My experiences with language began at very early age. I was born in Puerto Rico where I lived the first four years of my life. When I was four, we moved to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where my father worked for an American oil company. This was basically the same routine throughout my childhood, traveling from place to place and always being the new kid on the block. While my parents spoke Spanish exclusively at home, my sister and I were encouraged to learn English to be successful and “fit in” at school and social gatherings organized by my father’s company. My father’s view of achievement was closely tied to his experiences in working with an American company. He saw this as the highlight of his career. He had “made it” and now he wanted his children to do the same. To this day, he sees English as a “language of success and prosperity”.
College was my biggest transition and challenge in terms of language, culture, and identity. Up until this point, I had been protected and sheltered by my parents. College was another story. I went to Penn State (for my B.A. in International Politics) with dreams of a wonderful college life where football games, challenging classes, and new friends were waiting to be experienced. I soon faced a culture shock when I arrived at my dorm. I had to adapt to a new environment and new friends with different beliefs and experiences.
Throughout most of my childhood my sister and I had shared a room. However, now I was to share a room with a total stranger who could not understand why I needed to call home almost everyday and receive my mother’s blessing (Bendición), why I pinned my hair up at night, or why I walked around my room on Sundays with big, pink curlers to straighten my hair. Many of the girls on my floor had never been exposed to diversity and different ethnicities. One friend told me that this was the first time she had seen a Hispanic girl. Another one asked me how far away Puerto Rico was and how long the drive would be. I told her she could certainly try to cross the Caribbean Sea in her car!
During my doctoral studies at UCONN, the experience was somewhat different. As I walked through UCONN, I could see myself in the faces of many other students. Yet, I still wondered if some of them were going through what I went through. Trying to fit in and create an identity within a foreign environment. Seeing these students and teaching them (as an adjunct professor), made me reaffirm my commitment to working with diverse communities and school districts where there is an increasing need for Latino/a professionals who understand students’ culture, identity, and need to “belong”.
Now as an adult, I realize that English has in fact become my “professional and academic language”. The face I show at work, among my colleagues and peers, or at the department store even though some people might see me differently. However, Spanish is who I am. I continue to pray in Spanish and I feel out of place in an all English mass. I find it hard to recite my prayers and connect with my spiritual self in another language that is not Spanish. I pray in Spanish, feel, and cry in Spanish… I put a piece of bread and glass of water on top of my refrigerator so that I have “el pan nuestro de cada día” (our daily bread). I have a little altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary and I am extremely superstitious. I am so grateful for the gift that my father gave me of reading and speaking in English. But it is with my mother that I have the greater debt, for she gave me the biggest gift of all: my true identity. It is in Spanish that I am able to communicate with my inner self, my “YO” and where I will always feel at home.