I recently caught up with fellow HipLatina contributor and seasoned Latina mama, Maritere Rodriguez Bellas. We covered the #SoCal life, the #changes going on at HipLatina, and one of my favorite cities—Madrid. Though most importantly we talked about her latest book: Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie: Raising Bicultural Children. This is Mari’s second book, coming two years after Raising Bilingual Children, was published in English and in Spanish as an e-book by Simon and Schuster in 2014. Mari’s Arroz con Pollo is a compilation of fascinating stories from the lives of immigrant families. Here’s what she had to share.
HipLatina: What inspired you to address the topic of immigrant parenting?
Maritere Rodriguez Bellas: To give you some background, I worked in public relations at La Opinión, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the country. I built a good relationship with the editor and then publisher, Monica Lozano. She and I were having kids around the same time. 16 or 17 years ago, there were very few resources for immigrant parents. In English there were books from Dr. Spock and Dr. T. Barry Brazelton, and magazines like Parents and Healthy Kids. In Spanish, there were publications like Ser Padres, and Healthy Kids en Español, but these were really providing the same advice just translated from the English language publications. I couldn’t find anything at all for immigrant parents. I called up Moni one day and asked her if we could provide information for immigrant parents. That’s how I started writing the column in Spanish. It ran weekly for 12 years. That was the beginning of my writing career to benefit immigrant parenting.
HL: In your book, you compare the stages of adjustment in a new country to the stages of grief. How easy it is for immigrants to figure out what stage they’ve reached in the adjustment process? What does it take to step back and assess this?
MB: It’s different for everyone. It depends on the circumstances of how and why you came here. For some it’s more painful than others. It depends on how well you know the area or whether you’ve been to the country before. There may be a sense of something unknown or some kind of excitement for those coming for the first time. The novelty of the place may not make you feel resentful, depressed, or lonely at first. Some people have family or friends who have already immigrated and they might know from them what to expect. But for many, there is an element of the unknown. It takes a little while to get into feeling lonely, feeling resentful, and ultimately realizing what the process will be like of adapting or not.
HL: Is the adjustment process different for children and adults? Do children usually follow in the footsteps of their parents?
MB: I think that parents are the most important example for their children—they watch you like hawks. Children learn to react to situations the same way their parents do. I think that’s why parents need to learn to adjust first as individuals before helping their kids to adjust. Oftentimes (and there are a few layers here), adults come to the United States before they have children. If they become a parent here they may be already adjusted. Or an adult may come when they’ve left a child behind at home. Then they have another child here and bring back the child that was left in the home country and all of a sudden there’s an adjustment for both siblings—that can complicate matters. The parent needs to realize and acknowledge that this is happening. The relationship and family unit is going to be affected by this arrangement. The parents need to be there to help navigate the situation.
HL: You’ve compiled so many stories from so many different people. How did you choose which to feature?
MB: Some of these stories are from people I met 20 years ago. I knew that I wanted to talk to all kinds of families, so I chose couples, single parents, and people with mixed marriages. I wanted to demonstrate that regardless of our socioeconomic status we all have to face this adjustment. My housekeeper is in the book, but so is Jorge Ramos who is on the news every night. When it comes down to it, the immigrant experience is not solely determined by our social status.
HL: Was there any story that you thought was the most inspirational, or was there someone with the most obstacles to overcome?
MB: There was one and unfortunately at the last minute I couldn’t use her real name. The story was about a young girl left behind by her mother. After her mother’s divorce she was sexually abused in her youth and came here a year later only to be bullied and discriminated against at school. She ended up in a verbally abusive relationship that produced two children, which she practically raised alone. Overcoming these obstacles while at the same time raising well-adjusted bicultural children can be very difficult. Today she’s a very successful and happy businesswoman. But really all of the stories are great, especially the ones in the last chapter where young adults share the impact of having been raised bilingual and bicultural.
HL: How do you see your own story fitting in with those of other immigrants?
MB: This book was never supposed to be about me. When I wrote the first three chapters, my story wasn’t in there. I consider myself an immigrant but Puerto Rico is a different situation. I was born an American but when I left everything behind to come to California I still felt like I had to learn the American way. My mentor (Professor Leo Estrada at UCLA) has known me for about 30 years now and knew about my experiences coming from Puerto Rico. So when he reviewed the manuscript the first thing he asked was where my story fit in. I told him that it wasn’t supposed to be about me. He said that the first thing readers would want to know is where I was coming from and how I could relate to the balancing of the two cultures. That’s when I went back to the drawing board and I added my story.
HL: One of the stories which stood out most to me was that of entertainer Rodri Rodriguez. Her parents were so protective of her that she still had a curfew at the age of 24, which led her to move out and distance herself from her parents. As she gains success, she becomes closer to her parents and then invites them to live with her when they’re older. She then imposes a curfew on them, not because she doesn’t trust them, but because she doesn’t trust the outside world. Is there something that you think is special about Latino culture that brings families closer together in spite of these relationships which may seem too overprotective?
MB: This was definitely a typical situation at that time. You have to remember that Rodri lived without her parents for about 7 years. Parents of that generation were more protective, but in her case it was more so because of her circumstances. It wasn’t easy for her parents to accept the way things were here, but they were proud of her accomplishments. They were from the old school, the Latino way of raising children. They learned to agree to disagree. In the Latino culture your parents and extended family will always be part of your family unit, often times living under the same roof. Back where I grew up, my daughter would live with me until marriage. That was the norm for my generation and Rodri’s generation. Things are different now. It is not as strict though there are parents that still can’t get used to the idea of young people living together if they are not married. Here my kids still live at home and I know that they’re on their way to moving out on their own, but we don’t push them out. Once you’re out and your parents get older then you end up in charge and taking care of them. Aging parents will often end up living with one of their adult children.
HL: You really focus on the importance of raising children in both the American way and the more traditional way from one’s home country. Do you think that it’s getting easier to do this as there is increased exposure to Latino culture with larger numbers of Latinos in the United States?
MB: It’s a lot easier to find the balance now. There are so many resources out there to encourage a balance and to preserve one’s native culture. The higher percentage of Latinos has contributed to a more determined and focused cultural pride. There are all of these apps and games for kids en español. And so many more cultural events and internet resources to expose them to the language and the culture. It’s going to be so much easier for my grandkids than it was for my children!
Check back in for part two of our conversation, where we chat more about the specifics of being both bicultural and bilingual. You can purchase Mari’s book here.