Part 1: My Bi-Cultural Journey
Much has been written on the bi-cultural experience of immigrants and first and second generation children of immigrants in the United States. At the root of this human experience is the struggle to hold onto the cultural and familial bonds in the midst of pursuing new opportunities and the life that the American Dream provides. The motivation for writing this article is to connect with young minorities and immigrants who may be wrestling with a similar challenge. I want to offer encouragement on your own bi-cultural journey and remind you it’s possible to be true to your faith, your family, and your culture while achieving your goals and dreams in America. As I share my story with you, it’s important to note the political climate at the time when I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Immigration was not a major issue, but the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy assassinations, the flight of middle class America from the cities to the suburbs all weighed heavily on the lives of Latinos, other diverse communities, low income Americans, and our neighbors. As a result, I was caught in the midst of two worlds, navigating the family pressure to be “Latino” and the external pressures to assimilate, not speak Spanish, and be “American.” I was torn between two worlds and that tension had a dramatic impact on my family, my education, my career, and ultimately my life. There are many stereotypes and perceptions about the Latino community. For some, we are predominantly a culture of men and machismo. Our men are strong, intelligent, and hard working, sometimes working multiple jobs to support their family here in the US and families back home. Another perspective is on the strength of Latina women – la mujeres – the Mothers, Grandmothers, Aunties and Sisters – who often run the family. We are the ones multi-tasking, maximizing every hour of every day—tending the house, working at home, at our careers, in our churches, children’s activities, and community organizations. And, as recent reports have shown, Latina women are the powerful engine fueling the economic growth of small and mid-size businesses in this country. I am one of those Latina women, and I came to this country for the endless opportunities it provides. Despite the political rhetoric about immigration– those of us who are immigrants – we educate, we create, we contribute to this society, and we are here to stay. Looking back now, I consider myself successful, because I didn’t completely assimilate. I derive power from being a Latina in three primary ways: My Faith, My Family, and My Culture. The kind of power that helped me overcome the obstacles of being a woman of color, and the power to stay the course when it would have been easy to quit.
Life in Mexico
I was born and raised in Santa Ana Maya, Michoacan, Mexico, a small rural town of maybe 500 people with dirt roads, adobe houses, chickens, roosters, pigs, mules, and few—if any cars in town. Electricity and phones were a luxury. One school, one church, one doctor. Life was a gift for me. My mother and I were rushed to the hospital in the next town in the back of a run down station wagon, the midwife and my mother praying nonstop, because they knew our chances of surviving were slim. They say I was born blue, limp, and scaley. If you look back now, medically, there was no chance that I could have survived – not without oxygen and an incubator, nor my mother without a blood transfusion and antibiotics. But, we both survived. When my mother told me this story, I realized in that moment that I had a purpose in life and a responsibility to always do my best. I also realized it was my Mother’s faith that kept her going through this crisis.
One of the great hallmarks of American history and the Constitution is the freedom of religion. As someone born in another country, it’s a very meaningful way to stay connected to your family and culture of origin. To be ‘Amercian’ doesn’t mean losing all of who you are, your identity, and in fact, in some cases it means preserving those values and beliefs because America is a melting pot of diversity, and that is what makes this nation so powerful. For as long as I can remember, Our Lady of Guadalupe, la Cruz de Jesus, medallas, rosarios, velas, and other religious statues were omnipresent in our humble home in Mexico and our family home when we moved to the US. Novenas, posadas, and misa (mass) — were not optional. I used to wonder why las Viejitas, my Abuelita (Grandmother), and later in life, my Father, went to mass every day. But, as time went on, I realized that they all derived a sense of peace, a sense of confidence, and the strength to persevere through their obstacles…through their faith. That’s when I realized that the power of faith…whatever faith you believe in…is its ability to center you. It was my faith that kept me going when, after four operations, the specialists said that I couldn’t have children. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and somehow, I gave birth to two miracle babies. I share this story, because I believe that, in order to be successful, first and foremost, you need to be centered. Life brings endless opportunities, but also a lot of tough decisions and challenges. On your bi-cultural journey, having an internal navigation system that can help ground you through life is important. It can’t come from money or a career—it comes from deep within you. For me, my faith centers me.