“A foot in each culture” challenges young Nebraska Latinos

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October 5, 2017 - 6:45am

Holding onto heritage while acclimating to the non-Latino world. It’s often a challenge for young Latinos. They face the pressures of having “a foot in each culture.”


Different things comprise our identity. But for a lot of us we’re generations removed from the influences of our ancestors. That’s not the case for Nebraska’s rapidly growing Latino population. Many are still powerfully connected by things like language and culture. For young Latinos this means growing up with “a foot in each culture.” And that’s not easy.

Here are four perspectives, in their own words.

Selina Martinez

Selina Martinez

  • Grew up in Lincoln
  • Parents from Mexico
  • Lincoln High School & University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate
  • Community organizer at Nebraska Appleseed

“I think growing up it was difficult, because you have folks who have this kind of not super healthy idea of you have to choose one identity. You can’t be Latino and American. You have to choose one. Which doesn’t reflect who we are as people.”

“Sometimes you’re going to be a little more Latino than American. And sometimes you’re going to be more American than Latino. So those things kind of, they can play really well with each other. But they can also be conflictual with each other.”

(On where pride comes from, and being proud of earning a degree as a single mom) “You’re American side is saying be proud of pulling yourself up by your bootstrap. And your Latino side is saying, be proud that your family helped you through that. And so when I think about that, it’s really finding that balance of how much of my foot is going to be on my Latino side and how much of my other foot is going to be in my American side. You have to find that balance. And I think that’s hard sometimes, but also when you find it, it’s really rewarding. And really beautiful I think.”

(On being told you’re too white or too Latino) “Yes. I definitely experienced that idea of I’m being too much of one of my cultures in high school and college. It’s one of those things that I mentioned is really beautiful. Which sounds really silly, right? To say people telling me I’m too much of something is beautiful. But I think it allows people to see that there are different identities and this is why we have misunderstandings. I think it allows us to have a conversion of like why are you feeling that way. One of the things that I see the most when I think about, ‘oh I was being too white,’ was when I did start going to UNL and when I was getting good grades in high school. Which is sad, because it’s like saying being educated means you’re white. Which it shouldn’t be that way.”

“There are some people, some Latinos, students that I know, who didn’t learn Spanish. For me that’s such a big piece of my Latino identity. But I also recognize that not everybody that’s Latino is going to speak Spanish and that’s OK, that’s why we speak English. So I’m able to communicate with them and I think that’s fine, but I know that their experience is different than mine because ‘you’re not really Latino if you don’t speak Spanish’ is the myth. And so I know how painful that is if you’re being rejected because you’re not American enough. You’re being too Latino. And then your Latino side or friends are saying you’re just not Mexican enough or you’re not Latino enough. So who’s accepting you? I think that’s another piece that’s really hard.”

“The one thing that I say to people, it’s OK to be two things at once and that’s life. That’s a true reflection of life, is being multiple identities at one time and not just one or the other.” 

Michelle Suarez

Michelle Suarez

“When children come to school right away they are immersed in English, and a lot of children, especially immigrant and refugee children, and I think of the Spanish-speaking students, it’s a new experience for them. A lot of times they don’t speak much English at home, so they embrace learning English and that’s a good thing. But we also know how important it is that they maintain their first language, because that is a part of their culture, and part of who they are. And also you think about relationships with parents and grandparents, and it’s very important to keep that first language. But that is the challenge, then, for our students coming in, because English becomes their world, which is again the right thing, but we also need to make room for the rest of their being.”

“Students do want to fit in and do not want to stand out, so sometimes they’ll see what seems to be acceptable, what’s valued, what’s honored in the school. So it’s very important that kids get the message, and their parents get the message, that we want you to bring your entire self, including your culture, your language.”

“I think the best way to meet everyone’s need is to celebrate that and integrate it into the school. With holidays, make announcements over PA about these in English and Spanish. When we talk with our parents, we always emphasize to them that it’s important that they help their children maintain their first language. So if they’re reading a book, go ahead and talk about it in Spanish. Have the child read it to them in English so they practice their English. But then ask questions and talk about it in Spanish to really reemphasize the importance of retaining that first language.”

(On her own experience growing up with her twin sister in a Mexican neighborhood in Scottsbluff, then going to mostly white UNL) “That was really challenging. We had lived in this neighborhood, very small neighborhood. We had our Catholic church there, we had folk dancing. We did Mexican folk dancing for a long time. So we had a lot of cultural elements. Being low income, we always had to contribute in the sense working. We had a paper route, worked fast food. Always had a sense of contribution, we were paying our way, you might say. So then when we went then to a different culture, it really was a different culture, we missed our home environment and the neighborhood tremendously, because it was so different. We didn’t understand the frivolity of just doing something to have fun.”

“I know that over the years, thinking back to the 40s, 50s, even through the 60s and 70s, it was not encouraged to be speaking a different language. There’s stories of kids being punished for speaking a different language, for speaking Spanish on the playground for example. And now in schools I see a real value, a spoken value, a concrete value, that says ‘yes, what a gift you have. Please keep speaking your first language because that will serve you well.’ It also is a validation of people as people, and that you bring gifts and talents.”

“I do think that culture plays another role because it can be that from this group, you are not cultural enough, and from the other group you’re too cultural. And so I think there’s two different sides. That’s the extra pressure. Instead of having the one pressure you have double pressure.”

Ruben Cano

Ruben Cano

“I grew up in a house were my mom and my dad did not speak Spanish. While they could speak Spanish, they never spoke to my sister and I in Spanish. It was just their experience growing up. He went to a part of the school system in the U.S. where you would get in trouble for speaking Spanish and you weren’t encouraged to speak Spanish. And certainly you were expected to assimilate.”

(On how he and his wife are instilling Mexican culture with their own preschool kids) “Trying to speak to them in Spanish, making sure that we bring them down to south Omaha so that they can see parts of the culture, whether we just come here to grab tacos at one of the taquerias, or even grabbing bread at International Bakery. You know our kids are three and one, so they don’t understand those things yet, but we want them to be around some of those aspects of our culture.”

“As we’ve assimilated, and as we’ve become more, just ingrained in what it means to be an American, we have to make a conscious effort not to lose our cultural identity.”

“Certainly just from my own experience, you know there’s this feeling of being pulled in two different directions. You start to buy into what you’ve heard about the American dream, and the rhetoric that to achieve that American dream you achieve it through hard work, and education and taking advantage of the educational opportunities that are offered here through our public school system. And so you start to do that and you start to move up through high school and eventually college and sometimes even beyond just a bachelor’s degree. But as you move up that ladder, I think the percentage of people who look like you in your classes and on that college campus starts to dwindle. And so it’s really easy to lose some of that aspect.”

(On young Latino HS students he talks to yearly as part of a leadership program) “My one plea to them is don’t leave South Omaha behind. Don’t leave the community behind.”

“As I talk to some students who are graduating and going on to college, some of them mention a lot of that. That they’re losing touch with family members, or with friends, because ‘I’m getting resentment from them, you know, and they’re beginning to think that I think I’m better than them.’ Or they treat me differently now because I’m a school boy or a school girl. I tell them that you’re making these choices for you, and for your family, and that your parents and our parents came to this country looking for those opportunities.”

“Kids will come back, whether they’re at UNO or Creighton or out-of-state somewhere, they’ll say, ‘It’s hard, there are not a lot of people that look like me on campus. I’m struggling, I’m having a hard time studying. You know, I’m having a hard time with juggling everything. But I can’t drop out. My parents will be devastated.’”

“Those cultural celebrations are huge, and the fact that they are such a big part of the community here in south Omaha. And you have the Latino Center of the Midlands, and you have El Museo Latino, and you have even different mariachi groups that our kids try out for and play in growing up. Then you talk about soccer. We haven’t even talked about the role of game of soccer plays in the culture of Hispanics, and how it’s become such a big part here in south Omaha. That’s even another way our families connect.”

Brenda Esqueda

Brenda Esqueda

“As soon as I went to school I realized wherever I am this is me and why do I have to like be separated into you’re Mexican, you're not like us.”

“I refused to accept that I had to get one identity or the other. So learning English in school was probably another point in my life where I had to figure out my identity. It was less about figuring out your nationality, your skin color, and more about figuring out who you are inside, and I think that helped a lot. But in college it's resurfacing and it's something that I didn't realize I had I would have to deal with. Here I identify as Brenda. This is me, this is what I do, this is what I like. And south Omaha is amazing in that way. I went to South High School, everybody is welcome there. We have a huge refugee population. We appreciate diversity and we engage with each other. Meanwhile at Harvard things are labeled. With affinity groups I am a part of the Latin X community and I have had to adamantly look for people of color.”

“So I am a DACA recipient. Yes, I was born in Mexico but then I talk to a student (who) is Mexican and lived in Mexico for an incredible amount of time, like their entire life, and is studying here and I'm intimidated. I feel like  I'm a completely different person. I speak Spanish differently. I feel like I get an accent and I feel like I seem fake in a way. Fake Mexican. But then I realize no, because we both share the same values and I think that's the point of relation. The point where we get leveled and we realize no, this is where we come from. We have strong belief in family. We have strong belief in our morals and we have strong passions and that's what leads our life. So that's where we decide to relate to each other and it's not about the accent. It's not about the clothes that you wear. It's not about anything else.”

(On peer pressure when younger to be “more white”) “Yes. Losing the accent. Dressing Hollister. Not listening to Hispanic music in school. Not speaking Spanish in school. If you spoke Spanish in school and you had a strong sense of passion for this certain music like regional or Mariachi or things like that you kind of got segmented. I saw that a lot in middle school and it wasn't exactly negative but people knew those are, the ‘paisas’ as they called them. And then people that decided to more strongly show their heritage, their Hispanic heritage, were grouped together.”

(On what she’d tell a younger Latino now) “I think I’d tell them that there is so much beauty in every aspect of their identity. That there isn't any that needs to be muted for another to grow stronger. That there is nothing wrong with having pride for it and showing your pride and there is something incredible about learning about all aspects of your identity and you should grow with that and you should also carry your family along with that. My identity as Hispanic, as Latina, comes a lot from my mom and I incredibly proud of that. It comes a lot from a hardworking father and I'm incredibly proud of that. And I'm incredibly proud of carrying on the language and being able to have fluent conversations still with them. I don't think it should be a divide. Use the differences as a way to connect with more people and be proud that you have so much beauty inside of you and so much complexity and so many paradoxes. Because you should never make yourself so simple for just for the sake of others.”

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