I was 16. I was in a McDonald’s. I saw a Hispanic family in line. Their youngest was maybe 6 years old. It was their turn to order. The 6-year-old boy was not paying attention. His father yanked him by his arm and said “ordena” (order in Spanish.) The boy was frightened and began to cry. I sat as I watched a 6 year old boy order for him, his mother, and his father through his tears. The cashier told him the total. He told it back to his parents in Spanish. They paid and left.
Like most first generation Americans I was poised to bridge the gap between two cultures. Most Immigrant parents need the help of their children to help guide them through this new world. My parents decided to do things differently. They didn’t want to rely on their children. They wanted to rely on themselves. They learned the language — mastered it, even. The gap I needed to help bridge did not exist. In a sense, I didn’t “need” to keep my Spanish to help my mother and father. My ability to speak Spanish dwindled and I began to notice that I couldn’t communicate well with my aunts and uncles. From a young age I began to feel out of place in this world. Not quite American. Not quite Mexican. I can’t speak Spanish… so can I even call myself Mexican?
There’s a silent riff within the first generation community. There are those who think keeping the language is an absolute necessity. They will not raise children who cannot speak Spanish. To them, it’s betrayal to their culture. They look down upon those like me. Those whose parents decided not to use their children as translators. Those whose parents understood the importance of learning the English language in order for them to thrive. It’s a silent riff, but one that evokes a strong emotional response. Is language truly a prerequisite to one’s own culture? I often wonder.