Native, first generation

photo by Wolfgang Stearns
photo by Wolfgang Stearns

We always had to talk in hushed whispers. Occasionally my grandmother would forget, her voice raising, her r’s rolling. We were strange, we were strangers.

Those old farmers, in those old Ohio fields tilled my native state’s soil and yet, I was a foreigner.

To be a first generation American is always an experience in divided loyalties. To be a first generation Latina in the 1970’s in the rural, flat expanses of mid-west corn rows, was a lesson in split personality disorder.

In the summer of 1974 we visited my cousins in Spain. We walked along cobbled-stone, narrow roads while the neighbors shouted, “The Americans are here!” to one another.

Earlier in that very year, I had started school. Dressed in a pristine, pressed dress with patent leather shoes and tightly braided hair, my casual t-shirt and jeans-clad classmates had sarcastically asked me, “What planet are you from?”

These memories float around in my mind 40 years later as I ride along Route 376 in my adopted industrial city of adulthood.
I’m riding behind a shiny red pick-up truck. A bumper sticker reads, “You’re in America now, speak English!”.

I hear my grandmother’s voice, her laugh, her forceful cadence. I see her in my mind’s eye, asking for the heads to be left on the fish at the market. And I recall the horrified looks on the faces of those meat-counter ladies at the downtown Kresge’s.

“You want the head left on the fish?”

“Si, si la cabeza, thank you!”

They would exchange a look of disgust.

But these native Americans were not Native American. Their story wasn’t so different from mine, the main difference is that it had been played out a couple generations before me. They had forgotten their own history, their customs, their language, the stories of
their ancestors.

I do speak English, Mr. Pickup.

And I remember, I remember everything.

191 thoughts on “Native, first generation”

    1. Thank you. It’s been interesting to absorb reader’s comments. Mostly positive, but once in a while this must touch a nerve and defenses go up. When one has this experience as a child mostly, it shapes the person we become. I like to think it’s made us more sensitive and better people.

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      1. I agree that it does affects the younger generation more. But in all honesty, some truths must be voiced out inspite of objecting defences . And this was really a read that I’m sure so so so many people can identify with.

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  1. Growing up in Jackson Heights Queens, my beloved next door neighbor Mary Ballducci, was from Italy. She was a warm, affectionate figure in my formative years. Some of my strongest childhood memories are of her. I recall so fondly, the excitement and strangeness of visiting Manhattan’s Little Italy via subway with Mary as she picked out the finest Parmesan Regianno cheese for her cappellini (or skinny spaghetti as we children called it). I delighted in learning of this new world and everything Italian, through the eyes of a six year old. I still dream of that soothing and comforting Italian accent and learning of her beautiful culture. It is a sadness that people often shun what is different or new to them instead of embracing and learning.

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  2. The act of finding identity changes with each generation. When my grandma came to the U.S. as a child, her mother told them not to speak Spanish so they would “fit in” and not be seen as migrant workers. As a result, my mom never learned much Spanish or knew much of her heritage until decades later. I wanted to discover it and studied Spanish and went to Mexico and Spain. The experiences helped fill in part of my identity and feel closer to our origins

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    1. Yes, I knew many people in the Spanish community where I grew up who were encouraged to “fit in” in that way. And, I understand wanting your children to fit in and not be different. But you’re right that such a large part of our individual identity is then lost. No culture, no country is perfect but it is important to make connections with our past. It will inform who we are in the present and who we become in the future.

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  3. You mention visiting your cousins in Spain and being called “American.” That’s funny because one of my relatives calls me that when I visit my native Germany. I can’t blame him….I certainly sound like an American even when I speak my mother tongue. However, I do feel very comfortable when I visit and realize that much of my estrangement from American culture comes from not having assimilated (even after over 30 yrs here). There are certain values that define me that I am not willing to give up, they are part of my identity. And, yes, I will always sit on the fence…but I am used to it and I mostly enjoy it because it gives me cultural insights that I would not have if I was only part of one culture. It also makes me sensitive to people from other cultures who come here; I am inevitably drawn to those who “came here” and it doesn’t matter where they are from. We have a common bond.

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    1. I completely agree with everything you said. My mother has been in America for 50 years and there are many times I have to explain certain things to her that she just doesn’t understand. Often I won’t understand a saying or a phrase and my husband jokingly makes fun of me because I was born here! You are right, that common bond is very strong.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I experienced something similar to this when I immigrated from Russia to America. They weren’t pleasant experiences, but I am happy to overcome those looks & stares. And I truly hope that non-native individuals will not experience this again, in any country, in any time.

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  5. As an immigrant myself, I’ve always had a really hard time watching people here in California completely disrespect Spanish speakers. California, with an exceedingly large Hispanic population, still has plenty of “you’re in America, speak English” people. Once, when I witnessed this happening, I spoke in broken Spanish to the lovely abuela trying to pay for her groceries. I turned to the cashier and said “you know, there is no official language in America, so she has every right to be speaking Spanish to you. It would be a benefit to your success in life if you learn even the most basic amount of Spanish.”

    Luckily, for me, my native tongue is English, being Irish & born in London. 20-something years later, even I get “excuse me, what language are you speaking?” when my accent comes out. I remember when I was somewhat young, when someone was finding out about me, upon learning I am from England, she asked me what language we speak in England. Baffled, I stared at her for what seemed like eternity, then finally responded “English is our national language.” It took her a few minutes to do the equation in her head.

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  6. What a great piece. You say so much in so few words. I remember the distress I felt when my grandmother (the daughter of Greek and Austrian immigrants) expressed concern about the changing demographics of her neighborhood in East Hartford, CT.

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  7. As a first generation child in the U.S., this story holds dear to me. As an adult, two years ago I moved back to my native country and yet again, I am considered a foreignor to the people around me.

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    1. I saw this happen to my mum when we visited her country together several years ago. The country that she left and the country that is now are two very different places. She never really feels like she fits in here and she no longer was fitting in there. It broke my heart.
      Be strong and know that our true place of origin is really deep inside of each of us. Our reality is what we make it, we belong somewhere when we feel loved regardless of our point of origin.

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  8. Really nice and well told. I remember how it feels to be a new commer in a completely new society with people with the same skin color looking at ones own as if from a different planet. Realoy enjoyed readding your story.

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  9. Beautifully written. You’ve certainly that aspect that many newcomers to a country struggle with…a close friend of mine (first generation Canadian) often struggles with being treated foreign in Canada and in Greece.

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    1. Divided loyalties can be difficult. But, they can also be interesting and mind expanding. We are never just one thing or one experience, we are made of many complicated beautiful ingredients.

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  10. Can’t agree any more! Been here for 5 years, and it still doesn’t feel like it could be a home for me in the future. Also people are always surprised when I speak good English, and it’s high time they become more understanding of the progress other cultures have made so far.

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  11. Didin’t read yet: gotta think about getting out into the real-world, as it must be, at-least ten-feet away from this monitor; coming-up on what must be hmmm “six-hours-now.” Maybe I’ll read it later.
    For now I leave a thought: on “split personality disorder” – I wonder what strange mental aberrations are lurking, mushing-around in the subconsious souls of we privileged who never consciously think of what in the real world of such a schism of hearts & souls exist. What unheard laments must our own deep minds contain? Is is true that we have lost our souls to the malaire? I think we too suffer; we marvel & value our mechanical terrors & self-centristic mores – with our eyes at the top, we’ve forgotten that the roots connect us to the rest of life.

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  12. I thought you were going to be “Native American” when I read the title and they too could tell stories like this, being here first and treated like outsiders. I guess we all need to be kind and patient to one another. My world is richer since I have been introduced to the foods, customs, celebrations of peoples of various nations.Thank you for sharing your story, it has an awakening effect.

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  13. nice post…I am an american through at least seven generations past… But as a navy brat. I too felt the difference and the aloneness one feels when moving into a new place. We moved all over the US and i never could make friends that was keepers.

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  14. My image of America has been painted by movies (and good ones too), music and the news. And as I begin to analyze the kind of sense of separation, isolation that one community or the other has to face in every part of the world, I realize that things are pretty much the same everywhere. In India, people judge you by the colour of your skin (yes racism is rampant in India since times unknown), the language you speak. Lot of similarities! Somewhere down the line, we MUST rid ourselves of such divisive viewing glasses in society.

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    1. I agree, this is a human trait, not limited to one country or another. I very much hope that as you say, somewhere down the line, the ugliness to judge by skin color or language or “otherness” will diminish. Let’s all hope.

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  15. Very interesting read! What is truly sad is that in “America” people are labeled. There are so many different nationalities, however if you are latina/latino , it is assumed that you are either Puerto Rican or Mexican.. My mother is from the Dominican Republic and my father was Italian so trust me when I say I can relate! There is nothing more beautiful than diversity and culture! We should not judge for what we do not know or understand, we should take the opportunity to expand and grow…

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