Broken Spanish

In many occasions, I have used this blog to express my ups and downs in raising multilingual children. It is something that I’m passionate about not only because speaking more than one language in a globalized society makes sense, but because I want my children to have a deeper connection with their extended family and our roots.

Time and again, I have compared how my oldest daughter’s grasp on the Spanish language is far superior than my son’s -the middle child- or my youngest daughter who is only in preschool. My son is just not as interested in the Spanish language as his older sister, or so I thought.

As you have probably read, we recently relocated from Michigan to Pennsylvania. The move has obviously come with plenty of opportunities for the kids to adjust and adapt to a new environment. Nowhere has it been more evident than at school. Our former environment was quite homogeneous making us stand out as the mixed family we are. Here however, not only is the student body rich in diversity, but also the staff.

My children were welcomed in a warm way making them feel safe and empowered. My daughter has five classmates of Mexican heritage in her classroom. She was happy to discover that like her, they are all bilingual but English is their stronger language.

Among my son’s classmates, there is a boy from Puerto Rico who does not speak English (yet). To my surprise, my son has happily taken the role of an interpreter between his Spanish-speaking friend and the English-speaking ones.

You cannot believe the amount of joy this makes me feel! My son, using his broken Spanish, is experiencing first hand how bilingualism bridges the gap between two people. Furthermore, he’s the one building that bridge and helping his new friend become a part of the dynamic of the classroom!

I am thrilled at the opportunity that my son has to see the value of bilingualism but more importantly, to have a friend to learn Spanish from and to teach English to. I could not have imagined that such a relationship could spark my son’s interest in the language that so passionately I have tried to teach him since he was a baby.

We shall see how this friendship brings both boys closer to the relative unknown worlds that they now both share: this English-speaking one where we reside, and that of Hispanic heritage that is far away.


The Richness of Positive Cultural Exchanges

Sometimes the shortest trips, the ones taken within your own region of the country, are the ones that turn out to be the most contrasting with our quotidian lives. As it was the case of our most recent visit to Chicago.

Not even four hours away from us, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. This big city is one of our children’s most favorite places to visit. They like the cars, and the noise, and the endless lines of people walking up and down the main streets. They enjoy the view of the tall buildings and the sky lighted with tiny windows in the horizon at night.

It is a place of wonder for them. Frankly, for us as well. We like the variety of restaurants, the racially mixed families that mirror our own, and the  endless cultural opportunities.

Although we go to Chicago often, this last time was very unique as we visited my cousin and his family in their diverse home. My cousin is also Mexican but he’s married to a French girl and together they have a son who was born in Mexico and a daughter born in the States. (You did not think I was the only one in the family who started a multi-racial clan, right?).

As soon as their son opened the door, we were immerse in a weekend-long cultural exchange. A mix of English, French and Spanish set the tone for our adventure. My kids were exposed to quiche and brioche with salted butter, which I now have had to make available for them at our own home, per their request. Their children tried pretzels filled with peanut butter and were on-the-go more hours than what they are used to, keeping up with my gang.

We talked about my latest post about the challenges of keeping a bilingual house and they pointed out how in their case, French is the main language because is spoken both at home and at school all the time. They gave me more ideas to keep Spanish more present in our lives, and I even caught myself speaking it less and less in this multi-lingual weekend adventure. (Mental note to correct that).

Along with our families’ cultural exchanges, came the concept of how to navigate around in bigger cities. After we said hello and unloaded our car, we headed to the neighborhood park. The kids on scooters, bikes and strollers following our 4-year-old tour guide on wheels. It seemed that, even at a younger age than my 7 and 5-year-old kids, our tour guide knew the rules of stopping at every street corner before crossing, making room for other pedestrians on the sidewalk and being aware of the cars at all times.

Now, is not like my kids were running around and crossing the streets without looking, but, they certainly had to be reminded to use their street smarts more than a few times. The fact that they didn’t know where they were going didn’t help to keep them on their side of the sidewalk either. But I think they were very impressed by their little cousin who was used to the “urban rules”. On the way back, they were certainly more conscious of what they were doing. It was a good lesson learned.

During this short time we had sharing sinks, and cleaning after 5 children, the four adults got a glimpse of what life is like for other multicultural families. We influenced each other in a positive way and our children spent meaningful time individually among each other. It was wonderful to hear my 2-year-old daughter and our little tour guide engage in a conversation at play time -when they thought nobody was listening. It was equally amusing to hear my 7-year-old responding in Spanish to a sentence said in French.

I love having this connection with my multicultural cousin and his family as we always get something positive out from our encounters. In this case, it was the opportunity of engaging my children in activities out of the norm for them. They loved having breakfast à la française and listening to our multilingual conversations.

I believe that while our goal to raising bilingual children has met some challenges as of late; the one of raising multicultural ones is right on track! Just ask them what some of their favorite foods are and you’ll find a colorful blend of cultural backgrounds.

I say we can feel pretty victorious at the moment!

Family (Members) Who Are Like Friends

I love the anticipation and excitement that welcoming visitors over our house brings. The food planning, the sprucing of spaces in the house, the rehabilitation of the toy room turned into the guest bedroom. It is all very fun for me -especially when those visitors happen to be very special.

My cousin recently moved to a city about three hours away from us. We haven’t had much contact for a while because we both were living in countries other than Mexico and when I went back home to visit, we seldom crossed paths.

I remembered him kindly, however. His parents are my godparents and growing up his house was basically a second home for me. Him and I were always dreaming or debating about something and then our different interests landed us in places far away from home.

It wasn’t until I heard he was living in the U.S. that I reached out to him and learned of his move closer to me. We decided to meet up in person next time I was over by him. When we did, we each had a whole set of people attached to us. I didn’t know how things were going to be, but him and my husband seemed to hit it off so well that we ended up making plans together for Thanksgiving.

I struggled to hold back the tears of excitement when his little family came through the door of our house. It was the first time ever that we had welcomed any family for a holiday since I had lived in the States. I wanted it to be perfect and for everybody, young and not, to have the funnest of all times.

There is only so much you can do as a hostess for the group dynamic to flow gracefully: the linens were clean, the guest bathroom had all the major necessities, and I made sure the four new people in our home had a space that they could use as their own. I included my cousin’s wife in the food planning and preparation and tried for everyone to feel just at home. But even if you plan everything perfectly, if there is no chemistry between people, there isn’t any welcoming cocktail that could replace it.

Luckily for us, we found ourselves enjoying the holiday in great harmony. The kitchen was the center of the main interactions. Where I got to know my cousin’s wife and discovered just how much we have in common. As the aromas of the food surrounded us, also the air of emerging friendships invaded the kitchen. My cousin and I reconnected and found common ground in parenthood. My husband and my cousin’s wife chatted over wine and cheese. The kids ran around the house playing together as if they had known each other for a long time. It was a scene worthy of a postcard!

We debated politics and the need for winter gear in the Midwest; we exchanged parenting tips and questioned the same practices of disengaged parents at playgrounds; we laughed and shared stories that made us teary-eyed. Three languages danced together to make great conversations as we shared a common identity of being multi-cultural families racing children in a country foreign to us all.

We talked and we ate and we played and we enjoyed the comfort of being in great company. So I start this holiday season with a big smile on my face and the pleasant taste of having family nearby vibrating all over me. I’m thankful for magical and unforgettable moments surrounded by great people and for realizing that while there are friends who are like family, there also are family members who are like friends.


Escaping Routine

Routine isn’t my thing at all. I say that with a sarcastic smirk on my face because as a stay-at-home-mom of children ages 5 and under, my life consists of a series of routines. I rebel sometimes by not complying with set schedules, but then the laundry piles up and I pay the consequences later. So it really is best to stick to the plan and attempt to stay on top of to-do lists, household chores and, most importantly, make time with the little ones.

Ever so often, I feel entrapped in these routines, which tend to turn into invisible walls closing in on me. It is then, that I desperately need an escapade. Last weekend said escapade came in the form of an international reunion of high school friends. I say international because two Mexican and two Venezuelan women traveling from different parts of the U.S., Canada and Mexico met in Chicago for two days of FREEDOM.

Freedom from household chores, freedom from acting like a role model in front of children, freedom from work, freedom from schedules and planning and organization. Freedom to be ourselves in a way that we can only be outside of the day-to-day life.

It was one of the happiest times for me so far this year. Aside from spending time with great friends in person sipping cocktails, this little trip provided each of us with the opportunity to talk. Really talk. You know that type of talk where you are able to connect with one another in a deep, honest way? The kind of talk that you don’t necessarily have every day? It was healing, refreshing, empowering. I felt like myself again.

Not that I’m not myself as a mom, but it is as if a big part of me (some dreams, some goals, some feelings) are pushed aside because there is always someone else’s needs that I have to tend to. By not having any responsibilities for a couple of days, I was able to reconnect with those parts of me that are usually just ghosts floating around my head. And I felt happy and complete, ready to share and to listen.

Between laughter, food and good music, a chain of conversations erupted.We talked one-on-one, we talked in pairs, we talked as a group. The whole weekend was a compilation of deep, fun, encouraging talks. It was as if all of us were waiting for this weekend to open up our hearts and let everything go. We listen to each other’s obstacles, we helped lift up our spirits and dust off our shoulders, and we felt validated and heard and supported.

Back in the train heading home I couldn’t wipe off the smile of my face. I felt complete, happy and filled with energy.

Routine will probably never be my thing. Motherhood (and I guess life in general) will always make some parts of me dormant. But if I get to enjoy every escapade as much as I enjoyed last weekend’s, then it will all be worth it.

Kindred Spirits

So many times I have spoken about friendship and its strong place in my life on this blog. So many times I have told you about my life-long friendships that started in preschool and I have kept till this day. However, I have never written about one of the most powerful friendships in my life. One which started in college at a class where we discussed literature and were pushed to think outside of the box.

I was always the participative girl who read all of the assigned materials and then some; but it wasn’t until I took this Critical Interpretation class, that I met someone who liked school as much as me. She was very smart, well-read, eloquent, the type of gal that you want to become friends with but you don’t know how to “ask her out”, so to speak.

The semester ended with us just nodding at each other and approving of our comments in class but we never actually connected elsewhere. That was until a few months later, she started an internship at the Study Abroad office where I worked most of my college years.

We became instant friends. We were (and still are) radically different and had completely opposite philosophical views but among the things we had in common, was this desire to make the world a better place. We both wanted (and still want) to travel places, to see the world and to soak everything in. In a way, she felt very much like the sister I never had. We could argue and discuss and get into heated arguments about politics around the world. At the same time, we could dress up and go enjoy some martinis at this cute local bar and have so much fun together.

She was there to witness how my husband and I fell in love and got engaged. I was there to send her off to the Peace Corps with her husband. Through the years she was far away, we kept in touch as much as we could. We wrote each other letters, emails, we spoke on Skype whenever she had the luxury of having Internet connection. We cared and loved each other so much that we didn’t want to admit that our daily realities had build a wall between our worlds.

When she came back from the Peace Corps we were in our mid-to-late twenties, both had been married for a couple of years and both with our own set of challenges to work through. I won’t share a lot from her side of the story because it isn’t mine to tell, but it should suffice for me to tell you that re-adapting into the American society after living in a small village for a couple of years was a huge undertaking that I didn’t understand at the time.

I was going through a very difficult period dealing with infertility, spending my months tracking down when I was supposed to ovulate and getting disappointing test results at the fertility clinic time and again. My husband and I were really devoted to starting a family. It seemed that all our thoughts were consumed by that. We were thrilled to welcome our friends back, but the truth is that we had lost something and we didn’t know how to connect, how to relate to each others’ struggles. Communication was rocky… we didn’t know what to tell each other or how to help each other anymore.

A few months later, after our awkward interactions, I finally got pregnant. My friend was there ready to celebrate with me, of course. However, the evening that we were supposed to get together for a special treat, I lost the baby. I was devastated. The communication barrier between us never more present than in that moment. None of us knew how to act, what to tell each other. And just like that, without having to say another clumsy word, we sort of broke up.

I would get pregnant and move on to have 2 children before I heard anything about her. Though we lived in the same city, we never ran into each other. We knew very few things about each others’ lives and then one day, when my second baby was just a few weeks old, I got a card from her in the mail. She congratulated us, (me) on the birth of our children and hoped that our paths would cross. If they had not done so in two years, our paths were not going to cross unless we made them cross. So I invited her to the city’s botanical gardens.

I had all intentions to talk to her about us, about our “break up”, about how her friendship (loosing it) was the worse break up I had ever lived and how it pained me every day not to have her in my life. We said nothing of the like, we kept things light. She was relocating in a few months. Why start the conversation now when she was happy and leaving soon?

Another year passed and I still thought about her. I knew about her from our friends in Facebook and the occasional friend in common that you run into. Nothing else. Yet her absence in my life pained me. We had been such close friends! I missed her and our conversations and our plans. So one day I just followed my impulses and first asked her to be her Facebook friend (I had deleted her after we stopped talking to each other). When she accepted my friend request I sent her a congratulatory message on her accomplishments and her exciting future plans I had learned about. She was cordial and polite in her response but nothing more.

I don’t know what drove me to continue my conversation with her but I finally gathered the courage to swallow my pride and tell her all what had consumed me for four years. I told her how much I missed her, how I hated how things had ended between us without a good-bye or an explanation. That I always thought that she would forever be a part of our “family” (the one we had made of the friends in the foreign county that we live in). That I wanted our friendship back.

She responded. We spoke on the phone. She told me how she saw things on her side of our communication barrier. I understood what she went through at the time. She heard me. We cried. We cried a lot and forgave each other and hated how both were so proud for so long. How much have we missed! All that time we could have had together, gone. We both were willing to try to connect again. To give it another try. Now at very different stages in our lives. Both happy, both in better places.

It’s been a little bit over a year now since we reconciled and I have to say that our friendship has never been stronger. I got to tell her in person about being pregnant with our third baby and asked her to be her godmother. She’s ever present in my life, despite the distance in between us and her adventures around the world. We are kindred spirits, we always knew it, and now we know not to ever let this special friendship between us go.

Back from my Sabathical

Wow! It’s seems like an eternity has passed since the last time I wrote anything on this blog. Life does get crazy as you add more little peeps to the family.

The last months of my pregnancy with number 3; the fast, happy an emotional first months with a new baby; and then the start of the school year have gotten the best of me.

I have no idea how the “I have to write a post about that this week” has come to a “I should finally write anything at some point this month”.

But alas, here I am with a laundry list of ideas to write about, my phone and internet connection at the hair salon. Right now is as good of a time as any to make a comeback 😉

Out of all the things that are circling my mind right now, the one that keeps coming back is the great feeling of fellowship and belonging that I have experienced A LOT recently.

If you just moved to the US -or far away from home anywhere for that matter- please take this piece of advice to heart: if you find someone that you have more than a couple things in common with and who makes you feel important, and loved, and happy, and that you are not the only odd ball, do whatever it takes to foster that friendship!

Throughout my now 12 years living in Michigan, I have met wonderful people who have changed my world and who have made me appreciate friendship as the best gift that a person can offer you. Among the amazing people who have and are currently accompanying me through life, are the Latin American women that over time have become more than a playgroup, my family abroad.

Today I want to write about them. About the special friendship that happens when you meet someone from your home country or from the region of the world where you understand the cultural nuances, language and traditions.

I have written about this friendship before but never before than through pregnancy and the welcoming of new babies to the group, I felt so happy to have this safety net, this support group that makes me feel that at least when we are together, when we are at each other’s homes, we have a little piece of our Mexico, Chile, Paraguay, and Spain, right here in person and through hugs and uninhibited love.

When I am surrounded by my “Latinas” I’m not afraid to mispronounce things in English, to laugh loudly and love hard, to parent my children without second guessing if certain reactions are socially acceptable. I’m not afraid to be 100% me with my biculturalism and Spanglish.

We simply understand each other’s experiences and fights with the darn voice command functions of cars and phones, which can never seem to get our accents when we speak. We know what it feels to be homesick for a tradition or a food we can’t have and try to keep as much as our culture alive for our children. We know the expectations; the “rules of etiquette” pertaining to each celebration (because boy! It’s hard to know how to act in so many situations at our current home); we kiss and hug and argue and make up; we sigh together thinking about the next time we will be able to see our extended families; and we keep each other company during festivities and the important moments in our lives.

Simply put, they bring out the part of me that goes into hibernation when I’m observing and learning how things work around here.

So the bottom line is: if you live abroad you have to find two kinds of friend; the local ones who teach you to navigate and love the foreign country you are at; and the ones from your country or culture who are also expats and go through the same kinds of socially awkward “adventures” as you learn how to behave in your new habitat.

Closing The Year With Friends Who Are Like Family

It’s been a long time since my last post so before beginning to write for the year 2014, I wanted to do a recap of the most important things that happened as we closed the year 2013.

Earlier in Fall, I wrote a post about how hard it is for children to spend some fabulous time with friends of the family who don’t live close by, and then have to say good-bye. However, I wanted to talk about how wonderful it is for them to finally meet in person some of the people who are constantly checking on them since I was pregnant with them and who are far from us physically.

This Thanksgiving we were thrilled to have my friend from Boston (the one that I often write about having a very special connection with even when we see each other in person every 3-5 years) as well as her family and another good friend of the both of us and her family. The three of us met in Costa Rica when we moved from Mexico and Colombia respectively, and though we only finished high school together, we have remained friends despite the distance and time.

It was very special to have them over the house that has seen my marriage evolve and where we brought both of our children as babies. But even more special, was for me to introduce my children to some of the most important friends in my life and to their children. Having them over was like having extended family around. Seeing the children interact happily with each other made me feel as if they had cousins here for the holidays. Though, my children were a little sad when we said good-bye, my 3.5-year-old showed me that she’s learning to have loved ones in the distance when she told them: “come back soon.”

By living in a different country than that of both of our extended families, my husband and I have to make the extra effort of making video-conference dates with them and constantly show them photos of our families and pointing out the presents that they receive from each of them. We want them to be global citizens but we also want them to have a connection with the people who care about them the most. So far, the familiarity with which they interact with our close friends and family when they are with them in person, has proven that our efforts pay off.

Another thing that we have to take into account when raising our family in a foreign country, is that our nostalgia and longing for our home countries and their traditions -especially around the holidays- should not be transmitted to the children in a sad or negative fashion. After all, they are just beginning to understand and follow our very own family traditions and by being sad on Christmas Eve when we call our families, we only make their holiday a sad one. That is why, this year, we decided to have a party with another 2 families that found themselves in the same situation than ours. It was the best gift that we could have given each other! Celebrating the holidays with friends who are almost like family made all of us very happy, including the children who again, had some friends playing the role of cousins, next to them.

We closed the year feeling very happy and proving once more that not because we are not with family in this country, we have to spend the special times in our lives alone. There are always friends around us who will always be like family.


Teaching to Say Good-Bye

As the time of picking my best friend and her husband from the train station approached, the butterflies of anticipation and excitement awoke that piece of my heart that I keep numb so that it doesn’t hurt when I’m not by the people who are big in my life but who I only see once a year if I’m lucky.

I have been away from Mexico and her for more than a decade and I have learned to see photos of important events without crying. I have learned to quiet down the need to be by my people back in my native land but I had not ever thought about how to teach this ability to my children.

As my family and friends are introduced to their lives, my children enjoy every opportunity they have with them. They love the attention, they take advantage of their time together, they really like taking many photos with our “guests” and their little hearts open up and fall in love with them.

They don’t understand why we have such little time with such important people who showered them with love and their little heads don’t comprehend why we must say good-bye and aren’t able to see them and hang out in many, many months.

It took me years of going back and forth from the States to Mexico to somewhat detach myself from my life before college. It took many wet pillows to learn how to numb that part of my heart that longs for my family and friends away from me. How do I then explain to my children that although they loved having their super fun “aunt and uncle” here with us, we have to go back to being just the four of us? How do I dry their tears and quiet their pleads: pero mami ¿por qué no podemos ir a México en el avión hoy? (but mommy, why can’t we go to Mexico on the airplane today?). How can I expect them to learn how to numb their hearts only after a few times of falling in love with someone and then having to live apart from them?

It has always been hard to say good-bye but it’s even harder now that I have two little hearts that also ache and two pairs of eyes that also get teary. It’s been tough to keep a positive attitude around the children and their questions but at least I’m thankful to know they are loving and that they too care a lot about the important people in my life who live away.

Away but Close

I believe that there are people in the world who are meant to be an intrinsic part of our lives and we know this almost the same instant that we meet them. One of such people in my life is my friend living in Boston. Her an I have lots of things in common, yet we are so dramatically different that we just had the perfect chemistry to be friends from the first day we met.

She is one of the closest people in my life and knows just about everything that has gone on with me for the last twelve years. We are connected in a very strong way and our friendship is one of those perfectly balanced ones with just the right amount of reciprocity. She is such an important force in my life that you would have thought that we grew up together.

The strange thing is that we have only lived in the same place during the first year we met. After that, we went to different colleges in different countries and have seen each other physically only in few occasions. Still, her presence in my life is one the strongest and I’m sure it will continue to be that way.

This year she has made me a very close part of her pregnancy and I loved every single bit of it. I don’t know why, but her sharing every exciting, sad and stressful moment from the beginning has made me feel as if we met weekly for a cup of coffee for the last nine months. All of our interactions happen through the phone and social media but our friendship keeps evolving. I’m so happy to be able to “be there” for her and to realize that when friendship is real, the distance and years between two people don’t get in the way.

In the end, is not only about who you have around you but who you have close to your heart.

Thank you “I” for every tear, laugh, excursion, recipe, photo, recommendation, conversation, book, mailed package, text, support, and advice that you continue to give me but more importantly, thank you for letting me give them to you too.

Do We Still Live in the Same Town?

Being at home with the kids called me to look for new friends who were also home with their kids and who had a similar schedule than mine so that we could get together A LOT! I now have a network of stay-at-home-moms to call friends. Among those was a very special one, the type that I don’t need to call before showing up at her doorstep, the type who totally gets me because she also came from a Latin American country.

I could always count on her to have a last minute playdate and best of all, our children adore each other so I never had to bribe anyone to get in the car! It felt like having family very close by. But I speak in past tense because she recently went back to work 😦

At the beginning, I didn’t notice much of a difference, we just needed to be more intentional planning playdates and actually get our calendars out. However, about a month ago, she decided to go back to her career full time, which is awesome for her, but now we barely see each other. It feels as if she had moved out of town and not to be selfish here, but it kind of sucks for me.

A few other friends have started to flirt with the idea of going back to work and I cannot help it but to think what’s going to happen to my playdates? Will I go back to my first months at home when I was looking for ways to meet people? Will I be missing everybody? All of the sudden I’m thinking of life stages coming to an end and new ones arriving. Maybe my time to switch from being a stay-at-home-mom will also come at some point and I will also leave people missing my company.

In all cases, it is always hard to leave comfort behind and readjust to a new routine. I hope my friend is fully adjusted to her new one at work.