Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Words and Confidence and Being an Immigrant by Cardeno C.

Immigration is a political topic and I don’t like to talk about politics. I just want to put that out there at the beginning of this post in the hope that the internet fairies will kindly protect me from a political discussion. And not just because I don’t like to talk about politics but because I want to talk about something very, very personal to me.

I recently read a book in our genre that isn’t about immigrants or immigration but it has an author’s note that addresses that topic. It addresses me. I’ll tell you upfront that I wrote the author to say the note upset me too much to ignore and because the note itself is public, I would address it publicly. 

This is the author’s note:

I’m an immigrant. That word, as you likely know, means I live in a country (the United States) in which I was not born. My parents weren’t born here either. We moved to the U.S. via Puerto Rico when I was six years old. In addition to trying to make sure I knew my birth language and those roots, my parents wanted me to learn the language in the new place I lived. That language was Spanish.

Kids are amazing, their brains are like little sponges, and I learned Spanish perfectly, fluently, like a native speaker. Puerto Rico was home to me until I was nine. At that age, three years is your entire life so Puerto Rico was home and Spanish was my primary language. I moved to the continental U.S. when I was nine, in August, and by Christmas time, when I called to wish my best friend in Puerto Rico a Merry Christmas, I had to do so in English because I remembered not one word of Spanish.

How is that possible? How can someone forget their primary language so quickly? The reason is that I went to a school where we were forbidden from speaking Spanish. It was English only in every location, playground included. I was the only Jewish person in the school. I was foreign. I spoke Spanish. I was different and I was so very, very petrified. So my nine year old self did the one thing I could try to do to fit in and not be punished, to be good, to follow the rules. I behaved by not speaking Spanish.

Forgetting Spanish is my single biggest regret in life. I’ve gone to see specialists about it and they say it’s a mental block, something I put up in my nine year old brain and only I can remove it. I’ve tried. I did everything I could think of, hypnosis included, and I failed. I’m not a fan of failure. I’m usually one to brush it off and try again and again and again. But at this, I failed. Because when I stepped into the box my teachers and school administrators gave me and sealed myself shut inside it, I destroyed that very valuable part of myself.

My mother had never truly been able to pick up Spanish (languages aren’t her strong suit) but my father spoke Spanish at work every day. You may wonder why my parents didn’t step in to stop this from happening or encourage me to keep speaking Spanish to my father or my younger siblings. I don’t wonder because I know that they, like me, were strangers in a strange land. They didn’t speak English, we were all learning, and they didn’t know how to navigate their new world. They had more than enough on their plates.

So I learned English. I learned it well. I tested into every honors class, much to the consternation of several teachers, including a particularly loud English one. I learned that if I kept my head down and worked my ass off, they couldn’t keep me out of those classes. They would be forced to watch me pull myself up.

I also learned that if I spoke English perfectly, with no accent, the banks and post offices and supermarkets of the world couldn’t ignore me when I talked to them about the way they treated my parents. The way they didn’t look at my parents in the face. The way they smirked and said “what” over and over again no matter how slowly and clearly my parents pronounced every word. I could translate for my parents or I could simply restate what they had already said in my perfect English. Often it was easier for my parents if I just did that to begin with. That way there were no disparaging looks or ugly tones. That way their status, our status, as immigrants wasn’t noticed. If they stayed quiet, stayed in the shadows, stayed in their box, nobody would have to be uncomfortable. So they behaved and I behaved and the people in our new country were comfortable.

When one of my siblings was in seventh grade, the yearbook came home with a very American-sounding name under her picture. My parents were more sad than confused. They didn’t like it, but they understood. It gets tiring correcting someone when they mispronounce your name over and over again. It gets tiring seeing their face when they read your name, which is a big part of your identity, and cringe. It’s easier to behave and step into the box quietly. Using one of their easily pronounced names helps with that because it meets their expectations. My sister didn’t want to be different, so she followed the social rules. She behaved.

Friends who have been in my life since my early days in the continental U.S. recount stories about me calling the doctor for my parents, yelling at the bank for my parents, dealing with the airlines for my parents. They say I was never a child. And they’re right. I couldn’t act like any other kid. I wasn’t like any other kid. I had to do better, be more respectful, because there were dire consequences for myself and my family if I didn’t follow the rules. My childhood in many ways ended when I was six. But that is not what my parents wanted for me.

My parents are proud of the adult I am and the child I was. They are grateful for what I did and continue to do for them. But they did not want me to be an adult at six. They did not want me or my siblings to walk through life on eggshells, so scared of being punished, whether by losing out on the “good” classes at school or, worse, losing our ability to remain in this country, that we thanked the person who opened the box for us to step inside.

But what could they do? They didn’t have the power to stop it and the people with power, well, those people saw immigrants, they heard accents, and they had certain expectations. If they treated us with the same respect they did our non-immigrant classmates, we had better show them ten times that level of respect back so nobody could say we were insubordinate or ungrateful. If a job had to be done, we had to do it perfectly with no room for error because there was always someone saying we were lazy, we didn’t belong, there was always someone ready to kick us down to something less or somewhere else.

These parts of my childhood, my past, these parts of me, aren’t something I would have chosen. They aren’t something my parents would have chosen for me. These are things we went through. These are things we had to do. These are ways we had to behave. And we knew every second that we were doing it, that the people around us expected that from us and that we would suffer if we didn’t get into their box.

The author’s note above talks about a child’s confidence coming from a knowledge that without the child’s help, the child’s family would be lost. Let me say that again: a child’s confidence stemming from the realization that the potential loss of a family is on the child’s shoulders.

I was that child and I can tell you the emotion we feel is not confidence. That emotion is desperation or fear or abject need. It is the farthest possible thing from confidence. Being different and at risk of losing everything for yourself and your family does not fill you with, as the author’s note says, self-assurance and the purpose you have when you are a child in that situation is not a purpose any parent wants for their child.

I don’t like to talk about politics. I don’t like to talk about books in my genre. I don’t like to talk about authors. I don’t like drama. And so I avoid all of that at nearly all costs.

But the six year old me, and then the nine year old me, who had to call and beg and shout to help my family because the grown-ups didn’t have the words or the people couldn’t understand their words. That child in me who was the one with my younger sibling at the hospital because my hardworking parents were at work and couldn’t navigate the paperwork anyway. That kid who was forced to be an adult and stand up for the family. That person has never and will never go away.

And so that person has no choice, I have no choice, but to stand up now and say something that should be obvious: words have meaning. The words that take our greatest struggles and fears, the words that highlight the shortcomings in our childhoods, the words that haunt our parents to this day, those words matter. 

The words in that author’s note that sound like sweet, flowery, innocent compliments expose the mistruths people tell themselves to feel better about the part they play in what is a decidedly less enjoyable play for the immigrant actor. Those words do not honor me or people like me by giving us a voice or a role in a book. They instead mischaracterize and appropriate our struggle for the purpose of profit and self-congratulation.

Do not hand me your box decorated in condescending compliments and tell me I’ll like living there. Those words are not compliments. They strip away the truth and reality of our experience and repaint it with a brush that with every stroke says, “We’re so generous for allowing you to be here. You should be grateful because this never should have been yours. Our America is not your America. You cannot make mistakes. You cannot relax. Work harder. Behave. Be respectful. Get in your box.”


  1. I'm so very sorry, thank you for sharing your story! I grew up the adult child in my family, for different reasons, but I do understand what that feels like. I also remember my Granddad talking about not being able to understand his German grandfather, our first family member here in America. I always wished that he'd learned that language and passed it down through our family. Something was definitely lost. Sadly, I'm afraid it's often not the accent that people reject, but the color. I've never seen such blatant racism as we're experiencing right now. Sending hugs and prayers!

  2. Wow, very powerful. And here in latin america (or at least the people I know) usually critizice those who have forgotten Spanish, because we (I include myself because this was an eye opener for me) don't understand. I have heard things like: "that person is not latin, he's a gringo, he only speaks English". And that's that. Thank so much for educating me, I'll make sure to do the same whenever I hear something along those lĂ­nea again. It needs to be said.

    1. I think it's less that we forget and more that it's stolen from us. And thank you.

  3. It is stolen, yes.

    My children didn't have to face the same level of hardship as you did, because I was a fairly fluent English speaker (though the accent thing--almost twenty years later, is still an issue for some people, may the gods have mercy on them).

    Still, both my children faced the issues at school that you point out. Parents try to stand between their children and hardship, but we often cannot, and it's the children who have to live with the consequences.

    Thank you for speaking up.

  4. Thank you for this essay--it brought tears to my eyes. As a child of Japanese-American, whose first language was not English, I experienced, and still experience much of what you have articulated so perfectly.

  5. I used to work in pediatrics and I've worked with children, who like you, were forced into adulthood too soon. We had a doctor who Spanish fluently and most requested him, but more often than not, until the doctor came in,t the child was the one who spoke.

    I'm sorry for the burden you were forced to bear. I'm sorry for the burdens so many continue to bear.