Growing up in the United States with immigrant parents was hard. The language barrier between my parents and the outside world created a lot of problems. And this, in turn, created a disconnect between myself and my school life.
My parents raised me speaking Spanish, and I was comfortable with that. The problems came when I started American schooling. From the ages of 2 to 7, I could not properly communicate with English speakers.
From bullying to racism, I experienced it all. It felt intimidating not knowing how to communicate with caretakers, teachers, cashiers, doctors and countless other people. English was something that I needed for survival, and I had to master it one way or another.
A common thing in the United States is children from immigrants, or child immigrants themselves, coming to school not knowing English. Today, it is easier to learn because most of the media kids consume today is in English, so they catch onto it quicker.
In the early 2000s, I did not have much access to media in English. I do have “Dora the Explorer” and “Blue’s Clues” to thank for teaching me a few words before I entered Pre-K. But as amazing as they were, they were not enough to prepare me for the real world.
I hated daycare. My parents both worked during the day, so I had to stay in a daycare. It was horrible, so much to the point where it’s one of my first memories. I vividly remember one of the other daycare students stealing my shoes everyday.
Don’t ask me why, I don’t remember. But what I do remember is the feeling of being hopeless. I couldn’t explain to my caretakers that the other student was forcibly taking my shoes off of my feet.
In Pre-K, I had another incident where I could not explain a situation that happened, and I was severely punished for it. I did not know how to communicate that I was not the aggressor and that it, in fact, was the opposite.
This situation seems to be recurrent in many non-native English speakers’ childhoods. Because they did not know English and could not defend themselves, they were accused of something they did not do.
Slowly but surely, I was able to grasp a bit of English. Learning that Americans sang weird chants to a flag was a weird experience for sure. Once I mastered English at age 7, I had to master American culture.
In my family, we went to the Latin stores and flea markets, because that is where my parents were able to communicate and buy in Spanish. I did not understand what Chuck E. Cheese or Target were.
So, when I would hear my classmates talking about their trips to Disneyland or their new Shopkins from Walmart, I was in shock. I felt like I was missing out on an entire other world, and I was.
This was obviously not on purpose, my parents and I simply could not understand the outside world. We felt like aliens that landed on a new Earth. As the years progressed, we learned about the basics of living in the United States.
Car insurance, police tickets, how to find jobs and even going to doctors appointments were things in American culture that my parents and I had to learn the hard way. This stunted my way of communicating with my peers even further.
I could not always contribute to conversations in class, so my teachers thought I was dumb. But I wasn’t, I knew what I could say but I could only say it in Spanish. I took it upon myself to learn both of my languages to the fullest extent.
Living in the deep southern parts of Louisiana, I was no stranger to racism. My skin color was a shock factor to my all white middle school. But what I was not prepared for was the verbal harassment I experienced from both teachers and students.
I was angry that I was viewed as dumb simply because I could not communicate in one language. In my quest for redemption, I think I went overboard. I was always the smartest in my classes and my reading comprehension skills were better than the American children.
Although I am a little jealous, it makes me happy to know that kids today do not grow up in the hostile environment I grew up in. Americans adapting and accepting other cultures will always be a win in my books, no matter how hard it was to get here.