By Juan Gonzalez Valdivieso
Image: Alice Chavez
I’m grocery shopping with my mom. I run through the dairy aisle. I’m looking for the skim and whole milk. I retrieve the items and find her picking between heads of lettuce in the produce section. My eyes wander with no final destination, until they cross with a classmate nearby, who’s doing the same thing. Upon my arrival, my mom notices I brought 2% instead of a whole. She exclaims, “Juanes, te pedí leche entéra, no ésta. Porfa tráeme la que te pedí”. If she’s overheard, she doesn’t realize nor care really. She says these words with the shameless and confident nature only an immigrant mother – who’s lived too much life yet seen too little world – can say. I feel ashamed, and acutely embarrassed. What will my classmate think? That we’re illegals? That we’re stupid for not speaking the native language? That we don’t belong here? That we’re inferior? That we’re different? I say nothing of these questions, and instead occult my sentiments with a subtle nod and a rapid pace back to the dairy aisle.
Later that same day, a discussion ensues with my mother over the incident. I’m being silly, she says. She claims that there is nothing to be ashamed of, that we belong in this country as much as anyone else, and that no amount of Spanish nor foreign origin would change that. Eventually, I budge and nod my head in defeat. To my peers, I was American, and I would do anything to keep it that way. I felt lucky because my skin color and lack of a foreign accent further embellished this image. If I could somehow transfer the very essence of my nationality, I would do it in a heartbeat. After all, who wouldn’t want to be from the greatest country on Earth?
“She can’t see the reality of our situation. She hasn’t grasped what it means to have this”, I thought, “but she will one day.”
I’m in the cafeteria. It’s lunch time. A classmate drops his pretzel, catapulting grains of salt onto the tiled floor. “Do you wanna snort that Colombian cocaine for us, Juan?”, jokes my classmate. I say nothing of the comment, and instead occult my sentiments with a subtle headshake and a rapid pace over to the lunch table.
I’m a high school freshman. I’ve found an outlet through the less conventional language of music, improvising jazz solos in the little ways I know how. I’ve grown in many ways. I’ve found a passion for the saxophone and an interest in the sciences, though my voice remains as nebulous as my identity and I cry over spilled salt, sometimes milk.
It’s summertime. I work as a hospital volunteer. I am bringing meals to patients around the hospital. A supervisor is with me. Towards the end of our nutritional rounds, we encounter a man that seems lost. His eyes wander with no final destination, and this lack of resolution troubles him greatly. “You look lost sir. Can I help you get to where you need to go?”, asks the supervisor. “Perdóne señor, I no speak English”, says the man. I quickly jump in, “A donde necesíta ír, señor?”. The expression that graced the man’s face in the moments following my conjecture filled me with a pride and joy I had never felt, much less as a result of using my native language. I was in America, in a healthcare institution, and my native language had allowed me to help someone, in America. I was moved. I was surprised. I was intrigued.
I’m in my high school band room. I’m putting away my saxophone and other musical equipment. Rehearsal has just ended. As I prepare to leave the room, my band director approaches me with a question. “Juan, I’ve been meaning to tell you, there are two siblings, a twin brother and sister, that are interested in joining the band, but their mom only speaks Spanish and I want to make sure she has all the information she needs before she lets her kids join. Would you mind helping me out with the translation?”. My thoughts return to the man lost in the hospital, that feeling I’d felt, that meaning I’d derived. I wanted that again. So, I spoke with the twins’ mom. She felt immensely relieved that someone could understand what she had to say, and that her kids would be in a band program that accepted and understood them. Again, the sensation appeared, popping its head out of hibernation, as if only dormant before, awaiting the right time to wake. But this time, the sensation persisted. I didn’t want to change myself anymore. I was a first-generation Colombian immigrant whose second language was English, and I was proud of that. This time, the sensation felt permanent. It was real.
As I look back on this journey of growth and self-discovery, I realize just how much my view of this country has shifted. As a 7 and 14-year-old, America and its famed dream were more than a prospect of a better life that only the land of the free would provide. They meant a visceral assimilation that made one lose ties to any nation that came before. I had decided that I would become American by every definition, and this meant disconnecting from fundamental aspects of my Hispanic origins, from my native language. For me, English was the best language anyone could speak, superior to Spanish and any other. I saw bilingualism as a weakness, a barrier keeping me from the status I wanted to fully embody.
I began to approach a change at 16, but it wasn’t until 18 that I fully realized the beauty of my heritage, my people, my motherland, my culture, and my language. During this period, I began participating in outreach efforts for underprivileged Hispanic communities, involved myself in Spanish tutoring programs, and volunteered in events educating the Hispanic population on topics regarding STEM. I’d fallen in love with my origins. I taught my friends about Colombia, helped peers with their Spanish, and even performed traditional salsa dances at a schoolwide culture festival.
In this development, I found that for me, the American dream is not about assimilating and losing one’s sense of origin, one’s cultural fluency. These are not things to be lost by any immigrant or foreigner that enters these United States. The reality is quite the contrary. To fulfill one’s own American dream, these very factors of individuality and uniqueness must serve as the building blocks for the life and contribution one makes in this country, and in life. Language has taught me this. Only with this thinking, have I been able to live the life I’ve always felt America had in store for me, and more importantly, the life I had in store for myself.