Like many of you, I’ll be celebrating halloween in just a few days. But recently, I also began celebrating Dia de los muertos. I’m reclaiming a part of me that was neglected for decades. Here’s the story of how I became less Mexican and how I’m bringing it back into my life.
“If you want to succeed, forget about where you came from and learn to be like us.”
It was never said to me in those exact words, but I felt it. And it’s not only a terrible way to think, it’s a horrible thing to impose on children. There are generations of immigrant children burdened with the idea that there is less value in their heritage than there is in adopting the American way of living. Many are lead to believe that they must leave behind where they came from and learn to be like those of where they live now.
Most of my life I was pulled in two directions. On one side, I was told by some of my Mexican family that I acted too white. And with others, I was excluded for not being white enough. At least now I can see that this type of thinking is a massive disservice to everyone.
I spoke only Spanish until I was 7 years old. In school, I was placed in a class where much of the time was spent teaching us how to speak English. While others were learning a prescribed curriculum, I was spending my time at school learning a new language. Eventually, I earned the amazing privilege of being placed in an English-speaking classroom with the other kids. I was lucky because unlike many other students, I achieved this level of success by second grade. Many others took much longer, setting them far behind their english-speaking classmates.
Once I started speaking English at school, my Spanish quickly faded away. My family moved to Upstate New York for work in 1991 and my language and my culture were left far behind.
It was an enormous shame. And I didn’t realize how much I had lost until later in my adult life. Now, I almost feel guilty for allowing myself to forget my language and the traditions of where I came from.
I can’t turn back the clock but thankfully it’s never too late to start learning and relearning. I’m trying to speak some Spanish again. I’m asking my parents questions about our culture and family traditions. I’ve even started observing some of them. For the last few years I’ve set up my Ofrenda for Dia De Los Muertos with pictures of my grandparents that are no longer with us. And during this time I try to make it a point to ask my parents to tell me stories about when they were alive so I can properly remember them.
Recently, I’ve noticed that a lot of us have gained an interest in our ancestry. Just look at the skyrocketing sales of genetic testing kits. Sure, it’s a start. Rebuilding that family tree is nice but there’s so much culture attached to that tree that is still lost.
I might be pointing out the obvious here but wouldn’t it have been easier to pass down all this culture and information along the way? Instead, we went generations allowing our immigrant friends to feel like they must abandon their heritage in order to succeed here.
I’m not going to be ignorant to the fact that if you move somewhere you need to learn the language and the culture. In my opinion, it is a sign of respect. If I moved to Paris tomorrow, of course I’d learn French and the Parisian way of life (don’t twist my arm). But we should never demand that people forget where they came from to make room for something new.
The most American thing we can do is remind ourselves that this country was founded by immigrants and it’s what makes us beautiful and strong. Accepting and praising our differences is something we should be doing more.
Maybe we can try taking more of an interest in new food, new cultures, and people from far away places. Ask questions and learn something new. This makes someone feel accepted and appreciated and less likely to let their traditions fade away in hopes of fitting in with the other “Americans”.
If we do this right, being different may actually be the norm one day - What a beautiful day that will be.