How I deciphered my own cultural identity when caught between several
The three most important values that were embedded in me as a kid was to do good in school, learn to become independent, and family is always put first. These are the ideals that stretch across all races and identities but tend to be stressed on families with an immigrant background.
According to the Pew Research Center, a second generation immigrant is defined as a person born in the United States, with at least one immigrant parent. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York but with parents who had immigrated from Ecuador and Spain. My mother was born in the Dominican Republic and raised primarily in Queens, New York. I also have been raised by two step-parents each with different cultural backgrounds. My step-mother born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and a step-dad born in New York with strong Italian roots. Meanwhile, I was the first to be born and raised in Orlando, Fl.
My parents carried out the american dream most immigrant families plan for their children. Before my mom turned 30 years old she had two (fabulous) kids, a great career (one that continues to rise) and a masters degree. My father has a great job and wonderful connections that allowed him to support his family despite distance playing a role in our relationship.
Although, by definition I am a second generation immigrant I consider myself to be apart of the third generation kids who are the culturally confused. The group of kids whose job is to continue this upward trend of success in our family tree. We are the group that are aware of the immigrant issues our families have struggled through and the group of kids who have been raised mixed in with a new culture our family now belongs to. We are the bi-cultural bunch.
One distinctive difference is the dinner routine my grandmother, my mother and I grew up on. Over the summer I was complaining to my grandmother how I wished my mom had cooked dinner that night because I was sick of sandwiches. She snapped her head back at me and told me a sandwich is better than a potato. Before I could write my grandma off as crazy, she explained. My mother was apart of the new working women generation whose only job wasn’t to cater to her (able) teenagers. My grandmother was just shy of this generation and who thought it was expected to always have a meal prepared every night for her family. But in the Dominican Republic, a middle child of 12 and an unimaginable low income it was more expected of my grandmother to have to steal her own food; mostly potatoes. My mother had home cooked meals, I have my sandwiches, and my grandmother had stolen potatoes.
This trend of differences is common for most families who have integrated into a new culture. Not only am I vastly different from my own blood but due to my appearance, the dark features my family possess, causes me to stand out in my own country. This is a difference that doesn’t have to be discussed, it’s a characteristic that can’t be covered and by default classifies me as different.
The United States Immigration timeline begins with the British and has stretched across all over the world. In the 19th century the Irish immigrant wave had washed up on the american shorelines and they were targeted and threatened not by the color of their skin but their religion. Fast forward to 1882 the Chinese exclusion act was passed and the .002% of Chinese in the United States were physically distinctive among Americans and blamed for the nation’s low wages. After the great wars more Europeans sought refuge in the states and diversity started to fill the streets. Generations later, cultures have crossed and advancements in our everyday lives have surfaced but the outward appearance of an individual is one thing that is still never overlooked.
Despite my citizenship, the way I speak and the family that I have, I am classified as other. Unless someone knows me, they assume I am from outside borders or I have grown up in a city of large immigrant populations. I have faced arguments, I have been told I don’t speak good English (which is my only fluent language), I have faced stereotypes and worse, I have been raised to expect these issues in my life.
One of the most difficult conversations many families of color have to have is how to interact with authority. Among many this is known as “the talk,” this conversation is a prime example of how appearance can affect someone’s life and is something my mom had to sit my brother down for when he got his first car.
Now living outside my hometown I expect to be seen as different, but the lifestyle I live is practically the same as any american kid. I have attended american schools and am now at an accredited University. I speak fluent English, I’ve worked minimum wage jobs just like most american teenagers, and I am fortunate enough to travel freely and hang out with my friends on my free time.
My lifestyle is portrayed as normal in America, but is completely strange to most members of my immediate and extended families. For instance, my mom was the first to earn a college degree in our family but had two kids before finishing her bachelors and had done so without moving away for school. The idea of leaving for college is deemed ridiculous because in Latin culture, family is everything so why would you want to leave yours behind?
It is also strange that I don’t speak Spanish. Before I was born, my older brother was spoken to strictly in Spanish for over two years and had not said a word. After testing, he turned out healthy but was just delayed in this aspect. Within a few weeks of watching blues clues on TV, he miraculously learned English but still did not speak any Spanish. From here on my mother only spoke in English because it was better than him being mute. When I came along they had already been accustomed to my brother’s stubbornness and didn’t bother to try Spanish with me. Now, 19 years later, I am one of the few Latin kids who does not speak Spanish without sounding american.
I was raised however, with doses of Latin culture. Sunday mornings the house echoed bachata as a wake up call to clean. When someone came back from a trip the entire family was supposed to gather the same day/night (no matter the time) to welcome them back and vice versa the night before they left. Family parties lasted for hours, kids always soundly asleep when it got late in a random room. Christmas was really on Christmas Eve. Thanksgiving dinner began no sooner than 8:30 p.m. Vicks Vaporub was the cure for everything. The men, at any age, are always babied by their moms and the women are all brought up to be tough (mainly to keep the men in check.)
One of the most common questions I get asked is “how do I identify myself?” I am perceived as neither “fully” Latina because I am american born and don’t speak Spanish, nor am I “fully” american because of my appearance and family history. It wasn’t until senior year of high school did I realize I didn’t have to choose. I am a wonderful blend of Dominican, Ecuadorian and american. I don’t have to explain myself any further and I don’t have to pick one culture to belong too. The American dream is not based on success but how inclusive we are of other cultures. I am apart of a generation of kids that do not strictly belong to one distinct background but illustrate how different cultures can successfully and harmoniously fuse together.
COVER ARTIST: Daisuke Yokota