My Life as an Engrish to English Translator: Learning to Accept My Korean Immigrant Mother

 by Storyteller Elizabeth Gomez

Story Summary:

A story about Elizabeth, an “Army brat”, who must navigate the world for her Korean immigrant mother. Through this process she learns to stop being embarrassed by her mother and shifts to fighting for her.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: My-Life-as-an-Engrish-to-English-Translator-Learning-to-Accept-My-Korean-Immigrant-Mother

Discussion Questions:

  1. How many of you are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents?
  2. What are the daily struggles you have or that you see your parents and other family members going through?
  3. If you have immigrant parents, are there times you are embarrassed by them? Can you share examples and reflect on from where the embarrassment comes?
  4. What steps can you take to make you and/or your parents’ transition in America easier?
  5. What do people who have been here longer need to understand and how can they be a support to new immigrants?

Resources:

Learning a New Land by Carola Suarez-Orozco
Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment by Moon H. Jo

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Languages
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. It was 1983 in Virginia. I was laying in my room in the dark with the covers over my head listening. She was yelling and I was only nine years old so I wasn’t really sure what to do. My mother and I had been here before, just listening to her struggling and screaming. I pull the covers tighter over my head when I heard, “Risa, Risa, you come here. You come here now!”

As I walked out of my sanctuary, my eyes widen and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in a polyester robe with a brown phone dangling from her hand.

“Risa, you speakie to him. He no understanding me.”

I stood there flushed with embarrassment, and took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello.”

“Hi, ma’am.”

“Could you just help us get your mom’s account number. We’d really like to help her.”

“Mom. What’s your account number?”

“Oh, you terr him, you terr him, jero-jero-sex-sex-four-eight-sex.”

“It’s 0-0-4-8-6.” (0-0-6-6-4-8-6)

“As I talked to this man, my mom walked around in the kitchen. She was pacing back and forth, getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t understand why Americans didn’t understand her when she spoke to them, especially because she’d been in this country for over a decade. I watched her pace through the kitchen, back and forth, her small Asian frame just blowing in and out, and in and out until she was rounded out like one of those monsters from Where the Wild Things Are.

After I completed the phone call, I hung up. I looked at my mom. This lady demon who was slowly morphing back into this four-foot-something Asian lady.

“Why they don’t understanding? Why don’t understanding me? I speakie good Engrish.”

I watched my mom sit at the kitchen table and I put my hand over hers. I looked at her as her face was beginning to worry and her body started to fill with self-doubt. At that moment, I decided I have… I had to stop. I had to stop running away and hiding and I had to really commit to being her English (Engrish) to Engrish (English) translator for the rest of my life. And it was always like that.

My father was a Puerto Rican-American, U.S. citizen, who served in the military. He met my mother in Seoul, Korea. They married; they had kids. Most of my mom’s life, as a military wife, was traveling abroad and she spent very little time in America. While she was here, she did okay. But when my dad was gone on duty or training missions, my mom had to make her way through and I was rela… relegated to just, basically, being her translator.

I spent tons of time just, like, watching her try to talk to sales people and clerks and merchants, just trying to get what she needed. It was like watching a Charlie Brown episode where the teacher’s talking to Charlie Brown and all Charlie Brown can hear is this muffled sound of nothingness. And I would just stand and watch my mom wave her hands around, and gesticulate, and try to convey what she needed, without being able to tell them in the way that they needed to hear it.

And every time, I’d be broken up with this sound, “Risa, Risa, you terring him, you terring him right now, Risa. You terring him, ‘Me want to buy fridgey.’”

“She wants to buy a fridge.”

“You terring him we need to move to Browning Street.”

“You mean,”

“She wants you to know that we live on Brown Street.”

“You terring him, ‘It’s too expenses’.”

“She means it’s too expensive.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, she named me Elizabeth. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce Elizabeth, so she started calling me Lisa, which she also does not know how to pronounce. In addition to that, my mom would have to go to conferences, like, parent-teacher conferences, and those were the most embarrassing, humiliating, and petrifying moments of my life. There they were, these well-articulated, ecedga… educated teachers looking at my mom with these plastered smiles, just nodding their heads, trying to understand what she was saying.

And my mom is basically screaming at them, trying to convey, “Oh, Risa, she so razy.”

In addition, I couldn’t have any friends. Anyone who came into my house, got pinched by my mother when she would say things like, “Oh, you so fat!” Or, “Oh, why your eyes so big?”

Every single friend I ever made, who came to my house, basically, never came back and I accepted that. That was my life. I was gonna be the town recluse and I always was gonna have this rude mother.

Late one night, I could hear my mom talking to someone on the phone and it was my dad’s new girlfriend. I dropped my blanket and I walked to the wall that separated my room from my mother’s. And I could hear her just softly begging this woman to let my father go. And I heard her say, “Prease, prease go way. We have kids.”

I listened for a long time, and my heart started pounding as I felt for her. And I just listened, as she kept begging and begging. And I didn’t even really like my father and, up ’til that point, I’m not sure I liked my mother that much either. But at this moment, I felt what was going on with her, and I understood that this was painful. And I pressed my head closer against the wall as I listened to her hang up the phone and sob and cry. And I wanted to go to her but I couldn’t. I could just listen. And I did. I listened until I fell asleep to the sounds of what pain was for her.

A few, a few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, I was really surprised when he came to pick up me and my brother to go to New York and see my grandmother. Not only was I surprised to see him, I was surprised that I was allowed to leave with him.

“I don’t wanna go.”

“Risa, you take good care of Ab-e. You be good girl, okay?”

“No! I don’t want to go.”

“You go.”

As we drove up to New York, my father stopped at a rest stop. He went to go use the phone booth. And as he was in the phone booth, I could tell that he was just being himself – super charming, and laughing, and flirtatious to someone on the phone. Eventually, he started walking toward our car, and I felt a little weird. And I wasn’t sure what was going on. So, he said for us to come over and, uh, talk to this person on the phone. And I pick up the phone and, huh, I hear this voice come over.

“And she says, “Hello, Elizabeth. It’s me, Jane, your dad’s friend. How are you?”

At that moment, all the anguish I had for my mother, the loss of my father, the not understanding of what had been going on with my whole family, this whole entire time came rushing at me. My heart pounded. My ears… like sounds of, like, waves came through my ears. And I felt nothing but anger when I replied, “I know you’re not my father’s friend. You’re his girlfriend! As a matter of fact, you keep calling my house, and I hate you for hurting my mother.”

And I hung up the pho… er, I dropped the phone and I ran back to the car. And I watched as my father, like, fumbled around with this phone and he’s spewing out apologies. And then he comes back to the car, he slams the door shut, and smacks me across my face. And he starts talking, just talking about something or another, and I have no idea what he’s saying because I don’t care. I just didn’t care.

All I knew was that, at that moment, I had been able to tell this woman the things that my mom wanted to say to her. And in some small way, this 9-year-old was able to score a big point for my mother.

After our trip was over, we came home. I could hear my mom and my dad arguing out in the front porch about this or that or what the kids knew or didn’t know. And I was pretty sure as I was standing in the kitchen, that when my mom came back, she was gonna spank me or discipline me for re… disrespecting my father. Instead, she walked in with these bloodshot eyes, mascara tears dried on her cheeks. She looked at me. She made me a bowl of hot ramen noodle soup. She smiled and then she went back into her bedroom.

I still translate for her to this very day, especially with my own family. I mean, huh, we’re still not used to the idea that when you get pinched, and to be told, “You’re fat,” that that actually means, “Hey, are you hungry?”

We’ve learned to communicate in ways of, like, laughter and shared experiences and gestures. And now, when my mom asks my husband and I if we’ve bought a condom, I know she means condo.

My Names: Gender Expectations for a Taiwanese Woman

by Ada Cheng

Story Summary:

In this story, Ada Cheng explains the meanings of her Chinese name: Shu-Ju. She explains the connection between her name, her parents’ expectations for her as a daughter, and the cultural expectations for her as a daughter. She details why she chose to stay with the name Ada and what Ada means to her life and her identity.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My-Names-Gender-Expectations-for-a-Taiwanese

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do parents come up with names for their children in Taiwan? What do names represent?
  2. What does Ada’s original Taiwanese name tell you about gender norms in Taiwan?
  3. Why is changing her name important to Ada, her identity and her life?

Resources:

Growing Up in Three Cultures: A Personal Journey of a Taiwanese-American Woman by Dora Shu-fang Dien 
Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience by Carolyn Chen
Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Languages
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

Hi! I’m Ada Cheng. Ada Cheng. Let me start with my original name. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and I was born Chen Shu-Ju. In Taiwanese culture and some of the Asian cultures, Cheng, we put our last name in the first place so Cheng is the family name. Shu-Ju, um, that’s my given name. In Taiwanese culture, when parents give children their names, uh, it represents, uh, their expectations in terms of what they want and what they hope for their future. It can be about their life; it can be about their career. Shu-Ju. Shu, the character means like a lady.  Ju means good luck.

So, I can just imagine my mother going to a fortuneteller and trying to find the right characters for me. Um, and, eh, she would probably talk to my father. “I think it would be great if we give our daughter, uh, this wonderful name and we hope that she will be gentle and… and… and quiet and polite and respectful. Like a lady with a lot of good luck.

So, now imagine my being a little girl, like a tomboy. And then my parents’ expectation was that they wanted me to be respectful, polite, quiet and… and gentle like a lady and I didn’t like my name when I was growing up. Um, here’s the thing, this is what my mother’s… as I was growing up, this is what my mother would say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You got to wash dishes. You… you’re a girl; you have to help out in the kitchen. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Close your legs! You’re a girl! Come on, you can’t do that anymore. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You can’t beat up your brother. He’s a boy. You’re a girl! Ah, Shu-Ju, what’s going on with you? You can’t run around naked anymore. You’re a girl! Ah, you can’t play with boys. Please do not talk back!”

Let sink that, think, sink that, sinking for a while. I grew up like playing, running around, tomboy, climbing, liked to climb trees, climb things, fight with boys. And as I was growing up, I hated my name because how did you… could you convince me to love a name that I knew I was going to fail my parents’ expectations. That there was no way for me to fake it, right! Often time you fake it until you make it! There’s no way. For me to know I can fake it until I make it. And… and there’s no way for me to… when I was a little girl, I thought there… there’s no way for me to make it as a woman in this society.

And I rebelled; I refused to do anything required me as a girl. Um… which also very interesting is that I… my mother also gave me another nickname. Um, in Mandarin, it’s called Zhi Da Bien. In Taiwanese, it’s called Gay Sei. In… in English, it’s called Chicken Poop! That’s right! My mother called me Chicken Poop. Eh… and it was… so, um, I asked my mother, “Why would you call me such name?”

And she say, “Because you were so small; just like a chicken poop, right?” She thought it was very, very  endearing to call me this. Um… ah, she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But the thing when… as I am older and think back, would she call my brother such a name?

So, I remember when I was 8 years old and I was playing  with, uh, neighborhood children. And I was the smallest one in the neighborhood but I was the one, the strongest one with the strongest opinions. I liked to order people around and I would say, “Line up! Do this and do that!” So, often time, after school the children would just stand there and play. So I remember that day, that close to dinnertime, and I was gathering people and say, “Hey, hey, hey! Please, uh, gather up, we’re gonna play the game (whatever the game was). We’re gonna play again!”

And as I was ordering people around and, uh, I was the smallest one, my mother suddenly appear at the door and then she said, “Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien! Shi wăncān!”  So, the English translation is “Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop, it’s time for dinner!”

And I just froze! And I turn around and I look at my mother and I was exasperated. I was being authority figure, standing in front of a group calling the shot and then, I say, “Five minutes, give me five minutes!” Ah! In my back, I heard children giggling, right! And when I turn around, the kids just started to laugh at me. “Ah, Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien, right! Your name is Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop! And then I was… I just… I was so mad! I was so frustrated! And I… I just left. I ran away. I said, “You know, I’m not going to play with you guys!” and left.

And when I went home, I finished dinner and I didn’t talk to my mother. And that was pretty much the day I kind of lost my status in the neighborhood. I mean, think about it, how many boys will want to play with a girl and to be ordered around by a girl whose name is Chicken Poop, right! Um, and I realize nobody wanted to play with me. Um, when my mother saw me this small or given me this small… um, and later on, uh, you know, my mother and I, ah, my family and I – we stopped talking with each other.

And, um, because I was trying to be my own person, um, wanted to search my own life, um… And it was actually October, 1976, I was in junior high school. We… everyone started to learn English and so one day when I’m home, we have this very small dictionary. And I thought if I started to learn English, I am going to have an English name so I can immerse myself in with… into the environment so I flipped through the dictionary. I found this name list and I looked through the names. In our textbooks, we have Mary, we have Susan, we have… have all these names. I thought I got to find a name that nobody has heard. So, I looked through it and I saw the name… I saw Ada, right! Ada is for the first place, the first name listed under the alphabet A. And I looked at it and I thought, “That’s it, Ada! That’s the name for me!”

Because at the age 12, the only thing I want to be was number one. So, I thought I wanted to pick the name Ada so I could be number one then and number one forever. So, I pick that name and I stick with it, uh, forever. And I started to introduce myself to everyone as Ada and that’s the important part is that when I picked that name, I also wrote a different story for myself. Thank you.

No Aguantara

Story Summary:

The differences were easy to see, Catholic/Jewish, Brown/White, Spanish-Speaking/English-Speaking, Mexican/American, rural/urban. When Carrie Sue and her fiancé decided to marry there were many who thought their relationship would not last long – including the representative from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico who was handling their Visa.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: No-Aguantara

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you judge people on when you first meet them? Have you ever made a judgment about a person only to realize when you get to know them better that you were completely wrong about them? If so, did you discover anything about yourself?
  2. Do you think that we learn things about ourselves when we meet people who are different from us? Why do you think that?
  3. Many people, including the American Visa Clerk objected to Carrie Sue and Facundo’s relationship. Why do you think it mattered to the other people?
  4. Why do you think many were surprised that their families did not disapprove of the relationship?

Resources:

  •  In Their Own Words: Drama with Young English Language Learners by Dan Kelin – a resource for anyone working with 2nd language learners
  • The Earth Mass by Joseph Pintauro and Alicia Bay Laurel (Carrie Sue and her husband used a poem from this collection in their wedding ceremony and still try to follow its advice.)

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Immigration
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Carrie Sue Ayvar and just after I graduated high school, I went from Pittsburgh, PA to Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico. (No aguantará) It’ll never last! That’s what they said! (No aguantará) It’ll never last! They were like wisps of rumors, never said to us directly but rumors that wisped around and spoken always in concerned tones, mostly to our families and friends.

It was 1973. I was only 17 when I met Facundo but there could hardly have been a more romantic setting. It was a warm, sunny day that January morning and it was on a small island just off the west coast of southern Mexico. The air was filled with (breathing in fragrance) mango and coconut oil, salt sea breezes and pheromones.

I watched as a muscular, strong young man, probably about 20 years old, carried several scuba tanks up onto the beach. Oo! The salt water and the sweat made his coppery skin glisten and his long dark hair had streaks of red and gold in it from days in the sun. Oh ho… I had never seen a more beautiful, gorgeous human being in my entire life! Like an Aztec Adonis emerging from the waters! When I could finally catch my breath again, I remember thinking, “The guy’s gotta be a jerk! I mean, no one is that good looking and nice too!”

But (como dice el dicho) as the saying goes, (caras vemos el corazón no sabemos) we see the faces but we do not know the hearts. Now on the surface, Facundo and I had very little in common. He was a Spanish-speaking, Catholic, indigenous, brown-skinned Mexican from a very small fishing village and he lived on a beach while I was a fair-haired, green-eyed, English-speaking, Jewish, white American who lived in a three-story brick building in a very large city.

And our experiences growing up were completely different. I mean, while I watched Tarzan’s adventures on TV, he lived them slicing green hanging vines for cauldrons of water, climbing tall palm trees to gather coconuts, diving off cliffs into beautiful blue tropical waters. I mean, while I went ice skating, he was free diving. From my father, I learned how to make flower arrangements. From his father, he learned how to build dugout canoes.

Para cemos conocemos! But we did get to know each other. And we got to know each other’s stories and each other’s hearts. (E descubrimos) We discovered (las dos querer) that we both loved (el mar) the ocean and the feeling of weightlessness during those underwater dives. (El savor) the taste of salt on our tongues when we came up for air. (El sonido) The sound of the waves drumming against the sands. (E también descubrimos) We also discovered (los dos querer) that we both cherished (familia y mis les) family and friends (mas que) more than everything. (Nos conocíamos) we got to know each other (e nos enamoramos) and we fell in love.

Now it was amazing how many people were there to tell us, “No aguantará, it will never last!” From both sides of the border, there were so many people who disapproved. They would say things like, “Oh, you know he’s only using you to get a green card.” Or (Ay, esos gringos de como de es sabe) You know how those gringos are, man! (rico e consentido) They are rich and spoiled, (ya sabes) you know! Or “Ah, what a shame! She couldn’t find a nice Jewish doctor?”

But all of those things didn’t really phase us! Even when we finally announced our engagement and, to our surprise, we heard rumors of a pregnancy that we knew nothing about! But, as I said, all those doubts and criticisms didn’t really bother us. I mean, we were happy and, to the surprise of many, so were our families. I mean, Facundo had actually met my parents a year before I ever met him; they’re the ones who actually introduced us to each other there on the island. Jesus, his papa and his parents –  (madre tomas su propia hija) they treated me like their very own daughter. Dona Christina, his mother, used to say ,”(Tenemos que cuidado de ella)  We have to take good care of her.  (Sus propios padres están tan lejos) Her own parents are so far away.”

So really, what did it matter to us what other people thought? I didn’t think it mattered at all… but sometimes it does. Since it was hard for my grandparents and other elderly relatives to travel to southern Mexico where we lived, we decided that we would have the wedding in my home town of Pittsburgh, PA.

Now after a 12-hour overnight bus trip, we finally arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Under a smoggy, gray sky, we waited for hours and hours to finally speak to an American visa clerk. And when we finally did, instead of helping us, instead of telling us what kind of visas we were eligible for, this unfriendly, unhelpful, unhappy little bureaucrat of a man lied to us. Lied to us repeatedly and began to make things up. Let me ask you, do you know how hard it is to get a copy of a form that doesn’t actually exist? Oh, yeah, he knew that he controlled the information and the situation.

But much to his dismay, we did not give up and go home like he wanted us to. Ah, ah, every time we went back, he looked more put out, like, like he was sucking on sour lemons or smelled something foul in the air. I mean, he was, quite frankly, openly disapproving of us. He told us that we were too different and finally, he dismissed us with an arrogant look! “Just go back to your own kind! You are young, poor, powerless and you don’t even realize that I’m doing you a favor!”

(Sigh) Well, (pobres) We were poor; we had little money. (E jóvenes) We were young! Powerless? (Las caras vemos corazones no sabe) You see the faces but you do not know the hearts! His attitude only strengthened our determination – pulled us together! Facundo and I, we found our voices and our power! We did not give up; we went back to that embassy again and again until, at last, we found someone who would listen. Though I will admit, it did take months, a career ambassador, a 3-star general and a United States senator to finally resolve our case!

But we did get a visa and we did get married. Now maybe we were naïve, I don’t know. I know as it was pointed out to us again and again, we looked different and we sounded different. We had different religions and we came from very different cultures and experiences. And (nunca sabes) you never know; there are no guarantees in life anyways. But I do know that we just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary and, yeah, we’re still happy! (Como dice el dicho) As the saying goes, “Look at the faces and see the hearts!”

America, The Land of Miracles

 

Story Summary:

 Noa grew up in Jerusalem, where America was the most exotic place other than Mars. In the 5th grade, Noa’s family left their home in Israel. She arrived in America speaking very little English. But miracles do happen…

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: America-The-Land-of-Miracles

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever been a foreigner in a country where you didn’t speak the language? What were some of the strange or incomprehensible things you encountered? What was funny, scary or most difficult?
  2.  Do you know anyone for whom English is a second language? Can you imagine what it would feel like to not understand everyone around you?  What are some things that you can do to help them feel more connected and welcomed?
  3.  Besides words, humans use many non-verbal ways to create and convey meaning. Discuss the ways we communicate meaning other than spoken words? What impact does our tone of voice, facial expressions and attitude have on our words?
  4.  Different cultures have different communication norms. What do you think are some of the norms that we have in America? Are there certain phrases or gestures that every culture uses?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Languages
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Noa Baum but when I was a little girl growing up in Israel, my name was Noa Kohen-Raz. I grew up in Jerusalem where America…America was just about the farthest, most exotic place you could go to, other than Mars. And in the summer, before fifth grade, 1968, my father announced that he was invited to a two year sabbatical at Stanford University in a place called Palo Alto, California. Which is just another complicated way of saying America. We were going to America! America… How can I describe to you…is…it’s the land of miracles! It’s the place where my mother said everyone had cars and televisions and machines and actually washed your clothes for you and everyone there spoke English…and that’s when it hit me.

We were going to start English as a Second Language in fifth grade and I was going to go to fifth grade in America where everybody already spoke English. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go at all. But to call my panic, my father gave me a two week crash course in English, which included all the letters A, B, C, D, all the way to Z. And as we flew across that endless ocean, I chanted my entire English vocabulary over and over. “Hello. How do you do? My name is Noa Kohen-Raz. I come from Israel.” And armed with this, I entered my first day of school in America, the Land of Miracles.

Well, the first thing that was evident was how strange and different everything was. I mean, my school in Jerusalem was a three story building with corridors and narrow windows and lots of stairways. We had a single little slab of concrete outside and it functioned as gymnastics, assembly court, basketball, soccer, chased the boys field, all in one. Here in America, the school was just one story high. It was shaped like an L and all the doors were green. And they, they faced an enormous playground, beyond which was an even bigger area filled with grass. I mean, it was bigger than my entire neighborhood in Jerusalem!

And then my mother deposited me in front of one of those green doors, the fifth grade. There was the teacher Mr. Frieburg. He had a bald, shiny head, big round belly and a smile that gave instant meaning to the phrase, “From ear to ear.” He said, “Hello!” and I was smitten.

“Hello. How do you do? My name is Noa Kohen-Raz. I come from Israel.” He shook my hand.

“How do you do?” And he laughed so hard, the tie was bouncing on his belly. He led me to my desk. He pointed to a piece of tape on the corner, “Name.” I knew that, my father showed me. I practiced my name. I wrote it, N-O-A. I’m so proud.

The girl next to me was writing two names. My last name. My last name Kohen-Raz. My father showed me but I never practiced. What am I going to do? What am I gonna…I mean…I mean, even if I knew the words to ask…I mean…how can you ask somebody else how to write your own last name? I mean, I’m in fifth grade.  And how much stupider can you get? I wanted to evaporate and die. I prayed for a miracle. And it happened.

All of a sudden, Mr. Freiberg said my name out loud, “Noa Kohen-Raz” and somebody asked, “Uh?” And he turned around and he wrote it on the board. N-O-A, K-O-H-E-N, dash, R-A-Z! All I had to do was copy it and I was saved.

Another miracle happened when the bell rang. Recess. Everyone was rushing to me. I was never so popular in my life. I was standing in the middle of a circle, surrounded by pushing eyes and bodies and they all had thousands of questions. (Sounds of gibberish talking.) What could I do? I answered with all of my English. “How do you do? My name is Noa Kohen-Raz. I come from Israel.” But there was more. (Sounds of gibberish talking.)  “Yes,” and they laughed. (Sounds of gibberish talking.) “Yes,” and they laughed again. This a miracle. I was funny in English.  And to this day I have no idea what it was I said yes to.

But right after the bell rang, Mr. Freiburg wrote a word on the board, C-H-O-R-U-S, and then he clapped his hands, “Chorus!” And everybody said, “Yeah!” And they were all putting their bags… in their bags and everybody was banging their desks and rushing to the door and I figured we’re going somewhere. And so, I to… put my books in my bag and I, and I, and I got up to go to the door. By then everybody was gone and Mr Freiberg was standing there with his big smile, “Chorus,” and pointing out and I said, (nods head), and I started going out to the playground…and, and there was nobody there. They all disappeared so fast. I was facing an endless line of identical green doors. My entire class disappeared behind one of them but which one? And what was that word? Cha-What is it? The only logical conclusion I could come to was that it was some sort of a secret club only for Americans. I mean, why else would they run so fast and leave me behind? Because I’m not invited. And it was quiet. You know, the way it is after the bell rings and everybody knows where this was to be except me. And there was a lump in my throat swelling to the point of pain and… I just decided to go home.

Well, the sixth grade guards stopped me at the corner and they started to talk, and they took me by the hand, and they started to lead me back to the line of green doors. And I wanted to say I don’t want to go to this place that had things only for Americans and I’m not invited. But even if I had the words by then, I couldn’t talk; I was just crying. But they kept walking and then they opened one of the green doors. And there they were, my entire class standing around a big piano. An Asian looking teacher was sitting there reading names. She turned to me, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Noa Kohen-Raz. I come from Israel.”

“Oh, Israel! Chanukah!” And she waves her hand in the air and they all start to sing in Hebrew! Shalom, chaverim. Shalom, chaverim. Shalom. Shalom.

To be honest…they had a lot of work to do on their Hebrew. But for me that moment qualifies as a miracle. My third miracle in America, The Land of Miracles.

How Do You Say Blueberry in Spanish?

 

Story Summary:

 Antonio explores the challenges and joys of trying to raise a bilingual child. As anxious new parents, Antonio and his wife ask, “Are two languages better than one?” and find humor along the way.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did Antonio and his wife begin to doubt their choice of raising their son to be bilingual?
  2. What is the advantage of speaking more than one language?
  3. Two-way Immersion (TWI) classes or bilingual immersion classrooms are springing up in many urban/suburban communities where people new to America settle. What used to be a rare challenge for the public schools has become mandatory. Also, many English-only speakers want these programs because parents understand that their children’s world is much more global than the world in which they grew up. Would you put your child into classes that teach core subjects in a language other than English?

 

Resource:

 

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

The Restaurant Story: A French American Becomes More Visible

 

Story Summary:

As Franco-Americans from Quebec assimilated into the larger Anglo culture in the United States, they became, as a result of that effort, more “invisible.” The story that Michael tells, as Jean-Paul Boisvert, shows a couple’s resistance to that “invisibility.”

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Restaurant-Story-A-French-American-Becomes-More-Visible

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you know when “your people” came to the United States? If you do not, is it because, in their effort to assimilate, they also became “invisible”?
  2. Were “your people” able to assimilate successfully? Or did they accommodate to the Anglo culture to the point where they became “invisible”?
  3. Did your grandparents or parents ever speak a language other than English? Were they able to learn English and also continue to speak their “native” language even if it was a dialect of the language rather than the “standard” version?
  4. Have you ever had to “bite your tongue” to fit in, or assimilate into a culture? Do you think it was wise of the narrator of the story not to “bite his tongue” and speak up?

Resources:

  • The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn by Mary Rice-DeFosse and James Myall, The History Press, Charleston, S.C. 2015.  (A lively exploration of the challenges of the French-speaking immigrants from Canada who came to work in the textile industry.)
  • The First Franco-Americans by C. Stewart Doty, The University of Maine Press, Orono, ME 1985. (Well edited New England Life Histories from the Federal Writers’ Project.)

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Michael Parent. A few weeks ago, I was in residence at one of the elementary schools in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine. And I couldn’t help but notice that the kids there was so visible and so audible. Many of them are African immigrants from Somalia, from Sudan, from Cote d’Ivoire, and they were visible. The girls in their colorful clothing. The boys and girls, both of them, both the boys and girls, had wonderful speech. They were all dark skinned so they really stood out. They were visible and audible. And it led me to think that my own people, the Franco-Americans, who came down from Quebec a few generations ago, had become invisible and inaudible.

So, I started thinking about this, when they arrived from Quebec mostly, to work in the textile mills of New England, they were visible and audible. Well, they had Catholic religion. They had their French accents and their French language. They loved to get together in family gatherings. They loved loud singing and dancing, music, loud conversation in large groups. Now, my grandparents and my great grandparents were part of this immigration of about 1.5 million French Canadians who mostly came to try to find work in the textile mills of New England. Many of these people thought they would come down work for a few years and return to Quebec to revive their sagging farms. Well, most did not return. And the people who stayed, banded together in their own neighborhoods called, Peu Kanata, Little Canada. And in those neighborhoods, they tried to preserve their language and their traditions. And this slowed their assimilation into the larger, predominant, Anglo culture for quite a long time.

French was the language most spoken. When they went to church, the masses were said in Latin and French. When they sent their children to schools, I was one of those children, we had school half in French and half English. Well, on Sundays, we went for family gatherings and French was the language that was mostly spoken, then. We never, ever addressed my grandparents, my Mémé and Pépé, or our aunts and uncles, my tante and my oncle, we never addressed them in English. It was considered really impolite to do so.

My father, Gerard Parent represented the voice that said, “Deux langues sont deux fois,” which meant, Two languages is twice as good. But the prevailing majority voice was, “Le boss ne parle français,” the boss does not speak French. So, these people had to assimilate in order to survive in an Anglo culture. Some people changed their names to do so. Cluse became Clukey and Boisvert became Greenwood and so on. Now the older generation seems to be saying to the younger generations, “Listen we’ll never belong here in the United States but we will do anything that we can so that someday you will belong.” So, in order to assimilate into the Anglo culture many of these immigrants steered their children away from their heritage language. With the assimilation came a loss of language and culture. And with this loss of language and culture came invisibility. The story I’d like to tell you now is a, an excerpt from a larger story called, One More Thing. And it’s being told by Jean-Paul Bavare, who was an immigrant, who is retired from the textile mills and he’s going to tell about an incident that took place in his and his wife’s life.

Oh, yeah. Irene. She was my oldest daughter you know. Still is. I had five kids. Irene, I was so proud of her. That kid. But she always reminded me I never went to her college graduation. Hmm. I just didn’t feel comfortable with those college people. Hmm. Irene, she was mad she didn’t understand that at all. And oh, yeah, yeah. She liked to remind me how I was a big sour puss at her wedding. Well, it’s true I couldn’t wait to get outta there. Malcolm, my son-in-law, he was what I called, an Episcopagen.  But anyway, his people, all they talked about was their stocks and bonds, and their country clubs, and all the rest of that. Oh, gee, I couldn’t wait to get outta there. Irene, she was mad about that.

But here’s what I’m talking about. See, my wife felt the same way about all these things. We never hardly went out. My wife, she liked to stay home. She liked to have company come to her. So, one time, I had this boss, his name was Bill Lawler, Bill Lawler. Bill was a good guy, you know. He was one of my first bosses at the mill and he treated us workers fair and square. Well, he heard my wife was a good cook, you know. So, I invited him and his wife, Mildred, over for supper one time. And they kept coming maybe once or twice a year, but, you know, we never went to their house. Marie Louise, my wife, she did not like to go, you know, to other people’s houses. She liked to have company come to her, you know. She’d like to be with her own people mostly. Anyway. So, one time at one of our anniversaries I managed to convince Marie Louise to go out for supper. And we went to Chez Robert, oh boy. When we get to the restaurant, who do we see sitting there? But Bill Lawler and Mildred and a couple of their friends. Well, we go over there, we chit chat a little bit, you know, and Bill, he’s a nice guy, so he invites us to join them. Well, I didn’t know how to wiggle out of it, you know. So, we sat down. Well, these friends of the Lawlers, this other couple, they start talking about how they just adore speaking French. And they start blabbing away in their a high-class, college French about their trips to Paris. The wife of the other couple, she asked Marie Louise if we ever went to Paris. Marie-Louise says, “No. No, we usually go on vacations up to Quebec to visit some of our relatives. Well, the husband of the couple, he pipes in, and he says, “They would like to go to Quebec but they didn’t think they would understand such a strange accent.”

So, I said, “Hey, listen. Come on. There’s all kinds, different ways to talk French. Just like there’s all kinds, different ways to talk English.”

And he thinks about this for two, three seconds and he says, “But isn’t Quebec, was a peasant French?”

Oooooh! I could have bit my tongue, you know. Here was my boss. These are his friends and we were always taught to bite our tongues. I suppose in case they sent us back to Canada, I guess, I don’t know. But no, instead I said, “What’s wrong with that? If it wasn’t for us peasants, you aristocrats wouldn’t have a thing to eat.” It got very quiet that all the food finally came, thank goodness. And we started eating.

After a little while the wife of the other couple, looking down her nose at Marie Louise says, “Mrs. Bavare, do you make your own dresses?” Marie Louise takes her napkin and she folds it up. She puts it on the table.

She looks at me and she says, “Laisse nous partir!” Let’s go right now. And she stands up. And she looks at that woman right in the eye and she says, “Yes, I do make my own dresses. Thank you so much for asking. But now we have to leave because I have suddenly developed a big pain in my neck.” And she walks out of there like a queen.

I was so proud of her! But I never told.

STORY SHORT: The American Visa: A Saga in 3 Acts

story-short-template-brighter
THE AMERICAN VISA: A SAGA IN 3 ACTS
by Storyteller Antonio Rocha

www.storyinmotion.com
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 8 minutes.

______________________________________________________________________________

THEME
______________________________________________________________________________

Persistence in pursuit of a goal, along with a little kindness from strangers, can lead to success.
(more…)

BETWEEN WORLDS

By Storyteller OLGA LOYA

 

Story Summary:

At school Olga was taught to be American first and not to speak Spanish. If she did, she risked being punished. At the same time, Olga’s Japanese-American friends went to an after school program to learn the Japanese language and to study Japanese culture. Olga wondered why she didn’t have something like that and how she could straddle multiple worlds.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Between-Worlds

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some different ways of being in Nepantla (between worlds)? For example, a teenager is neither a child nor a full adult. A child of divorced parents may feel as if he or she travels to different planets as he/she moves from one house to another.
  2. How do people keep their sense of self when they feel they are between worlds?
  3. What is your Nepantla?

Resources:  

  •  Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Evangeline Anzaldúa
  • Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle by Pat Mora
  • I am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra L. Pinkney and Myles C. Pinkney

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos

Full Transcript:

Hi. My name is Olga Loya and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Nepantla: Between Worlds. This story takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s in East Los Angeles.

English . . . Spanish. American . . . Mexican. Spanish . . . English. Mexican . . . American. All my life I felt like I was straddling worlds and I could never seem to find my balance. I had never even put it into words but I knew I didn’t quite fit anywhere.

One day I met a woman who was putting up an art show called Nepantla.

As we talked I asked her, “What does Nepantla mean?”

She said, “It is a Nahuatl term. Nahuatl is the ancient and still-used language of Mexico. It is the language that the Aztecs spoke and speak. Nepantla means “between worlds.”

I stared at her for a while, just thinking.

Nepantla,” I repeated. “Nepantla—between worlds.”

For the first time, I had a word for what I had been feeling all those years!

I thought, “I have been in a state of Nepantla all my life.”

Where I grew up there were many Mexicans and some Japanese and Jewish people. I knew I wasn’t Japanese or Jewish but I wasn’t sure about being Mexican. I was six years old when I went to my mother and asked her, “Mamá, am I Mexican?”

She looked at me for a long time and then she said, “Yes and no, Mijita, little one.”

“Yes and no?”

“Yes and no.”

“What does „yes and no’ mean?”

“You are Mexican but you are American. You were born here in Los Angeles, California in the United States. You are a Mexican American just like your father and me.”

“Oh, okay, Mamá.”

I decided to ask my Grandma Loya, too. Of everyone in the family, I trusted her the most. I loved being with her and I wanted to see what she had to say.

I went to my abuelita, grandmother, and asked her, “Abuelita, soy Mexicana, Grandmother, am I Mexican?”

Making the sign of the cross, she said, “Que dios te bendiga, May God bless you. Ay si mijita, oh, yes, my little one, sus bis abuelos, y yo y tus otro abuelos vienen de Chihuahua, México. Ay, si, mijitia, eres Mejicana. Your great grandparents and grandparents and I come from Chihuahua, Mexico. Vives aquí en America pero eres Mejicana! You live here in America, but you are Mexican!”

“Okay, Abuelita!”

I was living in East Los Angeles where everyone spoke Spanish. Well, at least the adults spoke Spanish to each other, but they didn’t speak Spanish to us children.

They didn’t speak Spanish to be mean or to deprive us of our cultura. They wanted us to fit in, not to have an accento. They wanted us to be Americanos!

It was the 50’s and schools didn’t allow you to speak Spanish either. If a student spoke Spanish, the teachers scolded, “Don’t speak Spanish in school!” If a student continued speaking Spanish, the student got sent to the Vice Principal. The Vice Principal made the student wait and wait. Finally, the Vice Principal called the student into his office and said, “Didn’t we tell you not to speak Spanish in school!?! Why can’t you people understand?”

If a student kept speaking Spanish, the Vice Principal came to the classroom and stood in the front of the room. He said to the one who had been speaking Spanish, “Come to the front of the classroom—now.”

The student would go to the front of the classroom shaking. Then the student put his or her hand out for what was going to happen. “Whap!” The Vice Principal hit the student on the hand. If the student moved the hand away, the Vice Principal hit again, even harder.

I thought to myself, “Chihuahua, this Spanish is dangerous!”

At the same time that I was not allowed to speak Spanish, I was hanging around with my Japanese friends. All through elementary school, at least once a week they went to a Japanese after school program. Sometimes I went with them. I sat and listened to the lessons about their culture and their language.

As I listened I wondered, “So, where are the Mexican after-school programs? How come nobody is showing me about my culture and my language? What’s wrong with us that everyone acts so ashamed?

I was filled with questions and I didn’t know who to ask. When I tried to ask my family questions, everyone said, “Don’t ask so many questions. You don’t need to know that stuff.”

I was in the sixth grade and still didn’t have a sense of myself.

I just didn’t know where I belonged, but I wanted to find out.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO GO TO COLLEGE?

By Storyteller OLGA LOYA

 

Story Summary:

 In high school, Olga was told by her counselor that her family was too poor for her to go to College.  Hear how she found a way around this negative advice.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Why-Do-You-Want-To-Go-To-College

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had someone give you negative advice?  How did you respond?
  2. What is a good way to handle negative advice?
  3. What were the “favors” Olga’s counselor and shorthand teacher did for her?
  4. Why did the college students make fun of Olga?
  5. What was Olga’s reaction?’

Resources:

  • Growing up in East Los Angeles by Olga Loya
  • Land of the Cosmic Race by Christina A Sue
  • Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena
  • Who Are You? By Mimi Fox

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi. My name is Olga Loya and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Nepantla: Between Worlds.

The story takes place in East Los Angeles in the 1950s. When I went to high school, I realized I wanted to go to college. I talked to my girlfriends about it, and they said, “Why do you want to go to college? Don’t you want to get married and have children?” My parents said the same thing. My mother was always saying: “We want you to get married and be happy.”

It took me a long time to get my nerve up to go see the school counselor. I was in the 10th grade when I walked into the counselor’s office. The counselor was sitting behind a big desk. He motioned to a chair across from him and I sat down. I could hardly speak I was so nervous. I just sat there.

Finally, he said, “What can I do for you?”

I gulped and said in a scared voice, “Do you think I could go to college?”

I hoped he would say, “Yes, there is no problem. You can surely go to college!”

Instead he said, “Oh no, Olga, you can’t go to college. Your family is too poor. You’ll never make it. This is what you should dostudy shorthand and typing. That way you can work and then get married.”

I just sat there, staring at him. I couldn’t believe he had just told me I couldn’t go to college. Finally I got up and left. I thought, “Well, he said I can’t go to college. He should know. He’s the counselor.” Then I went to the bathroom and cried.

So I started to study typing and shorthand but I wasn’t interested in getting married. I didn’t want to be married; I wanted to have some time to myself. I wanted to figure out what I wanted in my life. In my senior year, my best friend got married. There was a joke in her family about me because when they took pictures of her throwing her bouquet, I calmly stood there with my hands behind my back as all of my other friends were reaching out for the bouquet. That’s how much I didn’t want to get married!

One morning in my junior year of high school, I woke up and thought about the advice the counselor had given me. I thought, “What kind of advice was that? Why can’t I go to college? I’m not dumb and I can work. How dare he say that to me? To hell with him—I’m going to college!”

I didn’t say anything to anyone but I began to study hard. Just before I graduated from high school, I found out I had received a small scholarship to go to the local community college. The day after I got my scholarship, I was walking down my high school hall feeling good. Then I saw my shorthand teacher. She had always been nice to me, and I was excited to tell her about my scholarship. I waved to her, and she came towards me. She was short and round with beady eyes. Before I could say anything to her, she walked right up to me and got so close that she spit in my face as she hissed, “What a waste. You shouldn’t have that scholarship—you’ll never even finish college!”

I felt like she had kicked me in the stomach. Anger washed over me. I felt my face getting redder and redder. I thought, “Don’t say anything. Olga. You are almost out of school. Don’t get into trouble now!” And I didn’t. I thought to myself though, “We’ll see.”

As it turned out, that school counselor actually did me a great favor. I would never have made it through college without . . . shorthand. I worked my way through school.

As for the teacher who treated me so disrespectfully, well, she did me a favor, too. Every time I felt like quitting I remembered her beady little eyes and how I thought, “I’ll show you.”

And I did! I got a scholarship; I graduated from college and became a teacher.

LOOKING FOR PAPITO

by Storyteller Antonio Sacre

 

Story Summary:

 As a Cuban and Irish American child, Antonio deals with being “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough”. By trial and error and with the support of his family, Antonio reclaims all of his ethnic heritage and his Spanish language.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Looking-for-Papito

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Antonio is white or brown? What does he think he is?
  2. What could Antonio have done when he was teased about speaking Spanish? Have you ever hidden parts of your cultural background to “fit in”?
  3. Does each group who comes to this country eventually lose its culture? What is gained and what is lost from assimilation?

Resources:

  •  How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
  • America Is Her Name by Luis J. Rodriquez 

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Looking for Papito. Spanish …When my father left Cuba he didn’t speak any English at all … and when he came to the United States he met a woman who didn’t speak any Spanish at all … and the two got married. And they had me. That meant I grew up speaking Spanish with my father and English with my mother.

Now I was born it was just me — and life was perfect and on my very first birthday my mom and dad gave me twin baby brothers. My mom was up to her ears. My dad said, “Three boys in one year that’s the man that I am you know!”

We were a handful for my parents of course, and so my dad did what very many other Cuban men would do in the same situation he called his mother. Spanish. My Cuban grandmother came to live with us. We were growing up in Delaware at that time. And so, in my house our first language — my two brothers and I — was Spanish. So, we

spoke Spanish with my dad, Spanish with my grandmother and of course we learnt English from my mom and we all learnt each other’s languages.

Now, it’s typical in Cuban families for the first-born male to have the nickname – Papito … and I was given that nickname by my grandmother Papito. It means little man … little boy. But in my family, it reminded her of my grandfather who died right after they came from Cuba and so it was honor to have his name. And when we got out of diapers my grandmother moved back to little Havana in Miami Florida.

 

Now my first day of kindergarten I was five years old. I was so excited to go to school to get out of the house with those two other boys and my mom was sad and my dad was happy — “my boy was going to school you know”.

I get to this school and I see all those kids and I am nervous and excited and I looked at them and I spoke in my first language I said … Spanish … And the kids looked at me and said — what? — Spanish … And my teacher … she was very sweet … and she said, “Honey nobody speaks Spanish here we only speak English”.

“Oh, that’s OK I speak English too.”

“Hi everyone, my name is Papito.” And one boy in the back said “Pa-Papido sounds like Dorido!” “No, no its Papito” “No, no its Dorido!”

Now he is just a five year old having fun with the nickname that he never heard before, but obviously I didn’t like it so much. I went home and spoke to my dad. Now if you don’t speak Spanish don’t worry I will translate what I said but this is what I said … Spanish … and my dad said … Spanish… I told my dad I didn’t want the Cuban nickname that my grandmother gave me I didn’t care it was part of the family I wanted to be called a more American sounding name I wanted to be called Tony. My dad said okay.

A couple of days after he dropped me off at school and he said “Adios Papit..aa, Tony adios” “OK Papa, Adios”

And one of those kids is in the playground … he was maybe third or fourth grader — he looked like a giant … he came up to me and he said, “What was that language you were speaking?” “Spanish.” “Sounds stupid.” “Are you stupid?”

I didn’t know what to say and I went home I did what I lot of other kids do from immigrant families I said … Spanish … I never want to speak Spanish again” … Spanish … “No from now on — only English.” And when my father spoke to me in Spanish I answered back to him in English. And after a while he spoke to me in Spanish. I pretended like I didn’t understand until he only spoke to me in English and little by little my first language was slipping away.

And when I turned eight my parents got divorced… there is a long story behind that part of … with their cultural background and part of the way it just the way it worked. And so, my dad moved out and I didn’t have anyone to speak Spanish with anymore.

But it didn’t matter to me everyone at school spoke English. Everything on TV was in English. Movies were in English. My grandmother was in Miami and maybe I’d see a couple of times a year maximum. And the older I got by the time I got into the high school it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t know any Spanish.

Now in my first day of history class…American history in high school … I will never forget the teacher was reading roll call. He said, “Antonio Bernardo Sacre who’s that?” “Ah…that’s me but…my name is Tony” “What kind of a name is this??” “Well its Cuban” and the whole class turned and looked at me and I said “I am not Cuban. I am American. I was born here. My father, he’s Cuban” he said, “Oh yeah…where is your mother from?” “Well she is an Irish American” what kind of a combination is that?” and the whole class laughed – he was just, you know being funny. It was okay.

Now, at lunch there was a kid who came up to me and said “You are a Cuban and Irish huh? I guess that it makes you a spic – mick – or maybe a “mick-spic”. And soon in my school that’s the nickname that I got even though I had long ago stopped speaking Spanish, even though I fell and looked as white looking as everyone in that high school, that’s what I became known as — I was the “other” in my high school.

Now, what was happening at the time was there is the movie “Scarface” had come out and there is the stereotype that all Cubans were drug dealers and bad and was just this odd thing was happening.

Lucky for me my grandmother wanted to see me this summer after my first year of high school. And my brother was there that whole summer and when I got in to her house (in Miami) and she saw me she threw her arms around me with a beautiful hug. I was so happy to see her and she started speaking and I couldn’t understand her.

And she said … Spanish … she’s screaming at me yelling at me and my brother said “What’s the matter? You can’t speak … you gotta talk Spanish with your grandmother.” The whole family is in a big consternation yelling at me and my grandmother said …Spanish … “You need to learn how to speak Spanish.” So every day she would sit me down and drill words into me tell me stories about my dad.

And every night … not every night… but every now and then my brother and I would go out to these big Cuban dance parties. He knew the salsa and dances. He could dance with all these girls I would be dancing by myself. Whenever we walked down the street the old Cuban men would say to my brother…. Spanish … “You speak Spanish perfect what’s the matter with your brother? He needs to learn Spanish you know!”

And soon in that little Havana neighborhood in my family I was called … “El gringo de la Familia‟ …the Gringo of the family…they were calling me names and my family — the gringo of the family. And so it was odd for me because I don’t fit in with my family. I don’t fit in my high school. I didn’t know what was going on you know and by the end of the summer.

I was jealous of my brother because his Spanish is perfect he looks more Cuban if there’s such a thing. I couldn’t understand my uncles when they are telling jokes with my grandmother, and I said in my halting Spanish “I don’t feel very Cuban in this family” and she said, “You are never gonna be fully Cuban or American” she said “You are Cuban American.” And she said you have to speak Spanish with me because I am too old to learn English and you have to speak English in this country.

And at that point I realized that it was worse to be called gringo in my family than to be called names in the school I didn’t really care about. And so I tried the best I could that summer to accept the gain as much of that language as I could. And sat with my grandmother while she told stories of the family she told me jokes — some silly, some a little racy, some beautiful little stories.

Some of the jokes became basis of the stories that I tell now all these years later. One is just a little joke — a “barking mouse”. There is a cat who chases a family of mice and the mother barks at the cat and the cat runs away and she says, “You see kids it pays to speak another language.”

And I think about my grandmother every time I think about that little silly beautiful message about the importance of speaking another language.

And I went back to my school proud to be the school’s only Cuban Irish American. There’s one of my friends who calls me – a “Leprachano”. And so now I embrace both parts of it. And I still am not fully Cuban in little Havana — and I am still not fully whatever American means or … whatever the words you would say… but I am somewhere in between the both. And I know now, in all my travels around the country, there are many, many other people just like me and we have lots to learn from both sides. And that is just the part I wanted to do.

FASTER THAN SOONER

by Storyteller Antonio Sacre

 

Story Summary:

 While studying to become an actor, Sacre happened into storytelling through a class at Northwestern University. Because he found that he was often excluded from acting jobs because he was seen as either “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough,” he took on storytelling performances to pay the bills. He started to understand the power of his bilingual storytelling and remembers an encounter with a grade school bully where learning the other boy’s story made all the difference.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Faster-than-Sooner

Discussion Questions:

  1. Antonio described how surprised he was to learn about the history and culture of many Latin American countries, but especially Mexico. What have you learned about another country or culture that surprised you or made you think differently? How might you do more of that learning?
  2. When Antonio tells stories switching back and forth between English and Spanish he sees students becoming more engaged. What might be the advantages of a fully bilingual education?
  3. When have you learned another person’s story that has caused you to change your mind about him or her? How might you listen to others’ stories more? How might you tell your own? How might we better encourage sharing our authentic stories?

Resource:

  • Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families by Annika Bourgogne

Themes:

  • Bullying
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Antonio Sacre and this is from a larger story called Faster Than Sooner.

In 1990, I decided I was going to be an actor and I moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. And it was fantastic. I had a very difficult semester once and the easiest class I could take was a storytelling class. There were no books to read, there was no tests to take, exams to do … and so I took it. It was just something that was fun, passed the time but I liked it and I found out that if I would tell the stories before a big audition I would feel better.

Now, even though I was comfortable with the fact that I was a Cuban Irish American man like my friend says — a “Lepricano” … I never really felt quite at home in the acting world. There were times while I was doing auditions and they would say to me “you are too ethnic for this part” and then times I do the other audition they say “you are not too ethnic enough,” I was constantly falling through the cracks. Maybe I was just a terrible actor, I don’t know, but I started to tell more stories in the neighborhood that I was living in Chicago. I was living in Logan square.

And I was at one of the schools telling stories, telling one of the only stories which I knew at that time which is the tall tale from the American West — Davy Crockett …   And I am telling the story to 300 3rd graders and I’m noticing that its going pretty well except that off to the right there’s a class of maybe 50 kids they don’t seem to be paying attention at all. I wonder what’s going on.  I look.  And at the back of my head I think, maybe they understand Spanish better than English and since I think in both languages anyway.

I switch the Davey Crockett story into Spanish. And as soon as I did those 50 kids their eyes got big. They were so excited to be hearing their language from the stage and I was so into the story that I just started telling the story in Spanish to them, but then the English speaking children why you speak English here, oh yeah then I switch back to English, but the Spanish children …Spanish … I switch into Spanish and soon I am telling the story simultaneously in English and Spanish. Davey Crockett said ..Spanish … and the kids started laughing together and I tell one part in Spanish, these kids translate it to English speaking kids and I do another part in English and they translate for Spanish speaking kids.  And it was for me one of the most exciting and fun performances I ever had. It’s usually one all Spanish — and all but to do both at the same time, the principal recognized it.

And she came running down to me and she said “that was amazing, you know how many schools in Chicago need somebody like you?” I said “No, I don’t” she said “a lot” and she actually wrote out the names and numbers of the principals I had to talk to and she told me how much money I could charge which was more than the money I was making as a waiter at that time, so by default and by accident and also because it was fun, I became, almost overnight, a professional bi-lingual story teller. Which was hard because I knew only that one story you know.

So, I began to study much of other stories because I was living in Chicago was a lot of people from Mexico and Puerto Rico at that time, so I began studying those cultures and I ended up travelling to Mexico and I ended up finding out things that I never taught ever. I never knew things about Mexico, the fact that there are pyramids there. That are incredibly large and some of them are the largest pyramids in the world. You know as a kid I learned pyramids are in Egypt, but Mexico right here? So close to the United States and I learned all the rich history and culture and the clash between the Indian and the native population in Mexico and Spanish, all the other cultures that came to Mexico and all the different states.. it was incredible.

I have learned one just small example — the Day of the Dead celebrations that the Mexicans have the beautiful honoring of the ancestors that happens on the same time when Halloween happens, and it’s interesting to see how the Day of the Dead celebration is coming up for us, and we are learning how to honor our ancestors from this culture right or not , but it’s part of our country for sure so this is what is all happening while I was becoming a story teller.

I like the money, I like the finding about all the cultures, I love that I was broad in my mind view and one day I was telling stories in this school and I never forget this, teacher came up to me. He was this granola dude …he was in Birkenstocks. He said, “You were great man …  It’s cool to hear about Mexico.. yeah , you know.” I started to talk like him you know, yeah what’s up…he said “storytelling can save the world” ….  I’m like rock on dude …yeah. I’m totally wantin’ to goof on this guy, want to go and tell all my friends about this crazy volunteer and I am thinking story telling can save the world??

Then I thought about it..the power of knowing somebody else’s story and then it reminded me of the time when I was in 4th grade. We had a class bully, his name was Larry Sergeant. He was three years older than everybody else because he was held back because how stupid he was we all said you know and he would beat up all of us you know.

One day he just came around and started beating up on Binkey Meyer, he was youngest in all of our class; because he was so smart he was promoted. There was Larry 4 years older than Binkey, five feet taller it seems, giant beating up Binkey and now I decided to do something about it. I stepped in between the two and tell Larry, “Larry you should pick on someone your own size.” Now I thought he would go finding the 7th graders because he was as big as a 7th grader, but no. Larry with a pea brain decided to pick on me, I much shorter than him anyway; we started fighting — it was terrible.

We ended up getting separated by the teachers and we both got major detentions. But I felt a little bit like a hero for sticking up for Binkey — but still you know it was just a bad situation. And while we were sitting in there, I saw Larry has started to cry and I couldn’t wait to tell the playground the next day that Larry was such a cry baby and I was going to make sure … but then he started heaving, sobbing it was awkward for my age you know may be eight or nine years old in the 4th grade. I am like what’s the matter? It’s not a big deal, it’s just a detention. He said “No, this is my third detention which means I’m going to get expelled.”

I am like “yeah yeah…I get the school bully kicked out, they ride me around the playground the next day you know. But he started crying even harder, I said “wat’s the big deal” he said, “Now I’m gonna go home and my dad gonna beat me.” At 4th grade I didn’t even understand what he is talking, you get grounded you get in big trouble. “No, my dad will beat me, he’ll keep me out of school until my bruises heal and put me in another school, that’s why I have been held back all these years.”

And at that moment I was so ashamed to have been the one to pick a fight with Larry… to have stepped in the fight and ashamed to send him home for another beating by his father and if I had known his story… maybe you know… honestly now, I don’t know anything would have been different about it, maybe Larry can be just kicked out anyway.

But I know, if I had known his story I would have acted differently that day. I don’t know if knowing someone else’s story can save the world …  but I know that there is great power in that. I think the more that we can learn each other’s stories and have the courage to tell our own stories … the more that we can begin to find some sort of solution.

A SECOND LANGUAGE: A TIME TO LAUGH, A TIME TO UNDERSTAND

by Storyteller Antonio Rocha

 

Story Summary:

 This is a story about learning a second language. It is about trying to use the little you know to communicate which many times creates funny and colorful misunderstandings.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Second-Language

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you speak or have tried to learn a second language? Did you learn the new language or did you stop altogether?
  2. If you did learn a new language, please tell about a time you misused a word or created one that does not exist.
  3. What was the outcome of Antonio’s attempts to learn English?
  4. Do you think that making mistakes can help you learn better? If so, why?

Resources:

  •  Learning a Second Language by The Open University
  • Learning New Languages: A Guide to Second Language Acquisition by Tom Scovel

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

My mother came into the house, sweating from downtown, with an envelope. She put the envelope down and

said, “I have signed you up to learn English because even though I don’t have much of an education,” she says very simply that, “I heard learning a second language will take you places.” And it was like a clairvoyant moment in her life, and I am like, “Ok!” So I went to class, and it was like this tiny little treasure box that opened in my head because I didn’t know how I would be learning English, but it was so exciting to try these different sounds and learn about culture because as you are learning the language you learn the culture. I learned about England, learned about the US, and trying to say “This” because “this” doesn’t exist in Portuguese. You don’t go “Th,” you know. Usually you have a speech impediment if you go “th” in Portuguese. So those things are very kind of intimidating when you are learning a language. It’s really about playing with sound.

But nothing really prepared me for the cultural experience than full immersion because you are learning how to speak the language and you are learning about the culture, but really being there it’s a whole different animal. For example, in the textbook you learn “it’s raining,” that’s what you learn. You don’t learn “shower,” “we’re going to have showers.” When I heard that, I’m like “we’re going to have showers!?!”

So, I had a chance to go to Maine 22 years ago. I went on a scholarship to learn mime. How about that? I’m

learning English as a second language and I come to the US to learn a silent language—mime. And so I’m learning all these new words: it’s not just “snow,” it’s “sleet,” it’s “we are gonna have snow showers.” It was like, all these different expressions, and then there were all these misunderstandings, cultural misunderstandings. People thought that I lived in a tree because I come from Brazil. I had all these silly questions like, “Do you have cars in Brazil? Do you have airplanes in Brazil?” I’m like, “No, we don’t have any of this stuff. I canoed all the way to Maine.”

But you can’t judge those questions because people are speaking of… they’re innocent. They are not trying to

hurt you. Just like for example, in Brazil, the sandwich. Knowing that America is a sandwich-type of culture in

terms of a quick food is the sandwich. The hamburger is the only sandwich we heard about. But I got here, and somebody invited me to go and eat an Italian. I’m like, “Are you a cannibal? You’re going to eat an Italian? What is that all about?” It’s a sandwich!! “Reuben”—another sandwich! You don’t hear these things, unless you sneak into the culture, you know.

And then there was that moment that somebody asked me how I was doing with my host family, I was living with a host family. And I was trying to be very, very good at my English. You learn: you swim, you’re a swimmer. Right? You paint, you’re a painter. So they said, “What do they do?” “Oh, the father is a consultant and the mother, she’s a hooker,” I said innocently. I didn’t know that a hooker was connected with prostitution. I just said, “She’s a hooker,” and my friend said, “No, no, she can’t be a hooker.” I said, “Yeah, she is.” And the more I tried to explain that she was, the more it looked real because I said, “Yeah, she is. She stays home during the day and then twice a week in the evening I stay with the kids, and she goes out, and she is a hooker.” My friends are like, “No, she can’t be a hooker, you misunderstood something.” “No, she hooks rugs.” And she goes, “Oh, we don’t say that, if you hook rugs.”

I started laughing when I understood what she was saying. It was the most hilarious thing, while standing on the sidewalk waiting for the university bus to come and pick me up and learning that new word through that very funny moment. And I got home and I told my host mother what I had said, and she started laughing, and, so, that’s how you learn a new language. You take steps, you fail, and you laugh and you learn. You know, I do believe that if everybody took a chance to learn somebody’s language, especially if you have an issue with that culture, go and learn that culture’s language, try at least, and you’re going take a peek through a window you’ve never looked through before and you’re going to start understanding that culture. And I think that’s what I got from it and that’s what could actually change things in the world, is trying to listen to different cultures’ stories through language.