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Latina Heritage

Thank you, sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez, for challenging “whitening”

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Lucy and Desi, a bi-cultural couple I saw on TV as a kid (in re-runs in the 70’s)

When my Guatemalan father started dating my Anglo mother, a man nudged him and said, “¿Mejorando la rasa, eh?” or “Bettering the race, huh?”

The comment made little sense to me when Dad told the story. If white skin is some sort of club, then my dad can’t be in it no matter whom he marries, and I wouldn’t qualify either. Yet, I am lighter-skinned than he is and my kids are lighter still, since their father is white. Also, I’m pretty Americanized, my kids even more so. None of this changes my father’s skin color or mine, but I’m starting to grasp what the man was getting at: whitening.

This “whitening” business assumes a lot:

  1. That marrying a lighter-skinned person is a “step up,” socially
  2. That marrying an American (specifically an Anglo-American) means undergoing total cultural assimilation
  3. That Anglo-American culture is better than Latino culture
  4. And of course: that white is better than deeper skin tones

Sadly, this involves some shame on the part of this man for his own culture and color, unless he was joking. True, my dad relayed the incident with a laugh, but I didn’t get the idea that the man was winking at a by-gone attitude. My strong impression was that this man was congratulating my father on winning the heart of a light-skinned American woman. Make no mistake, my mother is a catch. She’s smart, positive, musical, socially conscious, and energetic, but these weren’t the qualities she was being admired for in this “bettering the race” comment. The comment was prompted by her nationality and by the low melanin levels she inherited from British ancestors.

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Me, Mom, and Dad in July, 2017

The remark revealed prejudice, but it also revealed assumptions about the results of inter-racial marriage. According to the whitening model, my dad was lucky to marry an Anglo-American because now he could act white, live white, and have kids who did the same.

My reaction to that? 😕 (confused face) and 🤦 (face palm).

Here’s the thing. Though my dad became a citizen and learned to arrive on time, sing “Happy Birthday,” and shovel snow, he remains a proud Latino. My mother enjoys her American culture, but also recalls her two years in Guatemala with great fondness. She drapes walls with Guatemalan weavings, sings Spanish love songs, and makes sure the TV bundle includes fútbol channels. Much about my childhood was American, especially in 1970’s Iowa, but Spanish lullabies, Spanish Scrabble games, and my dad’s voiced observations on both cultures were ever-present. Living white was never the goal.

Nowadays, most people realize that “whitening” oversimplifies and misrepresents the bi-cultural experience. Naturally, Latin@-Anglo families live out a range of experiences, from whitening to mixing to browning. Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez identifies four categories for inter-racial family styles in her article, “The Whitening Hypothosis Challenged: Bi-culturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Thank you!

Vasquez interviewed 28 people and observed these family styles:

  1. Leaning white
  2. Everyday bi-culturalism (casual mixing of cultures)
  3. Selective blending (deliberate incorporation of desired aspects of each culture)
  4. Leaning Latino

Vasquez emphasizes that these are nodes on a spectrum, with real-life families not fitting neatly into any one category. I see my family shuttling up and down this list within my lifetime and within decades. For example, I’d say we started out leaning white, with Dad learning English and attending a Protestant church.

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Can you flick the hollow spool onto the stick? (capirucho)

Later, my parents became representatives of international flavor in my hometown, putting on presentations about Guatemala. Mom started teaching Spanish to me at this time, and I became aware of an everyday biculturalism. When we moved from Iowa to Texas, we tuned into Spanish TV stations and easily found foods like tamales, but eschewed the Latin world’s narrower roles for women. This slid us toward selective blending. I can’t say we truly leaned Latino except when Balcárcel family visited. For that day, we’d do everything the Latin way, playing marimba music, dancing, gesturing more, and speaking mostly Spanish, depending on which relatives came and how long they’d been in the States. When I married, our new family leaned white. I bought our boys soccer balls and had my parents teach them Spanish, but our home was basically Anglo — a little alternative, with vegetarian meals and a compost bucket, but Anglo. Had I married a Latino, I’m guessing we would have leaned Latino, but I married an Anglo man. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but my high school wasn’t diverse, and I married a classmate at age 20. College might have had more men of color, but I was a newlywed and didn’t notice. My graduate school was almost entirely white.

My sons are now in their 20’s, and one enjoys learning languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Twi . . . you name it! I hope his facility with languages was helped by early exposure to Spanish. In any case, I see him socializing with an international group of acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dated a woman of color or married one. If so, I’ll be curious to see how they build their bi-cultural home. Marrying white is okay too, as is not marrying at all. I just hope he’ll always be pleased to own his bi-cultural heritage.

Pan dulce
buying pan dulce with my half-sister

I have this same wish for myself. As I age, I find that I want to brush up on my Spanish and note the details of my dad’s childhood. I’m playing chords he taught me on the guitar. I love my extended Anglo family, and I grew up with them, but I want to balance myself and not lose my Latina-ness.

About ten years ago, I learned that I have a half-sister in Guatemala. Azucena is a feisty, sensitive, intelligent, lovely woman. Though we need Google translate to communicate, we are getting to know each other. In her, I’m finding another link to my heritage and more reasons to keep Guatemala in my daily consciousness and in my heart.

Check out Vasquez’s full article! It goes into even more interesting places.
Reference: Vasquez, Jessica. 2014. “The whitening hypothesis challenged: Biculturalism in Latino and non-Hispanic white intermarriage,” Sociological Forum 29 (2): 386-407.

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Latina Heritage

Is true translation possible? Let’s try it!

photo credit of top image Hello’s: flixtranslations.com

A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.

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My parents, 2013

“What do the words mean?” I asked.

The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.

The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.

Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?

Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:becquerga300x300

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.

A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:

What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.

This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥

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Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.

First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .

  • the sublimity of life
  • the music of existence
  • the marriage of wisdom and beauty

And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!

Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:

What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.

Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!

So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!

Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!

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Latina Heritage

Tri-lingual Moment in Italy

Before I traveled to Italy some years ago, I learned a little Italian. Ciao! Mi chiamo Rebecca. Building on my basic (I repeat, basic!) knowledge of Spanish, I felt I could pronounce phrases pretty well and make myself understood at restaurants (Sono vegetariano) and museums (Un adult per favore). By the middle of the trip, I could have a small conversation of say, three or four sentences. A hike between the villages of the Cinqueterre gave me a chance to do exactly that. I smiled and pulled out my stock phrases as soon as I saw a friendly-looking woman coming the opposite direction on the trail. The conversation quickly opened up in a way I didn’t expect.

map of Italy with Cinque Terre marked
Italy map, Cinque Terre villages marked

Let me set the scene. Connecting five tiny Mediterranean villages is a scenic trail. It winds through forest, then emerges onto coastal views. The towns made the UNESCO Heritage List. Easy to see why. They’re downright edible! (I took that top photo from the trail.) There’s nothing much to DO in these towns, which is why a visit here can be a vacation from your vacation, as travel guru Rick Steves says. For me, it was a sip of seashore between chewy bites of cities like Florence and Rome.

I started the hike with a spring in my step, but parts of it get rugged and the wide sidewalk turns into a narrow dirt rut every time the trail swings away from the ocean and into the woods along the inlets. My camera was smoking as I snapped shots of every beautiful leaf and vista. By the time I reached an ocean overlook near the end of my hike, I was happy, but sweaty and hot, my glasses sliding down. As shown below!

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Me on the Cinque Terre hike

When a smiling woman with two scampering children appeared around the bend, I envied their energy. I also liked them immediately. We exchanged smiles and traded some “intro info” in Italian. How long are you in Italy? Where are you from? My Italian was running out when I heard her say a phrase in what sounded like Spanish to one of the children. It might have been about not running head first into a tree.

“?Hablas español?” I asked if she spoke Spanish.

“!Si! Mi esposo es de” — I can’t recall the Spanish-speaking country she said her husband was from, but it set of fireworks in my head.

“Mi papá es de Guatemala!” I told her my father’s Central American origin. This launched us into a wide-ranging conversation. Suddenly Spanish felt like a large lake compared to my puddle of Italian.

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Woman I met on the Cinque Terre trail

We sailed along in Spanish for several minutes. I confined my comments to present tense, which let me keep up. I showed her photos of my kids, and she told me about meeting her husband. Then she mentioned living in Canada.

“Canada?” I asked. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes! It’s my first language!”

“Mine too!” How we laughed! Now my lake expanded to an ocean. We talked on until her kids couldn’t wait any longer to get hiking and I couldn’t linger without missing my return train. It was a beautiful linguistic experience and one of my favorite moments in all of Italy.

Click here if you’d like to receive updates on Rebecca — and her essay on biking 1300 miles while pregnant!

Latina Heritage

So yeah, I Oughtta be Fluent in Español

My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?

Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)

More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!

Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.

 

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Parents with baby Rebecca

My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.

I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.

It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.

The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.

I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.

Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.

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Latina Heritage

Dad’s Spanish: Secret Stair to High-level English

corn-on-the-cob-2083529_640.jpgDuring his first years as a citizen, my Dad, a native Guatemalan, worked hard to become fluent in English. My mom translated a lot of conversations, forms, and birthday cards. Soon, though, he picked up the language. Immersed in English at his job, in the home, and on TV, he had to sink or swim. This was Iowa, 1968. Lots of corn, no tortillas, I like to say. Dad swam.

An unexpected thing about that Spanish knowledge: it served him well. Not only from a brain-connectivity standpoint (which studies say is significant for bilinguals), but in terms of learning high-level English. Because Latin underlies Spanish, the complicated words of the SAT, the university, and the highly-educated came easily to him.

Where an English-speaking student struggled to memorize a medical word, for example, my dad already knew its meaning. What does cardiac have to do with the word heart? Nothing, in our Anglo-Saxon-based English. In Spanish, heart is corazón. What does pulmonary have to do with the word lung? For me, nothing. In Spanish, lung is pulmón.

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I’d see a native English speaker search for the “fancy” word to complete a sentence. “I love beef,” an Iowan might say. “I’m what you call a . . . Um . . . ” Carnivore! My dad supplied the word readily. Carne is Spanish for meat. Another person might say, “I’m glad I wasn’t taken to jail, you know . . .” Incarcerated! Jail = carcel in Spanish = easy for Dad.

Shakespeare’s plays challenge even English speakers, but here Dad found his Spanish useful again. Many words that prompt me to search for a footnote give my dad no trouble. Act II of As You Like It uses this line: “If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it to be food for thee.” Here, savage means wild, as in a wild animal. My ear doesn’t hear it that way, but a Spanish speaker hears salvaje behind savage, and salvaje means wild. Hamlet‘s Act I includes the phrase “Nature, crescent, does not grow alone.” As my mind goes to “crescent moon,” a Spanish speaker’s thoughts turn to crecer, which means to grow. That is exactly the meaning here. Shakespeare’s vocabulary drips with Latin. Spanish speakers take it in stride.

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Shakespeare’s inverted word order trips us up too. But Spanish’s word order is more flexible than English’s. While this sounds mixed up to my ear, “Only there are three apples,” it makes a correct Spanish sentence, “Solo hay tres manzanas.” When Shakespeare writes “Away from the light steals home my heavy son,” in Romeo and Juliet, I rearrange it to “My heavy son steals home, away from the light.” Spanish speakers can reference constructions like “Me gusta la manzana,” which is “It pleases me the apple.”

Plenty of folks worried about my dad when he stepped off the plane into an English-speaking world. Turns out, he carried knowledge that helped him go to college and graduate Cum Laude, a Latin phrase that he, more than I, readily understands.

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