1st Generation American: Part 1 In an Ongoing Series: ESL

My immigrant journey began in September of 1978 in Miami, Florida. I was a four-year-old toddler tagging along, blissfully unaware of the nature of the trip with my entire immediate family and two grandmothers. My parents applied for political asylum we all started the political refugee process, our first step towards becoming full-fledged American citizens. This series of posts will focus on my haphazard and heartfelt dealings with many situations that many first and second-generation Americans deal with every single day. 

I was 4 when my family and I arrived at Miami International Airport. I don’t remember fleeing the revolution in Nicaragua. I don’t remember the flight to the states. I don’t remember how all the adults around me were acting or feeling. My sister was just an 11-month-old blob so she was more unaware than I was. In general, I really don’t have any reliable memories of the first four years of my life (and honestly I have pretty poor memory of most of my childhood). I’m not going to bore you with all my childhood memories. I’m only going to bore you with the memories that are germane to my immigrant experience. While I vividly remember watching The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings, it doesn’t really speak to my experiences as a Latino kid in a vastly white neighborhood.

My first “immigrant” memory probably took place in kindergarten. It was playtime in the classroom and I was playing by myself. I was only 5 but if you think toddlers cannot exclude, you are sorely mistaken. Eventually, I got the feeling that there were many eyes focused on me. I turned around and all of my classmates were sitting at their desks. The teacher had probably called an end to playtime and I simply didn’t understand what she said (I was still learning how to speak English). My classmates were all staring at me, not with anger, but in confusion. The teacher had her hands on her hips and a look of disapproval on her face. You didn’t have to be fluent to understand that look. The kids weren’t laughing at me. I just remember a look of confusion on their faces.

I don’t remember walking back to my desk and sitting down. I don’t remember the rest of the day. I don’t remember anything but that sudden realization that I was being watched and slowly swiveling my head around to come face to face with evaluation.

It was as if time froze at that moment. At that very instant my position in the academic social caste system was cemented. I dared to defy the status quo (even though it was completely unintentional) and I received a scarlet letter for it. For the rest of my days in school, until I graduated from high school, I would remain at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s funny how memory works. Why did it freeze at that moment? I guess it was an important one. We are more animal than we like to think and I instantly ascertained that I had angered the pride. I want to go back in time and tell my 5-year-old self to keep an eye on my classmates and quickly return to my desk so maybe I could alter my fate as a lifelong, and literal, punching bag. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered. My English proficiency came quick, as language acquisition comes for most young children, but it not quick enough.

It was really as if time stood still and I never advanced past that moment. The physical assaults got more violent and left deeper bruises. The verbal assaults got more profane and cruel. But the core nature of my relationship between myself and my peers stayed the same.

Woody Allen has a famous line when he was accused of being a self-hating Jew in Deconstructing Harry: “Hey, I may hate myself, but not because I’m Jewish.” Now that I think about it, this seared memory is probably the moment (or one of the original foundational moments) when I started to hate myself. And my 5-year-old brain, or 5-year-old subconscious at least, definitely saw being Hispanic as one of the major reasons for my troubles.

On a buried level at first and at a very conscious level eventually, I firmly believed that my inability to speak the language initially (and my very existence as a Latino ultimately) was what doomed me to my social caste. But I made the connection very quickly and it’s why, for most of my life, I set upon a concerted mission to disavow my Latin heritage at every possible turn. It would be WELL into adulthood before I embraced my ethnicity.

This is how a self hating Hispanic is born.


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