Bicultural Identity: My Husband’s Story of Life on ‘La frontera’
I struggled a lot in writing this post. Not because it was difficult really, but because this is my husband’s story and it’s one that I don’t take lightly. I really wanted to do justice to the challenges that he’s faced, and ones that we are now facing as a family. I know that we all have different stories to tell and I believe that we all need to be heard. With that in mind, I want to share part of our journey with families who might be facing similar challenges.
My husband was raised in Laredo, a small border town in south Texas. At the age of 13, his family packed up all their belongings and decided to make a life in Michigan, where his father was born. They moved there looking for a better life, but what they found was an unimaginable culture shock and a world so very different from anything they had known.
Previously, my hubby had grown up in a land of Catholics and Tejanos. But, living in Michigan, he was suddenly aware that he couldn’t identify in the same way anymore. His parents, cousins…his whole family knew themselves as Tejano, a blend of Mexican and Texan cultures. But now, being the minority, he heard labels like “Mexican”, “Latino” and “Hispanic” often. They were forced on him along with a variety of slurs about his now, less than acceptable heritage. It seemed he couldn’t escape being reminded that he was different, an outsider, a “Mexican”. In Texas, he’d only identified as “Ricardo” or “Riqui”, but when his family arrived in Michigan, he was pushed to change his name to “Rick” or “Richard”. His father insisted that they study more English and get rid of their Spanish accents, in an effort to fit in with the more assimilated families…the more Anglo families.
My husband felt like he couldn’t fit the distorted expectations of those living in the north and questioned his parents often about when they would return to Laredo. He grew to hate his new name, “Rick” and fiercely defended his right to be called by his birth name, Ricardo. On several occasions, he’s recounted to me how his grandmother in Michigan, a mexicana born south of the border, refused to call him by his name…the one that he’d known and come to identify with for so many years. He would get so upset that he would hang up the phone on her or refuse to visit with her when she wouldn’t address him in Spanish. It was like a slap in the face. Here he was, unaccepted by so many in this strange place, and even his familia made him feel like an outsider.
I’m sure it was disheartening enough coming to a place where you are ridiculed for being “Mexican” and chased down empty streets by Aryan nationals spouting racial slurs. I can’t imagine having to go home and be renounced by your own father, uncles and grandparents for “acting too Mexican.”
Growing up between the two communities wasn’t easy for my husband. Over the next 20 some years, he struggled with balancing his identity…to some degree, he is still in a balancing act. His forced assimilation by his father left him barely speaking Spanish and isolated from the Latino community. He was too gringo to fit in with most Latinos and too Mexican to fit in with mainstream Americans. This left him in an odd place and it was difficult for him to relate to individuals on either side of the divide. Over time, he has come to realize that being Mexican American is a source of pride. He’s learned his history, found his roots and allowed himself to let go of the stereotypes and just be Ricardo. It’s taken him so long to figure out what that meant and he still has a long way to go before he can feel that he’s completed his journey.
As a family, we’re facing another challenge together; how to raise a confident, bilingual, Latina daughter. Sounds easy, right? I mean, he is Latino after all…he has that in his favor…at least that’s what most would think. But how do you teach your child Spanish when you’re not fluent yourself? How do you include Mexican heritage in your daily life when you’ve missed out on so much of it? How do you raise your daughter to be confident and shake off criticism when you struggle with it so much in your own life?
We take it day by day, practice our Spanish frequently, do plenty of online research into our history, attend every cultural event within traveling range, cook a variety of Mexican dishes, crank the Latin jams and meet up with other Latino parents who have similar interests and concerns.
We give each other support and we look to others for understanding. Having other bicultural Latinos on our side has been our greatest asset. But, even with all that we have done to take part in our heritage and create our family identity, we still can’t help but wonder, “Will it be enough to instill in her a sense of belonging and a confidence about who she is?” Only time will tell.
This story was originally publish on Spanglish Baby, a bilingual parenting blog and language learning resource.
© 2011 – 2012, Chantilly Patiño. All rights reserved.