Bicultural: Growing up Latino in the Ozarks

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo – Marylen was ten years old when she and her family moved to the United States from Venezuela.

“Honestly, the only thing I knew about the United States is that there were tornadoes,” she said. “I had to read with a Spanish and English dictionary so that I could learn word by word; that was hard. I remember crying in class one time because I couldn’t understand the teacher.”

At such a young age, she dealt with a gap between language and culture, a sharp distinction even more apparent in the school cafeteria.

“School food,” said Giovanni Garcia. “School food was much better in Mexico.”

Giovanni Garcia was Born in Springfield, went to live with family in Mexico, and attended an English-speaking school there, making the transition easier. Gio now goes to Central High School.

Marylen went to Pleasant Hope in Bolivar and now attends Missouri State University, where she says she found more diversity than in high school, including other Latino students.

“We could understand each other, and we had the same food, we listen to the same music, that was nice,” she said.

Both tell me they keep their culture alive by visiting family, staying connected through technology and, of course, through food.

“We still eat pan de jamon every Christmas,” Marylen said. “Arepas, my mom still makes arepas.”

“We still have their recipes that we can make at home, even if we burn them,” Gio said.

Language is possibly the most substantial ties to their background.

“I would say when I was younger, I don’t want to say ashamed, but you know, you want to fit in more, and you want to try and speak English as best as possible. But being bilingual is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. So, I’m always thankful for that.”

So, you have probably heard the terms Hispanic, Latino, and, most recently, Latinx. Here’s what they mean. Hispanic, per the Pew Research Center, means of Spanish descent or a Spanish-speaking country. For example, Hispanic does not include Brazil, where the language is Portuguese, but does include Spain.

Latino means from Latin America, which would include Brazil, but not Spain.

Latinx is a gender-neutral term, instead of using Latino for a male or Latina for a female.

“I’d identify with Latina/Hispanic,” Marylen said.

Gio feels differently.

“It’s such a generic term,” he said. “I’d prefer none of them. The comparison I would make is if you ask someone who is Italian where they are from, they are going to say Italy, not Europe. And yes, I am from Latin America, I’m Latino by definition, but if someone asks, I’m going to say I’m Mexican.”

Both tell me they also identify with their American lifestyle. And Gio’s mother, Judith Martinez, says she made it a point and is thankful her children were raised bilingual and bicultural.

“That ability to transfer from one culture to another is what I think that I have given them as inheritance,” she said. “They don’t have to separate it. It’s a holistic view of identity rather than having to choose.”

Martinez says that’s the uniqueness of their identity, having two windows into two different worlds that, for them, are not separate.

“I get to experience both sides, and I get to accept both sides instead of choosing one or the other,” Gio said.

“I am always grateful that I get to know both languages and both cultures,” said Marylen.

The Census Bureau estimates that roughly 60.6 million people identify as Hispanic in the United States as of 2019, making up 18 percent of the total population. In Springfield, 4.4 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

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