The First Gen Latina Struggle of Reconnecting with Our Roots

Our First-Gen Latinx identity is relatively new and one of the struggles of reconnecting with our roots is shedding the narrative of feeling unwelcome

First Gen reconnecting roots

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Where are you from? My answer to this question has evolved over the years from “I am from Los Angeles,” to “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley,” to “I am from California,” to something along the lines of “I am a daughter of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador.” This seemingly innocent question can bring up so many emotions. When you are first-gen it can lead to questioning yourself, your identity and can reinforce unhealthy patterns of thinking. For example, it may trigger feelings of inadequacy, and feeling a lack of belonging “ni de aqui, ni de allá.” It can also trigger stress related to being from two cultures, aka bicultural stress.

The questioning of your identity can also make you question yourself. Am I Latina enough? I identify as Latina but did not grow up knowing all of the traditions of my family’s homelands. I speak Spanish but I feel insecure about my accent and limited vocabulary. There is also the added complexity of the cultural assimilation that many immigrants experience in their attempts to be accepted in their new community. For example, Spanish was my first language, but when I started school, I was discouraged from speaking Spanish and, at times, reprimanded for it. Some families chose to immerse their children in the English language to ease their transition to this new country.  It was a matter of survival.

Regardless of the reason, speaking Spanish has become a marker for measuring someone’s Latinidad. The judgment from the Spanish-speaking community was quick to label those who did not speak Spanish or did not speak it well, “No Sabo Kids.”  Now, there is a movement reclaiming that term and a push to shift the narrative of what it means to be Latinx, but the judgment is still prevalent. There are other toxic markers for measuring someone’s Latinidad. For example, the assumption that all Latinx participate in the same traditions and are supposed to enjoy the same music and love to dance.  Let’s not get started on the judgment if you can’t dance, if you can’t handle spicy foods, or if you did not have a quinceañera. 

So, what does it mean to be Latinx?  In search of this answer, many individuals are working to reconnect with their roots to better define what it means to themAs Latinxs we have a strong sense of culture and community. However, when trying to understand our roots or where we come from there can be challenges and gaps along the way. I recently asked my parents about our family history and I realized how limited our knowledge was. My elders had limited access to education and had little to no literacy skills. They did not have the ability to write down our stories, an experience that is all too common for many immigrants.

My experience reaching out to my parents highlights one of the struggles that first-gens may encounter when attempting to reconnect with their roots: The limited access to direct family history. This may be because of family separation that was experienced during the immigration journey, current family estrangement, or a limited knowledge of family history that is available to you. Regardless of the reason, it is one of the challenges to reconnecting with our roots.

Another struggle with reconnecting with our roots is the limited direct exposure we might have to traditions in our homelands. Still, it could also be due to the inability to visit regularly due to safety concerns, as well as financial and/ or documentation barriers. My mother is from El Salvador but the only time that I visited was as an infant. My mother has always hesitated to travel to El Salvador due to her fears for our safety. Although my mother can travel to her home country, she has not been there in 33 years due to this fear. As a result, I often feel a disconnect from my Salvadoran heritage.

I grew up frequently visiting my Mexican family who lives in the border town of Tecate. However, even with the exposure I did have, there was so much that I did not know. For example, Dia De Los Muertos celebrations and traditions. My first experience of a Dia De Los Muertos celebration was in my first year of college in California. I remember feeling embarrassed that I did not know about it. Then I wondered if it was appropriate for me to celebrate, given that it was not something I grew up with. Again, I questioned if I was Latina enough because the way that my family honored our ancestors was different. 

The most significant struggle of reconnecting with our roots is shedding a long-held narrative of feeling under attack, unwelcome, or a foreigner. For many of us, our ancestors inhabited this land but it is not enough to battle the thoughts of not belonging. As a therapist, I emphasize that we don’t need to internalize others’ perceptions. We can shape our own narratives. We are allowed to feel pride in our heritage, regardless of how connected we are or not to our roots.

When you think about struggles with reconnecting with roots, instead of focusing on the struggles, focus on the solutions that you have access to. For example, many individuals have sought out learning or relearning Spanish to reconnect with their roots. Instead of focusing on any potential barriers, such as cost, time etc, the focus should be on learning in a way that is accessible to them, even if it is something simple like watching a novela.

Our First-Gen Latinx identity is relatively new. In many ways, our history is just beginning. For those of us who do not have deep ties to our roots, it is our responsibility to lay these roots. It is a gift to embrace the bicultural identity and to allow ourselves to form a new identity. That is part of what breaking generational cycles of trauma is — taking the lessons passed down in families that serve us and releasing the ones that hurt us.

Although it may not always feel like it, being first-generation and bicultural is a gift. We bring unique perspectives to this world, and that’s something to be proud of.  In our efforts to define our identities, it is important to remember that you don’t have to choose one culture over the other; you can be authentically yourself, drawing from both cultures as they resonate with you. Set your new roots and take pride in the foundation that you are establishing.

Somos de aqui y de allá.

Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.

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