A few months ago, I walked into a deli at 5am on a Sunday morning and asked a Latino-looking man if he would make me un sandguich (“a sandwich,” duh). I’d just spent 7 hours playing music at a Mexican-themed independence party in Manhattan — yup, I’m a DJ — and I was starving.
After specifying what kind of sandwich I was craving, I looked at the man’s name tag and it read “Toño,” short for Antonio. As Toño began shifting around condiments, veggies, bread, and other fixings, he asked in español “Where did you learn your Spanish? You speak it well.” “In Mexico,” I replied, “I was born there.” Slightly distrustful, Toño looked at my face and squinted. I could tell he was second-guessing his first impression and his cold — but playful — gaze was trying to crack me.
Still skeptical, he quizzed me: “You don’t look Mexican. Where were you born?” “Jalisco, in the highlands,” I told him. “Con razón [no wonder],” he replied, looking down and resuming his work on the delicious sandwich I was mentally savoring. “¿Allá hay mucho güero, verdad? [There’s lots of whites over there, huh?].” “That’s what they say,” I joked. Toño giggled.
Then his demeanor changed; in a benevolent but slightly disappointed tone, I overheard him say — and I say “overheard” because I felt like he was no longer talking to me — “at least you’re not ashamed of speaking Spanish.” “What a strange thing to say,” I thought to myself. In NYC, Latinos make up almost 30% percent of the city’s population — and, seriously, everybody everywhere seems to speak Spanish. I’ve heard the Chinese owner of the supermarket below my apartment joke around — in perfect, flawless Spanish — with the older Puerto Rican ladies who shop there during the day.
Curious, I asked Toño if he was from Puebla — most Mexicans in NYC usually are — and also because his accent sounded southern. “¡Sí! De Atlixco [Yes! From Atlixco].” “I’ve been there — it’s beautiful,” I told him. Visibly excited, he began telling me about himself: “It’s pretty, right? I moved here from Atlixco 15 years ago. Back then, I was still married.” “So you’re divorced, huh?” I asked. “Yes. I have two kids: an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old.”
His awkward comment suddenly made sense to me: his kids, I assumed, probably spoke little to no Spanish. To solidify my hypothesis, I asked about the last time he went back to Mexico. “I’ve never been back. I can’t, you know?”
Yup, I know. I know because, although my family came the U.S. legally when I was 5-years-old, we interacted with many other families, friends, and neighbors who did not. I’ve witnessed Toño’s circumstance many, many times: a couple — or, in many cases, a single parent — without the resources to visit their homeland decides to raise their offspring in the States. It’s a big decision; the parents of these children will likely work a terrible, low-paying job for a very long time with the hopes that their children will learn English, get an education, and succeed.
Some of the children of these parents might achieve the success their parents want them to achieve, but I have a feeling many will not.
Toño’s predicament reminded me of Genaro, a middle-aged Mexican man I met back when I lived in California. I used to watch Genaro walk into my job — a local thrift store — looking for busted sofas and couches. “Hey, compadre, you live in a mansion or something? You buy a lot of couches!” I’d comment in jest. Genaro would laugh but he’d never tell me what he was doing with his ugly, stained, out-of-style purchases. Finally, after a couple of months, he invited me over: “Come by my place after work. I wanna show you something.” After locking up the thrift store I drove to his house, parked, and was immediately greeted by his friendly wife, whom I already knew from the thrift store, and Johnny, his son. I briefly asked myself if Johnny’s name was actually Juan, and if “Johnny” was just a nickname, but then Genaro activated a remote control which triggering the mechanism on his garage door. Slowly a collection of beautiful furniture was uncovered. Tools and scraps of fabric could be seen off to the side.:
“My wife and I moved here in the ‘70s from Michoacan. Back then, I got a job upholstering furniture for big department stores near Silicon Valley. I got pretty good at it and now it’s sort of a hobby. Furniture — as long as it has a solid frame — can always be reupholstered, given new life.”
Genaro asked me to come inside his home and treated me to dinner. His son sat next to me at the table and, although his parents only spoke Spanish to me, whenever I asked him a question the scruffy teenager always replied in English. I knew it was somewhat impolite to ask, but I did it anyway: “Is Johnny your real name? Or..” Before he could even answer, Genaro, looking down at his placemat, grumbled: “Sí, así le pusimos al cabrón [Yes, that’s what we named the fucker].” Genaro’s wife reprimanded her husband for calling her son a “cabrón,” but Johnny didn’t seem to care. Instead, he zoned out and started looking at a skateboarding magazine.
In an earnest voice Genaro explained himself: “Back in the ‘70s there was a lot of discrimination. We used to think that naming our children all-American names would help them get ahead. But… well, I don’t know.”
It was a resentful explanation. Just like Toño, Genaro never looked at me while expressing his indirect disappointment. But unlike Toño, Genaro and his family could travel back to Mexico and return to the States legally. I was about to ask Johnny if he liked visiting Michoacan but was abruptly interrupted: “He hates it!” yelled Genaro. Again, Johnny was unfazed. I could tell it wasn’t the first time he had that conversation with his dad.
When it comes to being a poor immigrant and raising your children a foreign country, this seems to be a common pattern: Parents bust their asses in awful jobs in order to provide for their kids, as previously stated, and their kids initially adopt their progenitors’ culture — but quickly appropriate their new culture. For parents, however, little — if anything — changes. They keep interacting mostly with other immigrants and are very slow to adapt their new culture.
Their offspring, in contrast, relate more to their peers, and have a hard time grasping the nuances of their parents’ customs, language, and behavior — unless they figure out the culture by themselves, and not through their parents (kids never think anything their parents are into is cool unless they conclude it by themselves.)
I’m sure a real anthropologist somewhere expanded on the paragraph you read above in a more articulate and less half-ass manner than myself, but you get the gist, right? In the end, there’s frustration on both sides: Parents resent their children for not appreciating what “should have been” their culture, children resent their parents for liking weird music and forcing quinceañera parties on them.
Before Toño finished wrapping up my sandwich he smiled and said: “You want anything else on it? Any extras?” Hinting we’d become deli buddies, I told him I wouldn’t mind more avocado. He piled on enough slices to make two molcajetes worth of guacamole before saying “Ahí le va, güerito [here you go, whitey].” I paid for my sandwich, looked at Toño, and said: “Cuidese, compadre ¡Pa’la proxima me lo llevo a Jalisco! [Take care, friend. Next time I’m dragging you to Jalisco!]”