Bicultural struggles: Life in Latinx shoes

Story and photo by ZANE LAW

The Latinx community has taken on the challenge of raising bicultural children, allowing their kids to venture from familial norms. While many Latinx immigrants came to the United States as solely Spanish speakers and Latin-embodied individuals, their kids and younger generations are transitioning to a more Americanized way of life. From bilingual speech to the foods they eat to the clothes they wear, everything can change before a parent’s eyes. Many parents struggle with this process. 

Shane Macfarlan, a well-published anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah, said culture is an “integrated system of symbolically encoded conceptual phenomena that is socially and historically transmitted within and between populations.” 

To put this mouthful in far simpler terms, Macfarlan said culture is an intertwined web of knowledge that gives meaning to acts and things. This explanation says that culture is a set of thoughts and beliefs that allow Americans to know an extended hand as an attempted handshake, burgers and hotdogs as go-to barbecue/party foods, and the word football as a game played with pads and a helmet instead of a soccer ball and cleats. These words, gestures, and foods did not have an assigned meaning or context until a group of folks came together and decided it to be this way. 

This definition and concept are described by Macfarlan as being both a blessing and a curse for immigrants. While culture allows people to bond with each other, coordinate activities, and hang onto loved traditions, the integration of a foreign culture can also be a challenge. He said that because of the “integrated system” aspect of his culture definition, “changing one aspect of someone’s culture can inadvertently change other aspects as well.” 

For example, a bilingual home would allow someone to communicate openly with friends and family of different cultures, while also giving folks a leg up in terms of job qualifications. Bilingual individuals are always needed in the job force and are in high demand, so being raised in that environment is helpful.

A parent of a bilingual child would most likely be happy to see their kid grow up with more opportunities, but because a language was added to the child’s life, Macfarlan’s definition says that other aspects of their family’s culture are able to change as well. The parent may struggle to keep their kid speaking Spanish, enjoying the same foods, or practicing the same traditions. 

Andrea Ibanez, however, said in a video chat that she had a different experience. An Argentinian-born woman who has now lived in California for about 40 years, said that when she moved to the U.S. as a child, her mom wanted them to learn English in order to be successful. Mama Ibanez would speak to Andrea in English whenever she got the chance, wanting to pick up on school-learned knowledge. There were fewer Latinx individuals in the U.S. and Spanish speakers were not as sought after, so the Ibanez family was trying hard to focus on acculturation rather than enculturation. English was key and Spanish fell to second best. 

andrea and kids

Andrea and her kids enjoy a nice, Argentinian meal.

This cultural identity and monolingual predicament strained Ibanez’s relationship with her own daughter. She continued with her English-only mindset until she realized the benefits of being bilingual. Ibanez said she began giving Spanish lessons to her daughter when she turned 16, but by then it was too late. Her daughter always thought that speaking Spanish was difficult and embarrassing. They would reply to each other in different languages and argue for hours about the benefits and the embarrassments of each side.

With so much pressure to fit into “the crowd” at younger ages, there is a huge decision to be made. Latinx individuals are able to conform to American society and leave large portions of their culture behind, refuse to assimilate and fall back on ethnic ties, or accept both cultures the same and effectively communicate with both communities.

According to a 2014 study, “ethnic minority individuals may engage in frame switching (switching between their dual cultural identities in response to cultural cues as needed).” While this style is ideal, being able to communicate with different people and understand the values, beliefs, and norms of each, it is much easier said than done. 

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Utah House of Representatives legislator and mother of two, speaks of the trials of being a mother to bicultural children. Her kids practiced the first assimilation option, joining their friends and forgetting their Hispanic roots.

She explained that while teens already tend to pull away from their parents, as a mechanism of growth and independence-gaining, the pushback is “augmented and amplified when dealing with a Latino kid.” She said that kids simply want to fit in with friends and are embarrassed by roots that are not common within peer groups. They do not fully know who they are or what values are important to them yet.

While Chavez-Houck did struggle with her kids’ personal growth, she said the transition is easier for the parents and children when the community is there to support and foster a wholesome experience. According to a 2018 Salt Lake Tribune story, there are 440,000 Latinx community members now residing in Utah.

Being able to stay in touch with roots and complete a smooth transition to biculturalism, based on Chavez-Houck’s statement, is becoming easier as Latinx populations increase statewide.