I’m told... I am the typical daughter of immigrants...
The year was 1984: Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. I was working full-time in the Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
A co-worker, the formidable Melvin Bell, Chief Financial Officer, would take long walks around campus to clear his head of all the number crunching. One day, he stopped me in front of the newly built InterCultural Center, and grabbed a hold of famous linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen, on her way into the building.
“Dr. Tannen!” he exclaimed. “Can you explain Maribeth to me? She switches between English and Spanish with no effort. How does she do it?”
Dr. Tannen considered me briefly, then pronounced: “She’s the typical daughter of immigrants.”
I have Nixon to thank...
Flash back to 1973: Nixon is re-elected and my father can’t take him for four more years. He and my mother, recent graduate of NYU with an M.A. in Linguistics, pack up their three young daughters to go live and work in Lima, Peru. They take positions at the Centro de Idiomas, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (Camaná) and enroll us in Nuestra Señora del Carmen, also known as Carmelitas, a bilingual elementary and secondary school.
Within a year, my sisters and I are speaking, reading and writing Spanish and are now culturally and linguistically Peruvian.
We speak Spanish all day but keep up our English at home (“Mommy, can you please firmar my libreta?). As children, we fuse seamlessly into our social milieu, instinctively incorporating cultural and linguistic cues that elude our parents, learning the language and culture as adults.
My youngest sister is cast in a Nescafé commercial with an elderly Grandfather figure – no question she represents the ideal Peruvian child.
My elementary school friends call me ‘Gringa’ – not an insult in Perú – a term of endearment reserved for foreigners and blonds. As I grow older, people not close to me as a child don’t understand why I have that nickname. I’m dark brunette, clearly not Gringa.
Clearly not... I married a Zapotec Oaxacan, I prefer ceviche (NO tomatoes or avocados, please!) , I put hot mustard on my french fries because I can’t get salsa de ají at McDonald’s and I drink Inca Kola when I’m feeling nostalgic. I speak English en casa, Spanish to kids and cats and Spanglish with but a privileged few.
I am bilingual, bicultural and yes, the daughter of immigrants.