Latino Heritage Month

Today marks the beginning of Latino Heritage Month. In honor of the month long celebration of Latino culture, I am re-posting something I wrote last year.  Well, I am re-cycling the post for that reason, and the fact I am so overwhelmed with life right now that I haven’t had much time to blog.  But, with the weekend in sight, I may be able to put up a new post soon! Thanks for stopping by.

This past month has been a celebration of Latino heritage. Latino Heritage  Month technically runs from September 15 to October 15.  Being Latina is a big part of who I am.  During most of my childhood, I lived in a very diverse community near Los Angeles.  In my neighborhood there were Armenians, Japanese Americans, Anglos, and people who looked like me. It wasn’t until I moved to a predominately white suburb that I was aware that I was different. During my first days in the new school, my new classmates were naturally curious about the “new girl.”  They asked me “what I was.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question because I wasn’t really sure what they were asking, and I had never been asked that question before. I must have looked confused because the follow-up question was, “Are you Hawaiian…Italian… Indian?” Mexican wasn’t even an option.

I responded that I was Mexican, and then they asked if I was born in Mexico.

 Over the years I have been asked that question several more times, although it may not have been phrased the same way.   Depending on the circumstances I answered the questions in varying ways:

“I’m Mexican.”

“I’m Mexican American.”

“I’m Hispanic.”

“I’m  Latina.”

“I’m American, but of Mexican ancestry.”

“I was born in the U.S. but all of my grandparents were born in Mexico.”

Even though I wasn’t always certain what was the best way to answer that question, I still felt certain that I knew who I was and where my family was from. And I felt proud of my heritage.  My parents and family raised me with pride in our heritage, and culture. At family celebrations,  I would watch my mother dance  the Mexican folk dances she had learned as a young girl. 

I learned these dances too. I have had occasion to dance as an adult. 

I am so glad that some of these cultural lessons have been passed on to my children, my step-daughter Erica.

Diego, my youngest son, walked in the Latino Heritage parade last week. He marched with his classmates from his 1st grade Spanish immersion program. He wore the hat typical of his father’s native country, Colombia.

This is what Latino heritage is all about. A celebration of who we are and who are ancestors were. I hope that when my kids are asked the question, “What are you?” They will know how to answer, and they will answer with pride.

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

You have probably heard these lines before, but in case you didn’t read the Cliff Notes along with your assigned high school reading of this scene, Juliet is pining away, after meeting Romeo and learning he’s a Montague. The Montague’s are family rivals to Juliet’s Capulet clan. Juliet muses that although her newly beloved is a  Montague, what matters is who he is, and not what he is called. Ah, love.

We all know this is true. What matters is the person you are and not the name you are given. Unless, of course, you are a young boy with a spanish sounding name, growing up in a largely white, suburban neighborhood, like my husband, Juan Rafael. Or Juan. Or Ralph. Yes, Ralph. He became Ralph when he was in first grade and the nuns at St. Hedwig couldn’t say Juan Rafael.  Now, with a name like St. Hedwig, why the nuns felt compelled to give Juan a more English sounding name is beyond me.

Juan Rafael is a beautiful name, and sounds especially nice when it’s said with a Spanish accent. But, when my husband was growing up in the 70’s  and the nuns at his Catholic elementary school couldn’t pronounce his name, they asked him to for the english equivalent. He told them Juan was John, and Rafael was Ralph. They nuns decided to call him Ralph. He was Ralph all though elementary and high school. Even his Colombian family called him Ralph.  When he got to college Ralph took back his name and became Juan. He also changed his political party, joined MECHA and became active in politics, but that’s another story.

So, when I was pregnant with our child,  and Juan and I learned it was a boy, we began to consider names. We knew we wanted something that would translate to Spanish, but we had a hard time agreeing on anything. Then, we recalled where our son was conceived–in Acapulco, Mexico, during a celebratory wedding weekend for some family friends. The groom was named Diego. Diego. It was perfect. Not too ordinary. No tricky spanish pronunciation, but a name that translated to Spanish. We announced to my family our intention of naming our son the Spanish equivalent of James.  My dad, Jesus, loved the name we’d chosen. My dad, whose name is a popular choice among latinos, and who probably fought his own demons because of his moniker, thought Diego was a perfect choice for his only grandson who would be born of two latino parents. But then again, my father, who has a strong sense of pride in our own Mexican culture, would have been happy if Juan and I named our son after the Aztec ruler, Cuahtemoc. My mother wasn’t too sure of our choice. She asked me, “You’re really going to name him Diego?” Yes, I really am.

When our son was born, he did not look like a “Diego.” He looked like, well, a red, squishy faced, hairy little monkey.  One day I sat down to nurse my little monkey and turned on the TV.  As I  changed channels I came across Nickelodeon TV and I I saw this:

What? A kid’s show with a little brown-skinned explorer boy with jungle animals as his friends, named Diego? The show was “Go Diego Go.” It was kind of cute, but still obnoxious enough that I suddenly began to doubt my choice of moniker for my little monkey. How often would he be teased about his name? Would the theme song follow him onto the school yard and beyond? Luckily, I had been living under a rock and didn’t realize how popular the show was. It was a favorite among the pre-school set. By the time Diego entered pre-school, the name had a certain cache to it. My mother even came around, and told me that Diego’s name suited him perfectly.

I felt very pleased with myself about the name we had chosen. I even celebrated it when I planned his 3rd birthday party with a Go Diego Go theme.

One day, not long after Diego entered kindergarten he came home telling me about the friends he’d made. There was Ben, Ethan, Chris, Matt and a little boy with a biblical name, Oshea. Diego asked me why couldn’t he be named something else. Something more simple. Why couldn’t he be called Ben or, even better, Oshea?  Sigh.

My Father’s Story

This is my father when he was a boy.

He was born in an area near El Paso, Texas, called Smeltertown.  It was called Smeltertown because of the smelt from the nearby mines.  I don’t think the name of the town is very appealing,  but, when I was little I would hear stories of his childhood, and I would think that Smeltertown sounded like a fascinating place.

Sometimes my dad’s childhood stories were tales of his struggles growing up, being raised by his adoptive mother, and his adoptive grandmother. My dad’s mother died when he was just months old.  His mother’s cousin, and her mother, raised him in Smeltertown. They made their living, in part, selling masa to make tortillas.  My dad worked alongside his adoptive mother and grandmother.

My dad's mother, cousin, and aunts.

My father was raised by these two strong, independent women.  They loved him and cared for him, but  were strict disciplinarians with him.  The only male presence, my father’s step-father, was largely absent.  When my dad was a teen they came to California and settled in a pretty rough neighborhood in East Los Angeles.

Dad, circa 1950, Belmont High School, Los Angeles.

He stayed out of trouble and eventually joined the army, which gave him more discipline, and offered him greater opportunity.

Dad in the Panama Canal Zone, 1953

My dad got out of the army and lived the single life, until he met and married my mom. They started their family right away, with three kids born in just over 4 years.  When my dad became a father, he had very little personal exposure to what being a father in a nuclear family looked like. Nowadays, they call that “modeling.”

Family Dinner, circa 1978.

But the lack of “modeling” has not deterred my dad. He learned a lot along the way. We have learned a lot along the way together too. Sometimes the lessons were rough. But, always, we knew he loved us and took care of us. And always, along the way, we have built new memories and created our own stories.

He took us on family vacations.

Family vacation to Vancouver, Canada, circa 1977. (Dad's not pictured because he was the photographer!)

Many times these vacations involved one of his favorite activities, fishing.

Vacation at Mammoth Lakes, California. Circa 1970.

Another Mammoth Lakes vacation.

He sang us songs.

Canciones de mi padre.

He coached my brothers in sports.

He has become a devoted grandfather.

Dad and Nico and Diego all dressed up.

When I was little people would comment how much I looked like my dad. I would cry because I thought they meant I was chubby and had a mustache.

Dad and I at my college graduation, 1986

But, now I understand that they meant we had similar features. Today, I know that my dad and I are similar in ways beyond our physical appearance, and even beyond some of our similar behaviors.  My dad and I share a similar understanding, and appreciation for each other. We have struggled. We are flawed, but we love each other. He is my father. I am his daughter. We are familia.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

The “J” of Spanish

Only two more days before Diego returns to school at his Spanish immersion program. During the winter break we’ve kept busy with holiday festivities, and we’ve had fun playing card games, board games and video games. We’ve also continued to practice his Spanish vocabulary whenever we can.

Diego’s Spanish has improved so much since he started the immersion program last year in kindergarten. He is so proud of himself and continues to remind us how, during a Spanish vocabulary drill on a family car ride,  he came up with the word for “pillows” before his 15 year-old sister, Olivia. Olivia,  who is in a high school Spanish II honors class, does not like to be reminded of that moment she was stumped by her 6 year-old brother.

This morning Diego tried to stump me with his own Spanish challenge.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for pencil?”

Me: Lápiz.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for paper?”

Me: Papel.

D: “How do you say “desk?’

Me: “Escritorio.”

D: “Noooo…It’s PUPITRE!!”

Me: “WHAT? Well, there are two ways to say “desk” in Spanish!”

An argument ensued, where I tried to redeem my Spanish fluency  in front of my little linguist. I lost. Diego offered some words of sympathy and encouragement.

“That’s okay Mommy. You can be the “J” of Spanish.”

What is the “J” of Spanish? I thought of all the Spanish vocabulary words which begin with “J” and could possibly mean, “Beginner,” “Novice,” “Loser.” Diego reminded me that we had been playing War with a deck of cards the other day, and he explained:

Daddy is the King. I am his Bodyguard and you are “J.”

“J?” I am only the Jack? Doesn’t a King need a Queen?

Diego tried to offer me more encouragement, “When you learn more Spanish you can be the Queen.”

Hmmp! I only hope that my Spanish will improve and I will be made Queen.  In the meantime, I may just stick to challenging Diego to games of War instead of Spanish vocab challenges.

Spelling Test and a History Lesson

I mentioned before that Diego is in first grade in a Spanish dual immersion program.  There are several different models for dual language immersion education, but in Diego’s school  the students begin in kindergarten with 90%  of the  curriculum taught in Spanish and 10% in English. The ideal student composition is 50% Spanish dominant speakers, and 50% English dominant speakers.  Every year the ratio of  instruction in Spanish to English is reduced. This year Diego is receiving 80% instruction in Spanish and 20% in English.  By 5th grade, with a 50/50 ratio,  the  students should be fully bilingual and biliterate.  

This is the goal, and that is my hope for Diego.  Over the years I have struggled to become bilingual, to no avail. At best, I am conversant.  On the other hand, my husband Juan’s first language was Spanish.  He learned a lot of English watching Sesame Street.  As Diego becomes more fluent, he and Juan have begun speaking more Spanish around the house.  I try to speak Spanish to Diego too, but my accent is terrible.  Juan sometimes will make fun of my Spanish, saying I speak like a spaniard, with a Castillian lisp.  Hmmm.

This morning, I was drilling Diego on his spelling words, in preparation for his weekly spelling test.  I did this by saying the Spanish spelling word, using  it in a Spanish sentence and Diego then would spell it out loud, using the Spanish alphabet.  I took care to speak each word distinctly so he would hear all the syllables of each word.  Sounding the words out this way should have given him a good spelling hint, since Spanish words sound like they are written, unlike the English language, with its words that sound nothing  like they are spelled.  Words like right, neighbor, enough or receive. 

So, as I drilled Diego for his spelling test, I asked him to spell the word sed. It means thirst. He spelled it correctly aloud in Spanish.  Then I got to the word, hacer. It means do or make.  Diego spelled hacer, h-a-s-e-d.  I told him it was wrong and repeated HACER.  I was very careful to speak distinctly, trying to roll my r’s.  Hacerrrrr. Diego started laughing. Then he told me I was saying the word incorrectly. He began mocking me, speaking like a Spaniard with a Castilian lisp, saying hased, hased, making great fun of his mami!  Hmm.

Later, I told Juan about this and he started cracking up. He told me it reminded him of his own childhood, trying to spell in English.  He recalled when he was 6 years-old and was thrown into english-speaking kindergarten even though Spanish was his dominant language.  He remembered his Spanish-speaking mother quizzing him on spelling words, speaking the words aloud in heavily accented English. Juan remembers becoming  so frustrated trying to decipher the English spelling word that he told his mother, “Shakespeare couldn’t teach you English!” Ouch.

Thankfully, Juan has become fully literate in English, however he still relies heavily on spellcheck.  Nevertheless, from now on, Juan will be doing all the spelling drills for Diego, in Spanish.

Arepas, Tamales, and the Smell of Childhood Memories

The other day I was driving Diego to school and eating a Colombian breakfast to go, an arepa con queso. For those of you who do not know what an arepa is, you have not fully lived. But I must confess, until I met my Colombian husband, I did not know what an arepa was either. It wasn’t until I was invited to Juan’s birthday dinner, prepared by my future suegra, did I learn about the wonderful flavors of a “plato tipico.”  There was chorizo, carne, white rice, frijoles, platanos, patacones, and arepas.  Dinner concluded with coffee, (of course), and the birthday boy’s specially requested homemade apple pie. Because what else do you serve in a Colombian/American house? Ahh..it was wonderful…but I digress.

Anyway, ever since my introduction to the arepa I have had cravings for them. They are kind of like a mexican tortilla, only more so. They are thicker and more flavorful.  Arepas made with roasted corn, called chocolo, are my personal favorite. This type of arepa is especially tasty because of it’s sweet and smoky flavor. Arepas can be eaten at any meal. They are great with breakfast, when spread with butter and served with good-sized chunks of cheese. The white kind of crumbly, mild flavored cheese. The arepa is well-loved in my husband’s family. Here’s a photo from some good times in Colombia, when Juan’s cousins found out how much I loved the arepa. 

I could go on and on about the arepa, as I probably already  have. Can you tell home much I like them? Well, one morning I was driving Diego to school while savoring my chocolo arepa, when Diego exclaimed, “Ewww, what’s that smell?” He then rolled down the car window.

“What smell?” I said, trying, unsuccessfully to catch the arepa and cheese crumbles as they flew out of my mouth.

“Something stinks.”

WHAT? How could he spurn the arepa, especially the sweet-smelling arepa de chocolo? Then I recalled my similar childhood reaction I had to the unfamiliar smell of the masa from homemade tamales. I remember my mother and grandfather preparing tamales in our kitchen and the foreign smell that emanated from the big, white enamel bowl, as they mixed the masa.  My sister and I stayed outside the house on tamale making days, coming inside only if we had to, and then we would only enter if we held our nose. 

However, now that I am an adult and have experienced tamale making with my mother and grandmother, I no longer am repulsed the smell of the masa. In fact, I kind of like the smell. It is no longer a foreign smell to me and it brings back memories of those tamale days.  Plus, I know that once the masa is spread on the corn husks, filled with the meat and red chili, wrapped like tiny Christmas presents, and cooked,  the raw, gritty masa will become fluffy, sweet and light. And delicious. Just like an arepa.

So,  I explained this to Diego, how I didn’t like some smells when I was little, but that he should be open to try all foods, especially foods from our culture. When I explained to him how tamales and arepas are part of his culture, from his Mexican american mother and Colombian  american father, and how delicious arepas con queso are, how did he respond? 

“Well, Mommy, I guess I am not as Mexican or Colombian as you and Daddy are.”  Sigh.

Oh well, more arepas for me.

Monolingual Mommy/Bilingual Baby

 If I could change something about my childhood, it would be that I did not grow up learning Spanish. My grandparents all spoke Spanish.  My father grew up speaking Spanish and is fluent in both English and Spanish. My parents made a conscious decision not to raise me and my siblings speaking Spanish. I believe this was because they wanted us to have a good command of the English language, and my father remembered the stigma that was associated with speaking Spanish in his youth.  I understand their decision and I appreciate them for wanting my  siblings and I to become strong in our English reading and writing skills.

 Still, I wish I was fully bilingual. Not that I haven’t tried to become fluent in Spanish. I took 3 years of high school Spanish, one semester in college, and post-college I attended 2 more years of Spanish evening classes at a community college. In law school I spent a summer living with a Mexican family, studying law in Mexico, and taking Spanish language classes. It’s my great frustration that despite all my efforts I can still only say that I am “conversant” in Spanish.

So, last year when Juan and I learned of a new program launching in our local public school district that would fully immerse the kindergarten through 5th grade students in Spanish, I was very interested. Diego was about to start kindergarten and on track to enroll in the same private catholic school that Nico and Erica attend. Juan and I had to make a decision to send him there or invest in our public school and put faith in this new program. We were on the fence because, honestly, our public school system does not have the best academic reputation, and we liked the small, family community and spiritual development our other kids were getting at their school

The day that we had to make the decision to send our seat deposit in for Diego at the private school, I was in San Francisco, attending a conference about the transitioning Mexican legal system. Prominent Mexican judges and attorneys were lecturing about their legal system, in Spanish. I was only one of a few attorneys who needed the aid of simultaneous translation.  That moment helped me to make the decision that Diego would attend the public school Spanish immersion program.

I have not regretted that decision. He is becoming bilingual and bi-literate. Soon he and Juan, who is a fluent Spanish speaker, will be able to talk about me without me fully comprehending what they are saying. Tonight, I am attending a special screening of the movie “Speaking in Tongues” at Diego’s school.  This film shows the benefits of dual language programs. It’s such an exciting concept.  I encourage anyone who is in the Pasadena area to attend this event.  And if you’re into “Twittering” please give this post a “tweet.”