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The Detroit News

Latinos Nurture Ethnic Pride

By Kimberly Hayes Taylor

October 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Detroit News. All rights reserved. 

The night Ozzie Rivera's uncle turned 80, the aroma of rice and pigeon peas, green banana salad, fried chicken and quenapes wafted around the back yard.

More than 100 cousins and other relatives danced, sang out, laughed and snapped photos at the surprise party. Rivera's 10-piece salsa band jammed. Everyone grooved as if it would be the last time.

But in the midst of the celebration, Rivera wished that his daughters were there. He was reminded their lives won't have the same Latin flavor of his own. The American-born teens don't have dozens of cousins for companions as he did growing up in southwest Detroit. They don't easily glide from English to Spanish. Living in suburban Atlanta, they may never attend salsa dances on Saturday nights.

"Maybe as they get older, they may lose some of those traditions. They don't know how to cook Puerto Rican food themselves," Rivera says. "It's going to be interesting to see how all of this gets interpreted in their own lives."

Modern Latino parents such as Rivera are more prepared to allow their children to be bicultural ? both Latino and American. Unlike old-school parents who force children to immerse themselves in only one culture, many of today's parents expose their offspring to Latino foods, music and traditions, while granting them room to embrace the experiences that come with being American.

Rivera, director of multicultural affairs for Livonia's Madonna University, says he wants his children to experience America's diversity. So when they were young, he took them along when he made presentations on Caribbean Spanish, and to his salsa band rehearsals. As a coordinator for Detroit's annual Concert of Colors, he introduced them to performers from other countries. Sometimes, they whined, "Do we have to go to the Concert of Colors again?" he says. But when they got there, they had a good time.

His way of parenting is what Carmen Inoa Vazquez recommends to Latino parents. A prominent Latina psychologist in New York City, Vazquez wrote the newly released book, "Parenting With Pride Latino Style: How to Help Your Child Cherish Your Cultural Values and Succeed in Today's World" (Rayo, $23.95).

Parents who avoid wielding unquestionable authority and jamming Latin culture down their children's throats will have more success, she says.

In her own home, Vazquez, a Dominican Republic native, played the music she enjoyed growing up and cooked her favorite foods such as beans and rice. Her sons came to love the music and want beans and rice almost every day. But they also love hip-hop, spaghetti, hamburgers and hot dogs.

"I never had to force anything on them," Vazquez says. "Pass on your values, cherish them, present them. Those are the most powerful ways to pass on the culture. If you push your children and force them to do things or eat certain foods, they may comply, but they won't embrace it. Eventually, they will reject your culture altogether."

Maria Ross of Detroit knows the feeling of having parents who are resistant to American ways. When she was growing up in southwest Detroit, her home usually felt warm and loving, but it also felt like a prison at times.

She couldn't go out as often as she pleased because "good Mexican girls don't run the street," Ross recalls. As a young woman, she couldn't move out until she wed. Though her parents spoke English, they wouldn't answer her unless she spoke to them in Spanish.

"It was hard," she says. "I was trying to live within two worlds."

When it came to her own children, Ross allowed them more freedom. She also sent them to Mexican folkloric dance classes and taught her daughters waltzes for their quince?earas, a 15th birthday celebration.

"They call America the melting pot and that is wrong," Ross says. "It has caused too many people to lose their language and culture, who they are. I wanted my children to know who they are."

Debbie Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, assistant professor at Wayne State University's School of Social Work, agrees children should be encouraged to celebrate their heritage.

"It's very important and salient to promote cultural pride," she says. "The flip side of that is when you are ashamed of your own cultural background and view it negatively, it can have a negative impact on kids."

Ligia Gomez, a Cincinnatti-area psychologist, says she sees this at a center for Latino children where she works.

While first-generation Latinos tend to value their culture while learning about American culture, their second-generation counterparts are more likely to want to fit in and become misfits instead, she says.

"We see more health problems. There is more smoking, drug abuse, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases and a lot of pregnancies," Gomez says. "The second generation, they don't want to be different. We try to give them something to hold onto."

Ross has worked hard to give her family traditions and values to hold onto. While she rebelled in her own way by marrying an African-American man against her parents' wishes, Ross says she never abandoned her heritage. She encouraged her children to learn about Latino culture, making sure they became fluent in Spanish.

"I tried to teach them the same things my parents taught me," she says. "I got baby sitters who spoke Spanish -- Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican."

Now, she works to make sure her grandchildren speak and read Spanish.

Living in an area with few Latinos makes it more difficult for parents to expose children to their family's heritage. Such is the case for Rivera, whose hip-hop and rock loving daughters live in suburban Atlanta.

Rivera says he and his ex-wife do what they can to make sure their daughters understand their Puerto Rican heritage. While their father encourages them when they mention interest in taking salsa lessons, their mother who grew up in Puerto Rico prepares traditional foods for them. The 14- and 16-year-olds are taking Spanish lessons in high school.

"When I was growing up, there was no bilingual education. Maintaining one's culture outside the home environment was frowned upon, and there was a strong push for acculturation and assimilation," he says. "I don't want that to happen to my daughters. Some people say, 'You've got to remember your Puerto Rican culture.' I would rather model it."

Passing on values

Debbie Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, assistant professor at Wayne State University's School of Social Work, provides these tips for parents who want their children to value their cultural heritage:

* Look for natural opportunities to educate your child about your culture. For example, talk about it when a topic related to your culture is on the news or in the newspaper, or an exhibit comes to a museum.

* Decide what cultural traditions you want to continue. For example, bring out the pinata at Christmas or birthday parties; make tamales during the Christmas holidays.

* Bring up conversation about culture with your child; don't expect for your child to come to you.

Translating ethnic pride

Research shows ethnic identity isn't usually attained until adolescence. If your adolescent is primarily speaking English and you want to encourage more Spanish, New York psychologist Carmen Inoa Vazquez, author of "Parenting With Pride Latino Style: How to Help Your Child Cherish Your Cultural Values and Succeed in Today's World" offers these suggestions:

* Talk to your child to see if he or she feels embarrassed about your accent. Try not to feel offended if your child shuns your ethnicity. Nearly all teens are embarrassed by their parents. This is a passing phase.

* Ask yourself if you or others are putting too much pressure on your child to speak Spanish with her siblings or friends. It is natural at this age that children will want to speak English with peers.

* Provide interesting age-appropriate books in Spanish.

* Observe whether anybody is making fun of how your child speaks Spanish during visits to relatives.

* Try to watch Spanish movies together.

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