If you're a Latina who's lived in a city mostly isolated from all things Hispanic, culture shock can come when you realize just how un-Latin you've become.Rethinking what makes me Latina
I've had the opportunity to live in three very distinct parts of the country. I've enjoyed the sweet twang of the antebellum South; the down-earthiness of the Midwest fruited plains; and the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. But other than a couple of friends or a restaurant here and there, I'd never lived in a uniquely Latino community until I moved to Miami.
Miami, with its constant flow of Latin American immigration, is a city infused with the sounds and smells of the culture I grew up in. It was no longer the idea of Latin culture; I now lived deep within. Between the salsa music coming out of cars in traffic jams, to the tantalizing coffee smells emanating from whole-on-the-wall Cuban cafes, I felt like a kid in the proverbial candy store. But to my amazement, I felt awkward and a bit out of place as well. The long years of immersion with the English language, the American culture and the people who live in it, had changed me into someone else. I was some sort of a mainstreamed American hybrid with a Spanish last name and expected Latin looks who spoke, thought and behaved like the rest of the US. It was so odd; I was experiencing un choque cultural with my own culture!
The change was pretty drastic. I no longer needed to speak English in stores or restaurants. My new doctors, hair dresser, bosses and co-workers all spoke Spanish. Heck, even the girl at the street intersection mouthed dale instead of "go ahead" to let me pass! Have a craving for rice and beans or empanadas? Well, there's a problem; you have to choose between the Argentinean, Cuban or Colombian versions. What??!! It was an embarrassment of Latin riches unparalleled in my experience.
However, there was one aspect of this new culture that required me to shed my gringo ways even more, and it required something we don't seem to have any more-time. Well, yes there's that whole thing about punctuality, a concept unknown to most Latinos. But, I'm talking about spending time with others: time to talk with the lady at the parking garage or time after a meal for a sobremesa (moment spent at the table to talk and sip coffee-there's no word in English for it!) These are the type of "stop, look and listen" moments that actually develop relationships and touch the soul, that go beyond the polite "Good mornin'" or a far away wave of hello. I, for one, had gotten too used to the "don't talk and mind your own business" life I led away from Miami.
As a matter of fact, this was precisely the type of Latino behavior that makes my Dad stick out like a sore thumb in his very southern hometown. If you're in a hurry, don't go with him to the local Wal-Mart, because there are rounds he must make. He has to go and do his 20-minute "ham tasting" at the Deli counter where he knows all the girls by name. Then, there's no avoiding the half-dozen friends and acquaintances he'll meet as he goes down the aisles. He'll stop to chat with each and everyone, talking loud, laughing louder: one hour. And what if he hears Spanish spoken in aisle 12 (still a rarity in his town)? Well, of course he must see who it is and speak with them-another hour.
Then, Dad came to Miami to visit, and-cue the angels singing-he was in heaven! He spoke with every single person he met. There was no shortage of laughter and conversation everywhere he went, and it was all in Spanish to boot! The delight in his face and demeanor made it clear that he had found the jigsaw puzzle where his "lost" piece really fit. And by being part of his experience, my lost piece also found where it belonged.
So, long gone are those attempts at clamming up for the sake of "privacy", or the quick "hi-bye's" to the people around me without stopping to greet them and meet who they really are. What I had missed from my culture went beyond food and music. There was a wealth in the people who spoke my language and whose culture promoted being human to each other.
Until I got to Miami, I didn't know how much I'd missed of the culture and language of my birth. But I'm glad I didn't have to wait until my latter years to find it again, and enjoy what it really means to be part of a community who's given life to this Latin "gringa" again.
And like my abuela used to say, ¡Eso es así!