage includes Spain, Argentina, Sweden, Hungary, England, the U.S and perhaps some other country. They are proud of that. We talk about it often. My eldest, now 11, writes about her travels and her foreign family for class assignments. She is always planning the next trip to visit her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
At home we cook Spanish and Mexican dishes (courtesy of my significant other who has roots in Mexico), we read books in Spanish, and we observe Hispanic holidays that pertain to our other countries and listen and dance to Latin music. We do this all the time, but it becomes even more important at this time of the year.
For me, Hispanic Heritage month is not so much an opportunity to teach my kids about their heritage, but to make others who don’t share our background aware of it. People fear what they don´t know, and if they get to know us better, they will hopefully come to embrace our diversity as much as we do.