Before moving to the US permanently, my exposure to American culture was limited. In the summers, we visited my grandparents in Pennsylvania, where I spent much of my time playing with the kids that lived on their street, exploring their huge back yard, or tagging along to the local mall with my mother, grandmother and aunt. Winters, we visited family in Florida, and I spent that time riding a bicycle, feeding ducks, and swimming in the neighborhood pool. I noticed some differences between Spain and the US: the size of the grocery stores, the way people dressed, but because the range of my childhood awareness was so narrow, I didn’t make the jump to noticing the differences between myself and other kids around me.
From what I remember, the first day that struck me with dread was my first day of school here. I rose at a time when even adults would have been sleeping in Madrid, to be driven, not walked, through a foot of snow, not sun, to my new school an hour, not ten minutes, away. At roll call, the boys had clipped names like Joey and Drew, and the girls names like Katie and Whitney. When the teachers introduced me, they could barely pronounce my name. At recess, the kids teased me about my too-formal coat, and surrounded me, too close, calling out “Say something in Spanish! Say something in Spanish!” In my first American gym class that day, we played kickball: I had never heard of the game and I ran the bases backwards. I opened my thermos of lentil soup at lunch while the kids around me peeled open their trays of KidsCuisine. Everyone stared.
For those first years here, I saw myself as the odd one out every time I was in a crowd of kids; sometimes my peers found me exotic, other times just weird, while they remained impenetrable to me. In the end, what this taught me was to pretend familiarity, fake it until I found it. . . which I eventually did, after the passing of culture shock, middle school, and time. But maybe because of that experience, I identified ever since exclusively as Spanish-American. When they were smaller, I thought of my Guatemalan-born, American-raised children as exclusively Guatemalan-American, rather than as simply American, too.
But my three children are from a different place and time of origin, both of which are more fluid than the ones I knew growing up. That, it turns out, changes a lot.
During our first time in Guatemala, now three years ago, I had the strange sense I was in a place where it seemed like the culture around me was in the process of shifting. Around me, modern high-rise buildings stood beside examples of Spanish colonial architecture. American fast food chains shared the same street as the originally Guatemalan Pollo Campero. In an elevator, a Mayan couple in traditional huipiles shared an elevator with my husband and me, the bicultural adoptive parent couple. While there, I heard mostly Spanish, but some English, some strands of Mayan languages, and Italian and German as well. I considered the ways the natives, the colonists, the visitors, and the neighbors all courted the country, staking a claim, lobbying for more influence, causing the culture to shift.
I think of the US as it was when I came to it, and open my eyes to the US my children are growing up in now and believe that maybe this country can be a shifting place, too. Long a destination of immigrants, maybe the US can finally become not so much a place where people come to leave behind their histories, where the first generation struggles to assimilate and acculturate in the face of suspicion and discrimination, but one in which all that newcomers can’t leave behind is accepted and validated. I picture this country as one that shelters varied groups of peoples, and embraces the best of juxtaposed cultures, spurring on the imagination and the spirit of progress with all its opportunities.
My children live closer to that than I did as a kid. Signs of it are everywhere, even in the state where we live: the bookstores carry more books in different languages, there are more ethnic restaurants around, I hear new names called in parks, driver’s license centers, and small-town waiting rooms. I come to know the variety of histories of the families in our church and in our children’s new school. It’s not just the increase in physical diversity but the lowering of boundaries — “us”, “them” — in favor of genuine and hearty fellowship across the community members.
I knew when my mother brought me to this country that I would stay here, with her. What I didn’t know is that I’d fall in love here, with a man, and with this striving, inventive, political, rock-and roll, dysfunctional, laugh-at-itself home country of his; that these attributes would shift my identity, too, and make me choose to put down deep roots here.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of our children as American, too, dropping the hyphen as an occasional possibility; toying with the idea that our mashed-up family is the new quintessentially American family, or soon will be, if the shifting I’ve seen in my time here keeps pace. In this last installment of the Multi-Culti Mami column, that possibility is what I want to leave you with; with that, and por supuesto, with a mis gracias for showing my multi-culti family your “lifted lamp beside your golden door.”