Hi, my name is Julio, and I am a failed Latino dad.
I have been trying to write that sentence for over 10 years now, ever since I consciously stopped forcing my kids to watch “Plaza Sésamo” or listen to José-Luis Orozco songs or read early Spanish-language board books. I don’t really know when I stopped talking to my two children (now both teenagers) exclusively in Spanish, but I think it was when I was traveling way too much from Boston to California during the days when I used to direct the development of PreK-6 Spanish reading textbooks and other materials for English Language Learners. In those days, I would spend most of my professional work days speaking, writing, editing and dissecting a language that I learned when I was growing up in Puerto Rico. I was out of the house a lot, and when it was time to come home, all I wanted to do was hang with my two young kids and not turn every moment I had with them into Spanish 101.
The guilt has been with me ever since. There are times when I feel that I have let all my ancestors down because I stopped speaking Spanish to my kids. It got so bad for me that when my daughter was ready to start first grade in my oh-so-not-Latino Boston suburb, I literally couldn’t believe that my local district’s amazing language immersion program focused only on French, and not Spanish. I recall the days when I would tell my wife, “French? Seriously? French? Why just French immersion? Is Spanish too second-class for them?” Still, I reluctantly agreed for my daughter to jump into French immersion. A few years later, my son did the same.
I had committed a mortal sin. I knew that my children had to learn Spanish, but I did very little as a dad to make that happen in their formative years. Didn’t I know about the research?
Then something remarkable happened. Around the time I was in a career transition, I was able to be closer to home. I started noticing that my kids were being exposed to what it is to be a bilingual learner. They both got really good at French, and we just started having natural conversations about language and communication.
I also never stopped exposing my children to my bilingual, bicultural world, but this time around, it didn’t feel like a parental assignment. It was just a papi hanging out with his children. And they were into it, not “YAY, PAPI!” into it, but, “That’s kind of cool” into it.
Music played a huge part in all this. Some of my greatest memories as a father during my kids’ elementary school years was driving to the all their activities and playing the music I loved in the car. It was then when I saw some interest in my children understanding that part of their world is a Puerto Rican and Latino one. For that, I thank people like Roy Brown:
And Los Tigres Del Norte (one of the characters’ last name in the song is Varela):
And Juan Luis Guerra:
Then when my kids started using social media (a WHOLE other topic) and they realized that I knew about it more than them, they started getting into what I did. My daughter, now 15, has been following Latino Rebels for a while now and listens to Latino USA. My son, who is now 13, tends to identify his Latinoness through sports, especially soccer and baseball. It also doesn’t hurt that I (and his abuelo) can tell him stories about Clemente:
What I find now is that my kids are trying to figure out their identity, and I don’t (or never wanted to be) that dad who tried to box them in before they even had a chance to find that identity on their own. Now, when my son chooses the Puerto Rican flag for his FIFA video games, I smile, or when my daughter tells me that she wants to see her cousins in Puerto Rico and wants to learn more about her heritage, I smile even more. I always wanted to mold my children in the way I would want them to be, but that was so unhealthy, especially for them. Better to let it be natural and have their curiosity lead the way. Once it does, I jump in like the crazy papi that I am.
I have come to terms with this confession, and I am ok with it. I have also talked with many friends of mine who find themselves in the same dilemma. Are we being bad Latino parents? Once, I thought I was, but now, I know I am not. The best thing you can do for your children is to love them unconditionally and let them explore their identity on their own terms, just like I did when I was growing up.
When I was a new parent, I was scared.
I felt the pressure.
I thought there could only be one way.
But having done this for 15 years now, I can only conclude that parenting is so messy, so complicated, yet so amazingly rewarding, that I would never want it any other way.
I share all this with you because tomorrow the Latino USA team will spend a whole hour on parenthood, and at one point in the show, Maria Hinojosa and I talk about this very same issue. In my conversation with Maria, I find out that wow, she too had similar feelings as a parent. Yeah, Maria Hinojosa felt the same way. It is a show you don’t want to miss.
Now back to the music.
The next song I am playing for my kids?
Oh yeah, I did forget to tell you: both my kids plan to take Spanish soon. But it is their choice, not mine.
So are you a Latino parent? I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Tweet me @julito77.
5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Latino Dad”
I love this article and sometimes I felt like I had written parts of it. I struggle with this constantly and feel like I’ve let my children down by not speaking more Spanish to them. When they were little we read a lot in Spanish and listened to salsa and merengue. Now they want to hear ‘today’s hits’. I haven’t imposed it on them but I do hope that someday they’ll be curious about the language and learn it because they want to. It’s been hard, especially considering I’m a Spanish professor. So thanks for writing this. Makes me feel like I’m not alone in this.
Wow! La semilla se desarrolle en belleza con el amor de familia! I would love to share a poem my son wrote to me and my poem to him of thanks. Where can I send it? – Lillian firstname.lastname@example.org
Julito, I do not have children so this dynamic applies to me as a son rather than as a father. In our house, my parents never spoke English with me. Regardless of whether or not I spoke Spanish or English back to them, they never hit me with English. Around the time I left high school and went to college, I began to self identify with a much different form of Mexicanidad than my parents but linguistically we discovered that it sounded corny to speak to each other in English so we never did. And we still wont.
When my wife and I married, we found that we could speak to each other in either language but I was for sure never going to marry someone that couldnt speak Spanish. And in our fantasies of what it might be like to have a child, I feel like its a certainty that we’d be corny if we spoke in English to our child. I’ll get back to you if it ever happens that we create a real child.