March 14, 2014

Embracing Diversity

By Crystal Mendoza

I never considered myself diverse. I know this may sound contradictory considering I’m writing for the Education in Diversity Blog, but let me explain. I grew up in El Paso, TX, one of the many cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. The border encompasses Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California on the U.S. side and Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California Norte on the Mexican side. Both of my parents were born in Chihuahua, Mexico and moved to the United Sates when they were kids. Years later, they met and had me here in the U.S. thus making me first-generation American. Growing up on the border offers an interesting take on issues of immigration, race, and the blending of cultures. The issues many Americans read and hear about on the news are issues you often experience first hand living on the border.

So why didn’t I consider myself diverse? El Paso has this constant influx of people coming from Mexico to work, visit family, and go to school. It’s difficult to consider yourself diverse when the majority of your classmates speak the same primary language you do, are of similar ethnicity, and abide by the same traditional values. This isn’t exclusive to Hispanics, and other groups many have had similar experiences. Applying for scholarships specific for minorities in high school for college didn’t make sense to me. I was surrounded by hundreds of Hispanics, how did that make my chances any better? Looking back on it, I can see that this was rather narrow minded in terms of only thinking about El Paso and Texas instead of the country as a whole.

Having been raised partially by my grandparents who didn’t speak English, I primarily spoke Spanish throughout my childhood to communicate with them. In elementary school, I was placed in bilingual classes and the balance of both languages seemed manageable. It wasn’t until I moved to Las Vegas, NV, when I first realized that the majority of people didn’t look like me as they did back home. During our two-year residence in Las Vegas, the very little Spanish we spoke at home came to a screeching halt. My brother, a mere toddler at the time, suddenly exhibited signs of speech regression when he had been speaking fine just months before. This eventually led to an autism diagnosis, but the physician at the time suggested to only speak English at home in order to see if his speech would return. Our Spanish at home disappeared, and I felt like a fake Mexican-American when I couldn’t even carry on a conversation with my family members back home.

Once we moved back to Texas, I felt worse. I struggled to communicate and members of my family often joked that living in Las Vegas had turned me into a gringa. So where did that leave me? I spoke English well, and had an accent when I tried to speak Spanish. The decision I made next is one I’ve come to regret: I stopped speaking it and only spoke it when I had to, which was speaking to my grandparents and other family members who didn’t speak English. Often times, when I didn’t want to speak it, I would turn to my parents and ask them to translate for me or speak Spanish haphazardly only to have them correct it. By high school, I took Spanish classes, and realized just how detrimental my refusal to speak my first language was. My grammar was no longer fit to write even a few sentences and my accent was nightmare. My grandparents urged me to keep practicing, reading, and speaking Spanish in order to be able to continue this form of communication we had formed between us. Gradually, and with the help of my undergraduate research mentor, my Spanish got better. Granted, my primary language is still English, but the option of communicating in another language has finally expanded to include my first language that was forgotten at one point.

Once I moved to Rochester, I realized I couldn’t speak Spanish freely anymore like I could back home, and the little ways I would greet others back home weren’t typical of individuals in the area, or the Midwest for that matter. Without a doubt, I went through a culture shock. Now, I’m often stopped and asked if I’m Latina/Hispanic/Mexican, which was never a question back home because the majority of people were. These instances, however, have only made me more proud to be Hispanic and to be of such a different culture. Now that I live in Rochester, I’ve found myself more willing to speak Spanish and find people that speak it. I’ve learned from my mistakes and don’t plan on rejecting my first language again. Sure, some people may poke fun at the fact that I pronounce tortilla funny or that I roll my “r’s”, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. For so many years, I thought that if I spoke English, and refused to speak Spanish, that I would instantly become fully and purely American, but that’s neither who I am nor where I come from.  I’m Mexican-American and I’m proud.

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@msl_rodriguez

I enjoyed hearing about your experience and in many ways can relate to you journey of finding yourself. As children we aim to belong and blend into the environment we are in and thus we try to be just like everyone else even if it means rejecting our culture. I had a very hard time during my middle and high school years as my mom kept our culture and I fought to lose it. As I grew older and begun hanging with other young individuals who share the same origin as I did, it helped me find who I was. Now as and adult I embrace my culture, I realize my uniqueness and I love being Trinidad.

I urge all parents to maintain a love for culture even when the kids fight it.

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Maria, thanks for sharing a story of victory, finding your way and learning to love who you are. I agree with you that belonging and blending in seems to override so much of our actions and thoughts, that we forget the richness of our own lives.

REPLY

Hi Crystal,
I find your story more common than not. In fact, many would probably say that you assimilated and would have a different take on being willing to speak Spanish. You are to be commended for being proud to be who you are. I come from a culture where we were taught to be more like the majority culture so that we would “fit in”. Depending on your cultural reference and your socioeconomic background, this makes a great deal of sense. Many of us are programmed to try and achieve the “American Dream”. We find ourselves believing that to accomplish these material things, we have to be more like the majority culture to “fit in”.

In my opinion, it is beneficial to be able to speak more than one language in this country. I have been learning Spanish for many years. In fact, I am dating a Hispanic lady and one of the agreements that we have is that I will correct her English, and she will help me in perfecting my Spanish once I have a good grasp of the language. Speaking the language is just one part of embracing diversity. What i have learned over the years is that it comes down to tolerance and attitude, but most of all respecting difference.
Thank you for your post.
Owen

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